Penn State Football: It Could Have Happened, But It Didn't, And That's Something Fans Can Be Thankful For
For the most part, any given story in the sporting world lasts as long as a game does, or at the most a full season. New drama pops up and new games fill the docket. Everything else is history in a "What have you done lately?" business.
So for the average Penn State fan, it's easy to feel like the NCAA sanction narrative played out long ago. The transfer window has been closed for months, scholarships will be restored far sooner than anticipated and it seems that the Nittany Lions could be bowling as early as 2014-15. On the surface Penn State has made it out of the worst of the sanctions and for the most part that is true.
As a result, the usual in-season critics rise to the surface of the conversation. No matter how big the obstacle or how fortunate Penn State has been, someone will always be upset. The program is operating in the 90th-percentile of all reasonable expectations with just over 60 "scholarship players" and some people still aren't happy.
Some of that is the nature of the fan. But some of that is a lack of understanding as far as how lucky Penn State truly has been since that fateful day Mark Emmert took his pulpit and handed down judgement on the Penn State football program.
In retrospect, while the Nittany Lion faithful scoffed at the idea players would leave town in mass or that Penn State would never win another game as some pundits predicted, in many respects what has actually happened over the past two seasons has been just as unlikely.
Some players left, but only a handful of consequence. A few recruits decommitted, but Christian Hackenberg still drove into town knowing full well what he was up against.
When the sanctions were handed down, players were supposed to avoid a program with a cloudy future and good recruits would look elsewhere. That didn't happen.
But it could have.
On the field, under Bill O'Brien, Penn State has been thoroughly beaten only once. The lopsided defeat to Ohio State earlier this season was not a unique occurrence though for a Buckeye team hoping to work its way into the national title game. So in terms of getting outplayed for a full 60 minutes by a bad team, that has yet to happen.
In total, facing very real threats and the very real danger of a program collapsing, Penn State has been competitive and in all but one game in the past two seasons. In 22 out of the last 23 contests the Nittany Lions were always in the game. And in the nine games they've lost, Penn State could leave feeling as if they could have won.
When the sanctions were handed down, Penn State wasn't supposed to be competitive. The Nittany Lions would enter with limited talent and limited depth, losing far more often than winning. Depth and talent have been depleted but Penn State hasn't become an easy win.
But it could have.
Today, Penn State sits at 6-5 with a fairly decent chance of ending the season at 6-6. We've seen 14 wins and 10 losses since Bill O'Brien arrived in town. That's not a mark usually accepted during normal circumstances, but a mark that could be far worse and a mark that could see each of those losses being far more lopsided.
Critics have their place. O'Brien and his staff have not coached flawlessly and players -- even on a roster riddled with walk-ons in important roles -- have not always played up to their collective abilities. In an ironic twist, O'Brien's success in the face of unprecedented odds has allowed for fans to be critical of his coaching and critical of players' individual performances. Instead of facing each game as a grind, each game is seen as a chance to win and a failure to do so frustrates fans. It's the double edged sword of success in tough times -- fair or not.
But at the end of the day, regardless of how many wins or losses have accumulated over the past two seasons, the light is visible at the end of the tunnel and the Penn State football program is still standing. That will impact the future of the program far longer than any single loss over the past 23 games or over the next 25.
When the sanctions were handed down, that wasn't supposed to happen.
But it did. And that's something fans can be thankful for.