In the wake of the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State, many fans are wondering what this means for the future of Nittany Lion football. Many of the forecasts are quite dire: that Penn State is now (effectively) an FCS team; that they’ll go 0-12 for four years; that no one will want to play or coach there; that the program will take a decade or more to recover; or perhaps that it will never recover its former glory.
These predictions are grossly exaggerated, and they ignore many of the basic realities of college football.
Like most of the sport's premier teams, Penn State has huge structural advantages that NCAA sanctions can't erase. Their stadium seats 106,572, more than any in the U.S. except the Big House. The rest of their facilities are top-notch, as you'd expect at such a program.
Penn State fans are loyal, just as Michigan's are. Even in the darkest times, they will continue to fill their stadium; boosters will continue to donate money. Although I pray that such a scandal would never occur at Michigan, if it did I would remain blue, and so, I suspect, would most Michigan fans. Those at Penn State are no less dedicated to their school.
Penn State benefited historically from a geographical accident. In relation to its population, the New England and middle Atlantic states are very densely populated, but they have very few football schools. New York is the third-most most populous state in the country, and it has just one school in a major football conference: Syracuse. New Jersey, the 11th-most populous state, has just one: Rutgers, and they're terrible at football.
The upshot is that there are millions of kids in the Northeastern U.S. for whom Penn State was always the best football school within driving distance, with very little real competition. For kids that cared about playing close to home, which is a lot of them, a Penn State offer always meant that they'd made it. These loyalties, built up over generations, don't just disappear because of Jerry Sandusky.
The NCAA hammered Penn State with two sanctions that affect the ability to field a competitive team: a reduction of 20 scholarships per year for four years; and a post-season ban for the same period. These are substantial penalties, no question about it — the worst the NCAA has ever imposed, aside from the death penalty. But they are not as serious as they first appear.
Penn State can still give out 65 scholarships a year, enough to give a free ride to all of the starters and many of the key backups on the football team. It's true that they can't go bowling for four years, but consider the following:
Many of the schools Penn State is now being compared to (Indiana, the MAC, the FCS), never or hardly ever go to the post-season. But Penn State's facilities are far superior to those schools, and it offers a better education than most of them. Penn State will still play a Big Ten schedule, which means it will see better opponents, and 100 percent of its games will be televised. Many athletes, though admittedly not the elite ones, will consider those advantages sufficiently compelling.
Penn State will still get a few recruits with competing Big Ten offers. How much better is it, really, to go to a school like Purdue, where you go to bowls about half the time (and usually a "meh" bowl at that)? Even kids with top-tier offers will see opportunity in the Penn State depth chart. Many will prefer the chance to be a near-certain starter at Penn State, than going to a bowl-eligible school but spending most of their career as a backup. Given the choice of starting 12 games at Penn State or the potential of sitting on the bench for 13 at (say) Illinois , some will surely choose Penn State.
Penn State has historically scheduled weak OOC opponents (notwithstanding their home & home with Alabama the last two years). In 2014, they'll face the gantlet of Temple, Akron, Rutgers, and UMass. Even with a 20-scholarship handicap, they'll probably be favored in those games. Some of their Big Ten match-ups will be favorable (e.g., Indiana and Minnesota), and some of the others could be a push (e.g., Purdue, Illinois).
Although the sanctions last four years, after the first two they can recruit kids who'll be able to play in bowls by the time they're juniors, the point in their careers when they would have hoped to be starters under the old regime. Instead, by the time the sanctions expire, they'll be juniors with two years of solid playing time behind them, instead of garbage time somewhere else. By the time the sanctions expire, Penn State's starters will have lower recruiting rankings than your typical Penn State squad, but more experience, because most of them will have started as freshmen and sophomores.
Although the next couple of years could be dire, you could easily imagine Penn State fielding a squad of mostly 3* starters in years three and four of the sanctions, with a handful of 4*'s who choose Penn State due to academics, geography, legacy ties, or because they like their chances on such a thin depth chart. Such a team would be easily capable of getting to 5-7 wins with Penn State's fairly soft schedule.
If Bill O'Brien can get Penn State up to around .500 while playing under such severe sanctions, which is very clearly possible, imagine what he can do the instant the sanctions are lifted. By that point, Jerry Sandusky will be five years in the rear view mirror, which is an eternity from the viewpoint of a kid who's deciding where to play football in college. All of Penn State's structural advantages (stadium, facilities, academics, fans, geography) will still be in place.
Of course, Bill O'Brien's ability to lead any program, much less a program with such a cloud hanging over it, are unknown. He has never been a head coach on any level, and he was an offensive coordinator in the NFL for only a short time before Penn State hired him. My point here is not to predict what will happen, but to show how Penn State could quite easily get out from under what appear to be practically nuclear sanctions.
Although Penn State's recovery might not proceed exactly as I've described, the premier programs have historically made their way back to prominence, no matter how severe the sanctions. Penn State's sanctions are unprecedented, but their overwhelming structural advantages will probably work in their favor, once they are again able to recruit a full class.