Is Bill O’Brien Doomed From the Start?
There are a number of ways to predict the win-loss record for a football team. None of them is anywhere near perfect but all show some merit. One method is to look at returning starters. Another is to look at the schedule and where and when the toughest games are played. One novel approach is to split the previous year's schedule into big wins, close wins, close losses, and big losses. The idea is that a team that pounded you a year ago will do so again. Teams that you pounded you'll likely beat again. But the close games can easily go the other way. Bill O'Brien inherits a team at Penn State that went 5-1 a year ago in close games (i.e. those decided by a touchdown or less). If he's not as lucky (on the field) as Paterno was a year ago, that could cost him two or three victories. Not the way you want to start a quest to fill the shoes of a legend.
O'Brien can be grateful that Penn State won't play Alabama again this year. In fact, the Nittany Lions might be favored in all four of their non-conference games (Ohio, at Virginia, Navy, Temple). They narrowly beat Temple on the road a year ago, though. The Owls finished the year strong while Penn State was falling apart. The opposing slate is tough enough that no game is guaranteed. Anything less than four wins will probably offend the fans.
PSU will open the conference slate at Illinois, who they beat by just three points a year ago. The new coach in Champaign is probably more of an upgrade than the one in Happy Valley (i.e. replacing Ron Zook is a wee bit easier than Joe Paterno), so it's not hard to picture a loss to the Illini in that one. While competitive, Northwestern did lose by ten points in Evanston a year ago. Since it's homecoming for Penn State, you'd give an edge to the Nittany Lions - but not an insurmountable one. PSU beat Iowa by ten points in Happy Valley a year ago. Now they have to play a night game in Iowa City. Maybe the Nittany Lions escape with a win, but probably not an easy one.
Next up would be Ohio State at home. Not only was that a close victory for PSU in Columbus, but OSU was 2-6 in close games a year ago. So if you expect the Nittany Lions to be a little less lucky, you'd also expect the Buckeyes to be be a whole lot luckier. Urban Meyer is also probably a major upgrade from Luke Fickell. Sorry Luke, just sayin'.
The road game at Purdue looks like a victory. The game at Nebraska does not. While the Huskers win was a close one a year ago, you can expect NU to be favored again in this one. Indiana played surprisingly close to Penn State a year ago in the Hoosier State. If PSU loses to them at home though, O'Brien will deserve the heat he gets. Senior day will see the Nittany Lions host Wisconsin. The Badgers stomped Penn State last year, so a lot needs to change for PSU to win this time.
If you give PSU a loss to Illinois, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, they finish 8-4 (4-4 in conference) just a game worse than last season. But throw in unlucky breaks against Temple and lowly Indiana and they are staring at 6-6 (3-5). You can't entirely rule out a loss at Iowa, hosting Northwestern or even traveling to Purdue either.
What happens to O'Brien's rebuilding project if he goes 3-5 in the Big Ten? Paterno survived four losing seasons in five years (only two of which were losing seasons in conference). He also had two national championships and a bunch of bowl game trophies. Even if O-Brien finishes where the Nittany Lions might have anyway, he still may look bad just because he doesn't get the breaks that JoePa did a year ago. That's no way to follow a legend. Frank Solich's 9-4 debut caused enough carping and that was after Tom Osborne retired voluntarily. Osborne benefitted from the flea-kicker in 1997. Solich saw Eric Crouch get his facemask twisted 180 degrees without a flag in 1998. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, even if you're very very good.
O'Brien may find that out the hard way.