Handicapping the Penn State Nittany Lions Football Team in 2012
by Trevor Whenham - 8/9/2012
This Penn State situation is like a train wreck — as much as I want to look away I just can’t. It’s a horrible and horribly-fascinating story from so many angles. As we get closer to the season and the story continues to evolve I can’t help but think about what this team faces, and what impact that will have from a betting perspective. Needless to say, that impact will be very significant.
Here’s a look at that impact from four angles:
I could list distractions this team will face for the next week and still not get to them all. Their legendary coach is retired, disgraced, and dead. Their legacy is incredibly tarnished. Their fans are confused. Their roster is gutted. There is no hope for a bowl game for years, and little chance that they would make one even if they could. The eyes of a nation are looking at them, and most are judging them. Even those who are supporting the school and the program can’t be even remotely optimistic about their chances. Loyalties are divided among players, and it’s certain that there will be resentment and anger towards the players who left, and uncertainty among those that stuck around.
The players on the team have tried to maintain their solidarity and show their support for the program and their willingness to stay aboard and see things out. There has been a mass exodus of talent, though, and it’s hard to believe that it’s done. We have now seen 10 different players on the roster move on, including the best offensive player on the team in running back Silas Redd, the top receiver, the most game-ready quarterback, and some real depth in key areas. It’s hard to believe that any team could overcome a loss like that just days before the start of practices, never mind one that was so decidedly short of offensive talent in the first place. Depth was a concern before. Now it’s a massive one.
It’s not just current players that are on their way out, either. On Tuesday two more class of 2013 recruits decommitted to bring the total to five since the sanctions. Dorian Johnson, Greg Webb and Ross Douglas are, in particular, big losses. It’s also hard to believe that Christian Hackenberg, one of the top quarterbacks in the class and a guy with serious NFL potential, would waste his years out of the spotlight on a losing team with no bowl hopes and a shortage of talent. Those players obviously won’t have a direct impact on this season since they still have their senior year of high school to play. Recruiting has become such a high-profile undertaking, though, that this can’t help but impact the mood of the team, public opinion and, most significantly, the prospects of the teams in future years.
Strong recruits attract more strong recruits, so this gutted class, on top of nearly certain struggles the next couple of years, will have a significant and lasting impact on this team. In the Big Ten Michigan and Ohio State recruit nationally at a very high level, and Wisconsin and Nebraska aren’t far behind. The more the average level of Penn State recruits decline the harder it will be for the Nittany Lions to rebound and become competitive. All you need to look at for proof is teams like the Indiana and Minnesota that have never recruited well, and have been unable to compete with the big boys as a result.
One big issue to keep in mind is, even if none of this had happened and all the team was facing was the death of Coach Joe Paterno, they would be facing an almost insurmountable challenge — at least in the short-term. Bill O’Brien is a remarkable football mind and unquestionably a strong hire for the team. When a culture has been so deeply entrenched, though, it takes time for even the best new coaches to make the changes they want to, instill a new culture, and get the team on track. On top of that he has been out of the college coaching game since 2006 and has never served as a head coach at any level, so he faces a steep learning curve with inevitable speed bumps along the way. No matter what, I would be down on this team in the short-term, so now I can’t help but be very negative.
This is an emotionally-charged story that has attracted massive attention and strong reactions. That means that the betting public is inevitably going to have strong reactions. They will initially be very negative, but the public is nothing but fickle and quick to jump on or off a bandwagon. The Lions play a relatively soft five-game stretch to open the season. A road game at Virginia is almost a certain loss, but the other four opponents — Ohio, Navy, Temple, and Illinois — aren’t exactly National Championship threats. It’s possible that Penn State could steal a game or more from that group. If they do that it could be easy for people to overestimate their strength and quickly get too excited about their prospects as they head into the tougher part of their schedule. It’s always important for bettors to keep a firm grasp on public perception and the impact it has on how college football odds are set and how they move, but that will be especially true here.
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