I don't really care about scholarship reductions or bowl bans anymore. The topic that consumed us for apparently a disproportionate amount of time are no longer an excuse for Penn State football; not because it isn't still a legitimate excuse, but because it seems like most non-Nittany Lion observers of college football have moved on from whatever outrage or schadenfreude they initially felt or didn't feel, and now simply expect a storied program to not suck total ass.
Part of that is due to turnover. Two coaches beyond Paterno, and suddenly even a 40 plus year legacy can begin to dim. For other football fans at least; some Penn State fans are going to hold on like grim death to the memory of a guy who covered for a pedophile, but those people are also sad, creepy, and ultimately utterly irrelevant.
Anyway, Bill O'Brien did a lot to erase a lot of the perceptions surrounding what Penn State ought to be in a post-scandal world. While his teams weren't particularly great, they were also at the very least competent, which is something a lot of people didn't expect following the NCAA hammer being brought down on them.
In retrospect it was probably more than a little shortsighted to think that Penn State would struggle to put up seven or eight wins against a Big Ten schedule made up of teams from the Big Ten. The reduction of sanctions helps that somewhat, but truthfully Penn State has been a halfway decent football team because they've got a team full of halfway decent football players.
Good! Look, if Penn State is half the rival for Ohio State that they've claimed to be in past years, then what James Franklin and Bill O'Brien cobbled together should continue to get better and challenge the Buckeyes for well... not Big Ten dominance, that's definitely not in the cards anytime soon, but in terms of wins and losses. The last Ohio State defeat at the hands of Penn State was in 2011, which pretty much feels like cheating.
The last Penn State win over Ohio State before that was in 2008, and that was also the last time that Penn State went to the Rose Bowl (where they got utterly smoked by USC). Still, despite all of that, it appears that in terms of both personnel and coaching, Penn State football hasn't experienced nearly the kind of dropoff that was expected of them just a few years ago.
I say that as a fan of the team that beat the Nittany Lions by 49 points last season. Still, James Franklin isn't fooling around, especially when it comes to recruiting:
"They're taking that SEC mentality and bringing it up to Penn State and the Big Ten," said Hull. "In-your-face, hard-nosed football. I think you'll see a big change in the physicality in our team over the next couple of years."
An influx of talent is on the way, too. Franklin, who secured Vanderbilt's first top-25 signing class two years ago, is thus far fulfilling his pledge to "dominate the region" in recruiting. He has already snagged 11 verbal commitments in the class of 2015 to give the Nittany Lions a very early No. 2 national ranking, according to Rivals.com.
It's easy to roll your eyes at the SEC comment, but only if it's more of a critique of "speed" or "toughness" or some other stupid intangible that varies widely from team to SEC team. In terms of SEC consistency, however, it totally works, because Penn State has needed a coach to be a steadfast rock for them. Bill O'Brien was exactly that in the two years he spend in Happy Valley, and if James Franklin is honest about even half of the enthusiasm that he's shown for the job, the Nittany Lions are in good hands.
It's weird: for years Penn State has been billed as Ohio State's "new" rival in the Big Ten, our Doc Ock to Michigan's Green Goblin. They've usually ended up more like Stilt Man in their time in the Big Ten (at least where Ohio State is concerned), but given the fertile football ground that is Pennsylvania, it's nice to see them approaching football seriously, and not in a way that's constrained by the constant hagiography directed towards an increasingly senile old man.
Maybe, then, it's time for Penn State to admit that even with the scholarship reductions and postseason bans, the real thing holding their program back was coaching stagnation in a time when college football moves at light speed. And now that they have a coach and an attitude that's finally aware of that, they may grow into being an actual rival after all.