Only two games onto the job and James Franklin will have the tools to return Penn State to full strength.
The NCAA and Big Ten relieved sanctions on Penn State on Monday, allowing the Nittany Lions to play in a bowl and the Big Ten title game in 2014 in addition to allowing the program to return to a full allotment of scholarships for the class of 2015.
The orginial sanctions banned Penn State from the posteason through the 2015 season and restricted scholarships through 2017.
The NCAA’s decision to restore Penn State’s bowl eligibility comes after George Mitchell, the school’s appointed athletics integrity monitor, recommended the changes in his annual report to the NCAA. Mitchell’s report helps the NCAA and Penn State gauge its athletic department and progress from the sanctions after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
This is the second reduction in penalties from the NCAA to Penn State since the sanctions were originally announced. Last year, the NCAA allowed Penn State to sign 20 players and have 75 scholarship athletes on the roster. The original plan after the reduction was to allow the program to sign 25 players for 2015 and have a full allotment of 85 players in 2016.
Read the NCAA’s full release on Penn State’s reduction in sanctions
The Main Takeaway
This is a huge boost for Penn State’s football program. After the penalties and sanctions were announced, most expected the Nittany Lions would take a huge hit in the standings for the next five-to-10 years. The impact of losing scholarship players would limit the team’s depth, and a bowl ban would prevent the program from attracting elite recruiting classes.
But that’s no longer a concern.
Penn State isn’t ready to challenge for a national championship in 2014 or 2015, but the outlook for the program, already buoyed by the hires of Bill O'Brien and James Franklin, have improved thanks to a full allotment of scholarships and the possibility of postseason play.
Here is a look at penalties were originally levied in June 2012 and what they actually turned out to be
As Stated on June 23, 2012
Fines/Forfeiture of Bowl Revenue
$60 million (NCAA), $13 million (Big Ten)
112 from 1998-2011
Allowed players to transfer without penalty
Enforced, nine players transferred
Banned from bowls and Big Ten championship game from 2012-15
Banned from bowls and Big Ten championship game from 2012-13
Scholarship reductions (by year)
85 on roster (25 on NSD)
15 on NSD
15 on NSD
65 total (15 on NSD)
75 total (20 on NSD)
While this is a boost to Penn State, don’t forget about the impact on the Big Ten as a whole. The conference desperately needs some good news after struggling with its on-field product in recent years. Ohio State and Michigan State have been top-10 programs in recent seasons, and Penn State – with a full roster and an outstanding coach – can join those ranks soon.
What This Means for 2014
Penn State is a contender for the Big Ten title. The Nittany Lions have yet to turn in an overwhelming performance in their two contests, but the rest of the Big Ten hasn’t either.
The strength of the Big Ten lies in the East Division, where the Nittany Lions are battling Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State for the No. 1 spot. The Spartans are the frontrunner, but Penn State hosts Mark Dantonio’s team in on Nov. 29. And here’s another element of intrigue for Penn State’s schedule: Ohio State visits Happy Valley on Oct. 25.
The schedule is in the Nittany Lions’ favor, as the top two teams in the division play at Beaver Stadium. And it’s late enough in the season where Penn State’s offensive line should have some time to develop.
There are potential landmines on the schedule outside of Ohio State and Michigan State, including a road trip to an Indiana team that defeated Penn State 44-24 in 2013. Penn State also travels to Michigan on Oct. 11.
New coach James Franklin inherited plenty of talent from Bill O’Brien, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg who has thrown for 773 yards (No. 4 nationally) and completed 65.1 percent of his passes through two games. Hackenberg’s development — along with the emergence of Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton at receiver — is critical with an offensive line that is thin on depth and proven options. Developing a rushing attack is critical for Penn State to make the jump into conference title contention, as the Nittany Lions are averaging only 2.8 yards per attempt.
Defensively, Penn State ranks among the best in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are allowing just 13.5 points per contest and 4.3 yards per play. Similar to the offense, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is also dealing with depth issues. However, Penn State’s starting 11 on defense is good enough to push for 10 wins.
It’s not tangible with a stat, but there’s also a natural boost Penn State should get from having something to play for at the end of the year. The Nittany Lions are no longer just about playing for pride. A Big Ten title, a playoff spot and a bowl game are now real possibilities.
With a proven coach like Franklin, a standout quarterback in Hackenberg and an emerging defense, Penn State has the pieces in place to push for a conference title.
Franklin is known as a relentless recruiter, and his pitch has already paid off for the Nittany Lions. Penn State inked the No. 24 class in 2014 and is off to a hot start for 2015, ranking No. 7 nationally with 19 three or four-star prospects committed.
With limited scholarships, Franklin and his staff had to be selective and depth was going to be an issue over the next few years. With a full allotment to use, Penn State will be able to sign a better class with more depth, which especially helps units like the offensive and defensive lines – two areas that are critical in the Big Ten.
With the ability to play in a bowl, it should help Franklin sell the program to more recruits who may have stayed away from the Nittany Lions with the uncertainty surrounding its postseason future.
There’s no question Franklin knows how to recruit. Under his watch, Vanderbilt signed the No. 26 class in 2013.
With the possibility of postseason play, a program on the verge of rebounding, and a young, energetic coach in Franklin, Penn State is poised to emerge as a top 15 program on a consistent basis over the next few seasons.
Here's how Penn State has fared before and after sanctions. All figures are from the 247Sports Composite. The 2015, obviously, remains a work-in-progress until commits sign letters of intent.
Big Ten Rank
Coach on NSD