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de Bear Necessities: Managing Expectations in a Post-Sanction World

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Penn State is 6-2, going to bowl...and yet questions persist about where the program is headed, and where it currently sits.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

When the last of the NCAA sanctions against Penn State were officially removed in September of 2014, it was hard to find a Nittany Lion fan that was not on top of the world. The Lions sat at 3-0 and would move to 4-0 just a few days laterwith a thrilling come from behind 13-10 win against Rutgers. New coach James Franklin had invigorated the program with energy not seen since the younger days of some guy named Paterno, especially on the recruiting trail. Of course now we all know that momentum was lost with a 2-6 finish to the season, only to be salvaged with an overtime win against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Just a little over a year later, Penn State sits at 6-2 with the only two losses coming on the road to teams with a combined record of 15-0. Or, as some may view it, Penn State is 6-2, with two big losses – one to an in-state foe that had not won against the Lions since two months before Pearl Harbor – and a handful of unconvincing wins against inferior competition.

In this post-sanction world, the high expectations of the fan base have clashed with the reality of what this program has been through over the past 47 months. Those high expectations are something that no Penn State fan should ever apologize for. This is a proud program with numerous undefeated seasons, conference titles, and national championships. It is one of only nine programs in college football history with more than 850 wins. Those are things that college football royalty is made of. Never apologize for expecting greatness from your Nittany Lions.

It is fair to want an offense that shows some semblance of a game plan. It is fair to ask why are we running an option look with Christian Hackenberg in the second quarter at Maryland. When you feel the staff is not putting players in the best positions to make plays, or not taking advantage of what they have, it is alright to say that. When you can cite video and photos, as bscaff does so eloquently in Film Room every week, you are not off base to criticize.

But at the same time, many of us, myself included, are all too quick to cast aside the last four years, and really, where this program was before November of 2011. Yes, the sanctions are gone, and the consent decree is void, but their effects remain. Penn State may be but three recruited scholarship players below the NCAA mandated limit of 85, but the youth on this team is nearly unmatched around the country. Transfers and smaller classes dictated by the sanctions left Franklin and his staff with an unbalanced roster. That roster certainly contains talent, but as the head coach was fond of saying a year ago, not enough of it.

All of that is off of a program that was 9-4 in 2011 (yes, there were some unique circumstances), and had been run off the field by two of the nation's best in Alabama and Big Ten champions Wisconsin. There were also awe inspiring results like 23-18 vs. Purdue, 16-10 at Indiana, 10-7 vs. Illinois, or even 14-10 at Temple. Yes, Penn State is one of the special programs in college football, but for the better part of the last 15 years, it has not come close to consistently meeting that level.

When Bill O'Brien was hired in January of 2012, he inherited essentially that roster, only to be crushed by the NCAA six months later. In January of 2014, James Franklin took over a program saved somewhat by 2013's easing of those restrictions, but still very much dealing with them. You are foolish if you think that many of Penn State's deep-seated issues don't trace back to those major events.

I wrote a week ago that in a way, Michigan's renaissance this season should serve as a blue print for where Penn State is headed. Yes, the Wolverines made a coaching change, bringing in the khaki'd one. But Harbaugh also walked into a roster that had a senior/redshirt junior class that ranked sixth in the nation in 2012 and a junior/redshirt sophomore class that ranked fourth the following year. Say what you will, but those things matter. Michigan brought in an accomplished coach, but he is working with talented and experienced players.

When Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the year with a knee injury early on against Temple, Penn State was forced to slide true sophomore Jason Cabinda into the middle, and back him up with true freshman Jake Cooper. Cabinda's outside slot was taken over by redshirt freshman Troy Reeder, and backed up by true freshman Manny Bowen. You can even look at the much-maligned offensive line. When JUCO transfer Paris Palmer struggled, redshirt sophomore Andrew Nelson was forced to slide from right tackle to left, with a combination of guards forced into action on the end.

We all want a return to the glory days of this program. Many people, including myself, have long considered this program a sleeping giant, one of those places that routinely competes with the nation's best for championships. As painful and frustrating as the journey back to that place is, faith that it is coming is not misplaced.