I will admit that, at 4-2, the Nittany Lions have already won as many games as I thought they would win all year. Now that they have won four straight the media and the public are embracing them. That makes sense — they are the quintessential Cinderella story given all the obstacles they are forced to overcome.
The question I have to ask myself now, then, is whether I was really, really wrong about this team or whether the media is being too optimistic about the future. Not surprisingly, I favor the latter theory. I’m not heartless or cruel, but I think it would be surprising and unlikely to see this team finish above .500 despite the quick start. Here’s why:
Get $60 in FREE Member Picks
Who have they beaten?
Whenever a team has a nice record, the first thing you need to look at is who they have beaten to earn that record. On that front I am not impressed.
Their only semi-impressive win was against Northwestern, and that was an overrated and untested team. Temple is struggling, and Illinois and Navy are just plain terrible. Meanwhile, they lost to an Ohio team that is undefeated but making their wins very difficult, and a Virginia team that has lost four straight and just fell to Duke by 25. If it’s not basketball then losing to Duke by that much is just not okay.
To their credit the Nittany Lions have been ready for the schedule they have faced the last four weeks, but the undeniable truth is that they have benefited from that schedule to amass their current record. Because the Big Ten is pretty lousy this year, the schedule won’t be brutal going forward. However, with trips to Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue, and home games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, it is much, much tougher than they have faced so far, and their record will likely reflect that going forward.
One of the things you keep seeing when you read about Penn State is the truly brilliant job Bill O’Brien is doing. While he is certainly doing well, I am not yet convinced that it will last.
Just look at UCLA. Through the first few weeks they looked like a whole new team under Jim Mora. Recently, though, the novelty has worn off and old habits have snuck back in.
O’Brien may be a better coach than Mora, but he is still totally in uncharted territory here as a head coach, and there will inevitably be road bumps along the way.
The deeper we get into the season, the more injuries are an inevitable fact of football. As the schedule gets tougher and the opposing players get bigger into the conference schedule, injuries will mount at a faster rate than they have. A team needs depth to be able to weather those storms and still come out the other side. Penn State has absolutely none.
Right now two players are leading what is happening — Matt McGloin on offense and the impressive Michael Mauti on defense. An injury to either of them, or to any of the key supporting staff, would be much harder for this team to overcome than for most teams.
Even if players aren’t hurt, they are going to get worn out. Key players have been required to shoulder a heavy burden for this team, and they are going to have to keep doing so because there is no one to relieve them in many cases. When you get tired you get sloppy, and this team doesn’t have a lot of room to accept sloppiness and still win against the schedule it faces.
On top of the normal physical and mental strain of a season, these players are facing the unprecedented emotional toll of all they have gone through. To weather all that without negative effects would require robots.
Right now you certainly can’t complain about the Nittany Lions from a betting perspective. They are 5-1 ATS, and have covered the last five spreads they have faced. They have been favored in four of six, and are 3-2 ATS in those games.
What’s interesting, though, is that the public hasn’t completely embraced them despite that early betting success and all the media coverage they have received. Last game they were three-point favorites at home against Northwestern, yet a very strong majority of bets were placed on the Wildcats. It will be very interesting to watch in their game next week against Iowa and beyond — especially if they win or cover there — how the public responds then.
Penn State has traditionally been a public team, so the unwillingness of the public to back them even when they are winning consistently is yet another sign of just how significant and negative this whole scandal has been.