College Football Nation: A grim anniversary

Eric Avidon

It’s been a year.

A mere 12 months ago, Joe Paterno was a living legend, Penn State football was a model of virtue, and Jerry Sandusky was just a former defensive coordinator who only a small percentage of college football diehards remembered, an assistant coach who retired early rather than wait for his chance to be head coach of the Nittany Lions.

We were naïve the first week of November 2011.

We know so much more about who Paterno really was - a flawed man far from the paragon he was portrayed to be, but also not the monster he’s become in the eyes of some - and what really happened behind the scenes at Penn State. And we know who Sandusky was - the real monster - and why he walked away from football when he did.

We also know that the football team at Penn State, despite being hit with unprecedented sanctions last summer that may ultimately drive the program into the ground, is resilient.

The players had nothing to do with Sandusky, his actions or their cover-up. And anyone associated with the university who did have anything to do with Sandusky's actions or their cover-up has been removed and punished. The players were innocents in the most heinous scandal to ever hit a college football program, and in the face of overwhelming scrutiny and anger have done more than merely survive.

Penn State isn’t Ohio State, a team on probation that otherwise might be in the hunt for the national championship. Instead it’s a good team that hasn’t crumbled despite every expectation it would be emotionally and physically crushed once the sanctions were levied in late July.

The Nittany Lions are at Nebraska on Saturday. They’ll head to Lincoln as underdogs, but sport a 6-3 overall record and 4-1 in the Big Ten.

“I’m going to stay here no matter what happens,” senior quarterback Matt McGloin said back in late July.

It was only days after the NCAA, acting swiftly in the wake of a report on Penn State administrators’ role in covering up Sandusky’s crimes, fined the university $60 million, banned the Nittany Lions from bowl participation for four years, and significantly reduced the number of scholarships the football program can issue, also for four years.

It was a move meant to decimate the Penn State’s football team for years to come.

“I’m going to be true to the program and be loyal to the guys upstairs who are trying to get us prepared for the season,” McGloin continued. “And, most importantly, I’m doing this for my family and the fans. They’re going to stay loyal to us, so I’m going to stay loyal to them.”

Players did leave Penn State, but most stayed. And the season started terribly, the apparent realization of dire predictions for not just the future of Penn State football but the present. The Nittany Lions lost their opener, at home before more than 100,000 strong, to Ohio University - the Bobcats, not the Buckeyes - and were then beaten by a Virginia team that’s won only one game since.

But then Penn State regrouped. There have been six wins in seven games, the lone loss to Ohio State, though the lone win over a ranked team against Northwestern. But unimpressive though the list of Penn State’s vanquished may be, each win is evidence that though Penn State has been shamed it’s football program endures.

Most of the credit for what Penn State has been able to accomplish this fall - beyond giving the university an image other than Sandusky’s to see - goes to the players. The leadership demonstrated by those who have stayed can’t be undervalued.

But first-year coach Bill O’Brien deserves substantial credit too.

He didn’t bargain for this when he was named Paterno’s successor last January. He knew bad things had gone down, but he didn’t know crippling penalties were coming. He didn’t run. He didn’t wash his hands of the mess but instead stayed to do his part in helping the football team stay relevant.

It’s only the first year of the sanctions, and beyond this year’s bowl ban their effect won’t truly be felt for a little while. In two or three years Penn State football may be a doormat. O’Brien, after initially choosing to stay, may be offered the opportunity to head a program with a far brighter future than Penn State’s, and take it.

But none of that takes away from what’s being done this year.

It can’t be said enough. The players and people associated with the program now had nothing to do with Sandusky and his crimes. They are simply the those left behind to pick up the pieces of a once-proud program brought to its knees. They have gone about their task with honor, and attained moderate success.

Sandusky is in jail for the rest of his life. Paterno is dead, and the statue of him gone from outside Beaver Stadium. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier is facing perjury charges. And former athletic director Tim Curley is also facing criminal charges for his role in the cover-up.

The Nittany Lions play on.

It's been a year.

What We Learned

No one is invincible.

A week ago Alabama and Oregon had never been challenged, and seemed almost assured of finishing the season unbeaten. Kansas State had been challenged, but its toughest opponents were in the past. And Notre Dame was beginning the softest part of its schedule, poised to cruise into a final test the final week of the regular season.

All survived on Saturday, but all were challenged. All showed vulnerability. All showed that though they will still be favored the rest of the way, they have weaknesses.

Alabama was the one that seemed least likely to lose, a juggernaut on its way to a third national championship in four years, on its way to becoming one of the great teams in history. But LSU was able to move the ball against the Crimson Tide, and slow A.J. McCarron and the ’Bama offense.

Texas A&M has a far better offense than LSU, so why can’t the Aggies do the same on Saturday? And what about Georgia, Alabama’s potential opponent in the SEC Championship Game?

The upsets aren’t likely, but look more likely than they did this time last week.

Oregon, if anything, looks even more scary offensively than before scoring 62 in beating USC on Saturday, but a defense that had been stout against all other opponents gave up 51 points to the Trojans. The absence of some players played a part, and no one else can boast Matt Barkley and Marquise Lee, but the potential looms to play USC again in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

And what if, like most teams that rely on offense to overcome a suspect defense - not that Oregon’s defense is suspect when healthy - Oregon’s offense has a bad day, perhaps against the strong defenses of Stanford or Oregon State?

Kansas State’s vulnerability comes from a different place.

It’s defense was challenged by Oklahoma State like at no other point this season but still held the Cowboys to 30, and its offense scored a fine 44 against Oklahoma State. But Collin Klein got hurt. If he has to miss time, everything changes. Not only is Texas the final week of the season suddenly more formidable, but without the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy so too is TCU this weekend, and perhaps Baylor next one.

Finally, there’s Notre Dame, which needed three overtimes to beat lowly Pitt just a week after taking down Oklahoma.

Sure, there was probably a letdown. But that’s the problem with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are the most one-dimensional of the four championship contenders, led by a tremendous defense but sporting a pedestrian offense.

There cannot be the slightest letdown. Boston College and Wake Forest shouldn’t pose problems, but then again Pitt wasn’t supposed to pose a problem. USC at the end of the season, on the other hand, could pose a huge problem.

No one is invincible.

Game of the Week

Notre Dame suffered a big letdown a week after its biggest win of the season, and very nearly got picked off by a bad Pitt team.

Alabama doesn’t have the same luxury as the Fighting Irish.

A week after beating LSU in Death Valley thanks to a spectacular drive in the waning moments that might help earn McCarron the Heisman Trophy, the Crimson Tide have to host a Texas A&M team that’s rolling.

The Aggies went to Starkville last weekend and beat up Mississippi State in a similar fashion to the way Alabama did, and their only losses are by five points to the same LSU team ’Bama barely survived and by three to a Florida team the Tide doesn’t have to play this season.

Their offense is prolific, putting up 44.7 points per game, but surprisingly their defense is more stout than expected, giving up 21.0 points per game.

If Alabama lets its guard down just a little, there could be a world of trouble for the Crimson Tide.

“We have a really good opponent this week, so it’s important that the players put (the win over LSU) behind them as emotional as it may have been,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “Games like that can either bring out the best or the worst in you, and it’s all your choice in terms of how you view the future and what you need to do relative to the challenges that the next team presents, which are pretty significant in Texas A&M’s case.”

Of course Alabama has the one thing that doesn’t slump, which is defense. Yet again, the Tide lead the nation, giving up just 9.11 points per game. If they can slow down the spectacular Johnny Manziel, even if it turns into an ugly game they figure to score enough against the Aggies.

But Manziel, just a freshman, is having a pretty special season, the kind that won Tim Tebow the Heisman back in 2007. Manziel is completing 66.6 percent of his passes and has thrown for 16 touchdowns. He’s also run for 922 yards and another 15 scores. If he can do more against Alabama than LSU’s Zach Mettenberger did - Mettenberger threw for nearly 300 yards last weekend - the Tide could be in trouble.

“We haven’t played a complete game yet,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said on Tuesday. “I’m not talking about playing a perfect game, I’m talking about playing a complete game. ... While we have found a variety of ways to win, we still haven’t played a complete game yet, and if we can do that I think we can be dangerous for anybody.”

It’s Alabama’s game to lose, but Texas A&M is no pushover.

My Top 10

1. Alabama (9-0): Was surviving LSU the key to a perfect season?

2. Oregon (9-0): Was surviving USC the key to a perfect season?

3. Kansas State (9-0): Collin Klein’s status is all-important.

4. Notre Dame (9-0): Easy picking this weekend at Boston College. Probably.

5. Ohio State (10-0): A week off before an intriguing trip to Madison.

6. Georgia (8-1): The Bulldogs keep getting better.

7. Florida (8-1): Two easy ones are ahead before Florida State.

8. LSU (7-2): The Tigers can’t let the Tide beat them twice.

9. Florida State (8-1): That one-point loss to NC State is looking large.

10. Clemson (8-1): Quietly taking care of business.

Eric Avidon can be reached at 508-626-3809 or eavidon@wickedlocal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ericavidon.