High Hopes

After two months of silence and speculation and a tumultuous latter half of last week, new head coach Bill O’Brien made a big splash over the weekend. Much of the discord among the Nittany Lion family has dissipated, and O’Brien seems to have won over many of the most important factions of Penn State. Considering the long wait, the flurry of assistants hired (most crucially defensive pillars Larry Johnson Sr. and Ron Vanderlinden) seems like a downpour of positive news for the fan base.

Which leads us to ask: what should we expect next?

There are many transitions to anticipate, and the first in importance is the conclusion to this recruiting class. While O’Brien will be in the national spotlight for his playoff run with the New England Patriots, his new staff will be connecting with current verbal commitments and then reaching out to uncommitted players as well. Four weeks is a lot of time when it comes to recruiting, and there is a downside to not having the head coach meeting with prospects (obviously). There could also be an upside, if you imagine an assistant sitting in a living room telling parents, “Our head coach wishes he could be here, but he’s out winning a SUPER BOWL!!!”

Next year’s freshman though will likely have little impact on our on-field success for 2012. The guys who matter are the guys who are already here. Judging by what we lose (3.5 starters on the OL and top receiver Moye on offense; first-round pick Still and most of the secondary on defense) and considering the most important position on the field (quarterback) is still a tire fire, no one is expecting a BCS title run for 2012. In fact, I can’t imagine college football pundits expecting us to make a January 1st bowl next year.

I agree that low expectations are appropriate for the season. But is the cupboard really that bare? Can an excellent staff (like the one Brady Hoke assembled at Michigan) turn a holey team into a whole one?

If you subscribe to star ratings (an interesting but inexact science), Penn State has the second most talented group of players in the Big Ten heading into 2011. Don’t believe me? Check out the facts (taken from scout.com).

Penn State’s last four recruiting classes ranked 34th (2011), 10th, 11th, and 41st. Ohio State has far outdistanced everyone in the Big Ten over that span and ranks first in the conference for recruiting. But Michigan’s recruiting has been up and down until this year (not to mention the crazy attrition that Rich Rod witnessed), and other strong teams (Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan St.) don’t consistently reel in the big fish.

Penn State’s weakest classes are often subject of scrutiny among Internet-geeks and edgy journalists, yet if you consider star averages, even those classes weren’t all that awful. In 2011, our 34th-ranked class came in 16th in terms of talent-per-player. Our 2008 class (ranked 41st) was 12th. It seems that when Penn State players stick around and graduate, this means we have less scholarships each and every year and hurts our recruiting rankings. (And somehow those SEC schools come in right at the top of recruiting ever year….how DO they do it?)

Even this year’s class, which remains amazingly intact after so much turmoil, currently sits at 40th in the nation, a revolting ranking to PSU fans. But our current star average is 19th in the country. Speculating on exactly how O’Brien’s staff might finish up over the next four weeks is useless, but it’s hard to imagine anything less than a slight bump to our final ranking and star average.

Is the Penn State roster stacked with elite talent? Absolutely not. No one could come in and whip this crew into a national title contender in 2012. But the “bottom half” of the Big Ten predictions that we’re likely to see over the next eight months are failing to take into account what we already have on our roster.

This was a 9-4 team which loses some significant components but has top 20 talent. The challenge for Coach O’Brien’s new staff will be getting the maximum performance from this group. If he can, I don’t see why a Brady Hoke-like turnaround can’t happen for Penn State in 2012.

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