Following one of the worst weekends in recent memory for the Big Ten conference on the field, it was hard to guess that a positive story would come out to help the conference perception just two days later.
However, that’s exactly what happened as Penn State received news on Monday that the heavy NCAA sanctions regarding postseason bans and scholarship reductions (from the Jerry Sandusky scandal) would be lifted, effective immediately. That means the 75 scholarships available this year goes back to the full 85 in 2015, and Penn State is again eligible for bowl games and the Big Ten Championship.
Oh, and it just so happens Penn State is 2-0, and has arguably the best win in non-conference play for the conference so far, knocking off UCF in the opener in Dublin. That’s better than Michigan State, Michigan, and Ohio State, the supposed powers in the loaded East Division.
Just like that: the negative narrative from Saturday night had a big silver lining, one that may be just what the conference needs to begin changing perception in a positive way for 2014 and beyond.
Put simply: Penn State’s lifted sanctions could be the best thing that has happened to the Big Ten in a decade.
Before looking at the short and long-term effects of the lifted sanctions, let’s take a brief look at why this happened now. The timing is highly interesting, given that the NCAA waited until two weeks into a season to inform a program of a change in post-season eligibility.
This was not an ongoing investigation, the progress on the 119 recommendations from the Freeh Report was already well documented when the NCAA decided to allow Penn State to go back to 75 scholarships instead of the originally scheduled 65 before this season.
So why wait until right now? Is this some fortuitous stroke of luck for the Big Ten, or are there more forces in play behind the scenes?
Although the NCAA is being lambasted for the inequality of punishments or lack thereof (Penn State, USC, Ohio State, Miami, etc.), in reality the NCAA has acted completely consistently over time with the Penn State matter. More specifically, the NCAA has kowtowed to the loud public demands rather than applied their own rules and punishments.
Back when the story of Sandusky’s horrible crimes and the potential cover-up was blowing up in 2011, members of the public and major media outlets (not just the usual sports media suspects) cried foul over the misaligned football-first priorities at Penn State University. The public wanted blood and justice, and they wanted it immediately.
So the NCAA bowed to public pressure, knowing that the court process for the bad actors would take months, if not years, to work out. Mark Emmert, desperate to show he had control of the situation, doled out unprecedented levels of punishment to the football program. This, despite there being no NCAA rules governing this type of conduct and despite all the potential bad actors being fired or on the way out by the time Emmert acted.
This left the Penn State program in a tough spot. Four years of no post-season, plus scholarship sanctions and fines that would potentially set the program back a decade. And nobody left in the program that had any connection (even a loose connection) to the horrible crimes of Jerry Sandusky.
Seems fair, right? Fairness was not in the vocabulary of the NCAA, public image was.
Fast forward three years and heading into the 2014 season, the worm had turned on the Penn State sanctions. With Jerry Sandusky in prison, Joe Paterno long-buried, and the other administrators heading to trial, the public at large and mass media began to cry foul about the sanctions being imposed wrongfully and on the wrong parties.
When even Slate, the liberal political media giant who largely cares nothing about sports, writes articles about the need to lift the sanctions, you know it basically is a belief held by most.
It certainly did not help that the NCAA totally bungled the Miami investigations and had multiple lawsuits over player compensation and use of likenesses in video games starting to cut away at the ideals of the NCAA. The NCAA keeps trying to assert control of the situation, but more leaks spring up seemingly every month.
As a result, the NCAA simply did the predictable thing once again and kowtowed to the strong public sentiment, now in favor of the Penn State football program. Once again, the NCAA proved it has absolutely no backbone or sense of fairness, just a desire to save itself.
It’s no wonder the powerful Division I football conferences demanded and received more autonomy. Perhaps those conferences would have rescinded the penalties this offseason, and so the NCAA chose now to lift the sanctions in an attempt to save face (again, showing this organization is still “in control”).
Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is this is perfect timing for Penn State and the Big Ten. Morale is low in the conference and results are lacking, especially in bowl games. But this move could be a big one in changing those problems moving forward.
First, the short-term effects are clear. Penn State immediately becomes a legitimate factor in the Big Ten East Division race, especially in view of the huge question marks surrounding Michigan and Ohio State after week 2.
Penn State has struggled to run the ball in the first two weeks, but the Nittany Lions have a better quarterback (Christian Hackenberg) than nearly everyone else in the conference. That quarterback play can get the Lions out of a lot of sticky situations and tough circumstances on the field.
The road schedule is not that daunting, featuring Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Rutgers (none on consecutive weeks). Considering that Rutgers has looked about as good as those other teams thus far, this week’s conference opener in New Jersey could tell us a lot about whether Penn State will be a top contender for a division title. A convincing win on Saturday likely means only home games against OSU and MSU stand between Penn State and a trip to Indianapolis.
Who would’ve expected that a few days ago?
Penn State also does not have to play Michigan State until the end of the season. That means Penn State, if healthy, will be playing as well as possible when the Spartans come to town. If the division title is on the line, expect a ridiculous environment at Beaver Stadium to back the Lions (just like the Oregon fans who had a clear effect on MSU this weekend).
Penn State may not have the deepest roster in the conference, but there’s enough talent left thanks to Bill O’Brien and James Franklin to make this 2014 season more interesting immediately.
Second, the slightly longer term effects should be seen in the bowl season. The Big Ten has long challenged itself with one of the more daunting bowl line-ups (including multiple games against the SEC), and that has not turned out well.
Take out Ohio State and PSU in 2012 and PSU again in 2013 (all would’ve been bowl eligible) and those bowl games become much tougher as other teams needed to move up one or two spots to play even more uneven games against top competition. That stops now, as both power programs should earn rightful bowl spots and not force others into tougher bowl games than they should be entitled to.
Which means instead of jumping up to play the third or fourth best team in the SEC, a middle of the road Big Ten team now will have a much more manageable bowl game against a mid-tier Pac-12 team. The results will not immediately turn around, but at least the deck won’t be stacked against the conference before the bowl matchups are even announced!
Third, the long-term effects of this decision may not be seen for a couple of seasons or more. But the lifted sanctions means James Franklin can continue to recruit like the former SEC fiend he is, and he and Urban Meyer will force the other programs to recruit better or spend more money to hire coaches who can recruit at that level.
And the Big Ten has money to burn, no question about it. With the fully loaded gun of four powerful teams in the East Division (and no truly bad ones), the competition in this division of the conference will be fierce. Expect that to turn into more wins when facing comparable or lesser competition in non-conference play and bowl games, as these teams will be battle-tested and proven over time.
For the same reason that the SEC has been able to continue to roll, the Big Ten will start gaining positive momentum that will be difficult to stop. It all starts in Happy Valley.
Perhaps Jim Delaney is not crazy. Perhaps the glass is half full.
If the lifted sanctions live up to the potential boost in results on the field, in a few years we could look back on this week as the week that the Big Ten turned it all around and became a real power in college football once again.
Rejoice, the Nittany Lions are back and ready for action (and if you don’t cheer for PSU, you can now take more satisfaction from beating the Lions because it means something).
It’s a good day in Happy Valley, and a good day for all Big Ten fans. Hopefully the first of many better days to come.