This time, it's the Penn State Nittany Lions:
Penn State surprised a lot of people by having a decent season despite what was supposed to be crippling sanctions from the NCAA. New head coach Bill O'Brien began the Nittany Lions' long road back to healing after the Jerry Sandusky scandal cost Joe Paterno his job and his reputation.
It was a rocky start as Penn State dropped their first two games to Ohio University of the MAC and a Virgina team that ended up going 4-8. The Nittany Lions quickly rebounded with five straight wins over Navy, Temple, Illinois, Northwestern, and Iowa. Penn State won all five by a sizable margin, except for Northwestern, the only close bout of the bunch.
O'Brien's squad finished 6-2 in the Big Ten with its only two losses coming to Ohio State and Nebraska. Normally this would have meant finishing 2nd in the Leaders Division and a trip to the Insight Bowl, but Penn State's bowl ban kept them out of the post-season, and the year ended with Senior Day against Wisconsin, where they won 24-21 in overtime.
Expectations Coming In:
Penn State fans were reeling from the flurry of events that transpired where Sandusky's crimes were brought to light, school administrators were shown to have been aware of his acts, and Joe Paterno was unceremoniously fired. Then came the head-scratcher of a hire with Bill O'Brien, whose only claim to fame had been that he'd gotten into an argument with Tom Brady. Then the Paterno statue was taken down to the chagrin of many fans. Finally the NCAA levied huge sanctions against the football program, banning them from bowl games for four years, taking away a handful of scholarships, and allowing any current Penn State football player to transfer and be eligible to play immediately at his destination.
So when the football season actually came around, fans had a lot more on their minds than expectations. The general opinion of the college football world was that Penn State would turn into a smoldering crater thanks to the sanctions, bad press, and O'Brien's general lack of experience as a head coach and on the collegiate level. If there was anything the Nittany Lions could play for, it would be for solidarity and the chance to spoil the seasons of their fellow Big Ten teams.
Best Moment of 2012:
If we're going strictly by games, it's probably a three-way tie between the win against Navy, the win against Iowa, and the win against Wisconsin. The win against Navy was the first for the Bill O'Brien era and a much-needed moment of positivity for the fans and players to cling to and use as momentum. The win against Iowa stands out because the Nittany Lions ground the Hawkeyes into dust at Iowa's homecoming and was the first tangible sign that Penn State wouldn't roll over. Finally, the win against Wisconsin was an overtime thriller where Penn State's seniors, who had rallied the team together in the face of all the bad press, could leave the program on a high note.
If we're going by something other than games, it was probably the realization that O'Brien was a surprisingly competent head coach. Despite the sanctions, O'Brien not only led the program to an 8-win season, but he also landed the commitment of heralded quarterback Christian Hackenberg and won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award.
Worst Moment of 2012:
On the field, the opening loss to the Ohio Bobcats was about as rough as you could get, leading many fans to think that Penn State would barely manage a 2-10 season. The following week's loss to a struggling Virginia team made it seem like the universe just wanted Penn State to fail.
Off the field, take your pick. The whole situation surrounding Joe Paterno is a polarizing issue for everyone, fans and non-fans, so it will really depend on the person you ask. I know Penn State fans who say that the worst moment they experienced was hearing the sanctions announced. Others will say it was when the statue was taken down.
Expectations Going Forward:
O'Brien isn't the first coach to shock people with an impressive, winning record in his first year, even in his first year as a head coach. He's done something more important than just win; he's given Penn State fans (and even the rest of college football) a reason to watch his team. More than a few eyes will check in on the Nittany Lions over the next few years to see if O'Brien's debut was just a flash in the pan or if it's the start of something bigger. The program won't be able to compete for conference or national championships until 2016, but they can make everyone else nervous until then.
Penn State's fans likely won't judge the program how they used to judge it. It's not about what bowl they go to, or about whether or not they win the Big Ten title. It will be more about how they play on television, by how much they beat the other Big Ten teams, and how O'Brien's equally impressive recruiting pans out. Most fans will find an easy reason to melt down if the program drops more than four games in 2013, as they'll be expecting a consistent, break-even level of competitiveness throughout the sanctions; others will just wait patiently for the sanctions to end and watch only because they love Penn State.