Let’s not get carried away.
Tomorrow night’s Ohio State-Penn State tilt has engendered a level of hype that would have been unthinkable only two months ago, when Michigan was generating hype as a title contender and Michigan State and Wisconsin were expected to meet or exceed their on-field excellence from 2011.
Coming into this season, the Buckeyes were expected to be a work in progress, a team on the mend. After eight games, it’s true that the Buckeyes haven’t fully arrived, but we’re undefeated and, arguably, the best team in the conference. Penn State’s preseason expectations were different. After an offseason ravaged by scandal, the NCAA had reduced the Nittany Lions to, well, roadkill. Two consecutive losses to start the season reinforced that belief. A couple of months later, things don’t look so bad. Penn State is undefeated in Big Ten play and, against all odds, they look better every week. Quarterback Matt McGloin has emerged an a superb pure passer and the Lions’ defense, led by Michael Mauti, has dominated opposing offenses.
So it would seem that each program’s new head coach has done everything right. And, indeed, they have.
Urban Meyer is exceeding the highest expectations I had for him before 2012. I certainly didn’t expect the team to be undefeated. The Buckeyes’ record is an impressive indicator of his ability as an Xs and Os guy, considering the fact that he’s working with almost exactly the same players that went 6-7 last year. But his single most impressive achievement has been imbuing this team with his indomitable character. Last week’s gut-check against Purdue truly tested the Buckeyes for the first time this season. They responded in a way they weren’t capable of a year ago. Ohio State won last week as a result of their heart and tireless effort. When Meyer physically and emotionally broke the Buckeyes down during the offseason, he sought to rebuild them to be a team that would win games like that. He succeeded.
In a way, that’s the same character that endears Bill O’Brien to me.
Penn State’s freshman head coach was handed an almost-impossible task. The Nittany Lions were collapsing as he took over. He succeeded a (disgraced) legend at one of America’s great football schools without a day of head coaching experience. The NCAA handed down truly crippling sanctions, limiting his scholarships and ability to compete in the postseason for four years and allowing his players a free ticket to transfer elsewhere.
It’s literally unbelievable that the Nittany Lions are a player this season. A lesser coach would have allowed them to collapse. Instead, O’Brien imbued this year’s squad with the same fight the Buckeyes have shown. Further, he’s designed and implemented schemes that have taken advantage of the Nittany Lions’ depleted talent. In short, this season has told me everything I needed to know about O’Brien.
The importance of Saturday’s game, which has been labeled a “de facto B1G championship game” due to the relative weakness of the rest of the conference, can therefore be attributed to the strength the two coaches participating.
But this isn’t the start of an annual tradition. No matter how exciting this season and this game may be, it’s hard to look beyond November and see two programs on the same path.
The Buckeyes are trending up. They’re headed for national championships, Heisman trophies, and years of prosperity. In the coming years, 2012 will be remembered as a (tremendously fun) building block. Things won’t be perfect, but any contention that Ohio State and its fans aren’t on the cusp of years of prosperity is willfully misguided.
You can’t say the same for the Nittany Lions. If 2012 is a rebirth for Ohio State, it’s a last hurrah for Penn State. The potency of the NCAA’s sanctions hasn’t been diminished by the Lions’ success this season. It’s still nearly impossible to build a successful FBS program with 65 scholarships per year and no bowl aspirations to speak of. Penn State’s talent level will drop sharply this offseason and plummet in years to come.
That doesn’t diminish the fact that Bill O’Brien’s coaching job this season has been tremendously impressive, and it may pay dividends during the lean years ahead for the program. It’ll serve as a reminder to a success-starved fan base that the right man is leading the program, even if current circumstances have proved too challenging to overcome. That’s not O’Brien’s fault. No one could overcome what’s he’ll face in the next few seasons.
Not even Urban Meyer.