Scandal and college football are a campus tradition as old as keg parties, but when venerated Big Ten institutions such as Penn State and Ohio State suddenly found themselves in muddy water last season, the sport was shaken to its very foundation.
The May 2012 ouster of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel for lying to NCAA investigators about student-athletes receiving improper benefits seemed like a grave warning shot, but it paled in comparison to news in November of the child sex-abuse scandal involving former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky, who later was convicted on 45 counts. Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno, who seemed a paragon of virtue for 46 years, was fired and later died of cancer.
Neither OSU nor Penn State is eligible for the Big Ten title this season, but after the hiring of two-time national champion coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes' one-year postseason ban and loss of nine scholarships over three years seems like a speed bump compared with what new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien faces. The Nittany Lions are banned from bowls for four years; their scholarships are capped at 65, 20 below the limit, for four years starting in 2014, and players were permitted to transfer immediately.
O'Brien's contract was extended through 2020 as a result, and he'll likely need every minute to rebuild a program that has lost at least a dozen players, including starting running back Silas Redd (USC), wide receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma), safety Tim Buckley (North Carolina State), linebacker Khairi Fortt (Cal), tight end Kevin Haplea (Florida State), backup QB Rob Bolden (LSU) and several top recruits who decommitted.
Despite such daunting obstacles, O'Brien is fully committed, and he's confident of the support he will receive from Penn State fans, starting with Saturday's home opener against Ohio University.
"I've been great places, but the student body didn't support their team like this one does," O'Brien said in a Newsday interview shortly after accepting the job. "Students come by the office, people say hello all the time, and just about every student wears Penn State gear walking down the street."
Ohio State's Meyer moaned when sanctions were announced about getting "hit with that 2 x 4 that said you can't go to a bowl game." But he brought in a top-10 recruiting class that knows it has a postseason future.
Since OSU and PSU both are in the Leaders Division, it appears defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin has clear sailing to the conference title game, where it is likely to meet either Michigan or Michigan State, the Legends Division favorites. Ohio State still should have a say about the title race because its last two games are at Wisconsin and home against Michigan.