Last season, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien led his team to a better-than-anticipated 8-4 record, including a 6-2 mark in the Big Ten.
O'Brien and his staff had to deal with transfers, uncertainty, a postseason ban and the realization that everything short of the death penalty had been thrown at the PSU football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The team over-performed last season by virtue of a solid defense and unexpectedly solid play from quarterback Matt McGloin.
In spite of personal beliefs regarding the mess surrounding the Nittany Lions football program and iconic head coach Joe Paterno, it was difficult not to pull for PSU last season, realizing that the players on the field are not in any way at fault for the "sins" of past coaches and school leadership.
Keep in mind, for all the good things O'Brien and his staff did last season, that winning does not "heal" the scars left by a scandal. Penn State and the surrounding community will be feeling the reverberations of that scandal for years to come. Whether the team finished 8-4 or 1-11 last season, it would not have made a difference. A scandal is a scandal, and winning, though nice, does not change that.
The Penn State football program, which has been at the pinnacle of the college football universe at points in the not-too-distant past, was rendered irrelevant by the postseason ban the program suffered.
This offseason, the team is not expected to compete for anything close to the best record in the conference.
That's nothing new. No one predicted that the Nittany Lions would perform as well as they did last season. The expectations for them to struggle are nothing new, nor are the pressures on the team's shoulders as a result of said predictions.
Fortunately for Penn State, the early schedule is manageable. So what does it mean if the team starts 5-0?
Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, UCF, Kent State and Indiana are not elite. Neither are they as weak as one might think. Eastern Michigan and Syracuse, while not gimmes, should be wins for PSU. Syracuse is without stud quarterback Ryan Nassib, while Eastern Michigan does not have the talent to pull off the upset, even in a down year for PSU.
From there it gets tougher. UCF is underrated, Kent State features All-American Dri Archer, and Indiana's experience will lead to a better year than it has had in the past few seasons.
While 0-5 is just as likely as 5-0, starting the season undefeated for five games with a win in the Big Ten would be a monster start for this program.
The Nittany Lions have a huge question mark at quarterback. Christian Hackenberg, quarterback recruit extrordinaire, is listed as co-starter with Tyler Ferguson. Neither of them has started a game at this level, and early in the season, there are going to be some growing pains.
The rest of the depth chart is nearly settled. The Lions have some excellent options on defense and limited options on offense.
Bill O'Brien and his staff did an excellent job of coaching the team last season and will likely do so again in 2013, possibly even snatching a game or two by virtue of solid coaching late in the game. O'Brien's limited tenure has been nothing but good for the team, and whoever is on the field will no doubt be a solid product in 2013, even if they're not elite.
But will it matter?
Yes, the human interest stories will flow. We will hear ESPN anchors wax eloquent about the triumph of the human spirit, as well as the fortitude displayed by Bill O'Brien to stay in such a situation, and the courage of the team to perform to the best of its ability in spite of adversity.
Those are all nice to hear, but other than giving warm fuzzy feelings in the stomach area, what good are they? Would PSU fans rather hear such pleasing platitudes during a winning season that doesn't matter or see the team competing in a bowl game?
If honest, the large majority of fans would answer the latter. So what about 2013?
If the team pulls it together, hammers out the quarterback situation, and runs out to a 5-0 start, what does it mean?
It means the same as it did last season when Penn State over-performed: absolutely nothing.
The Nittany Lions could run the table, and much like Ohio State last season, still be irrelevant in the large scheme of things.
That's a hard thing to accept. Any other team in the Big Ten that starts 5-0 is going to be hyped, for good reason, heading into the heart of conference play. But for the Lions, it won't matter.
And for a program that can be considered one of the blue-bloods of college football, that may be the hardest pill to swallow.