Penn State's Bill O'Brien is the leader of a program with issues. Can Pitt capitalize? (Rob Christy-US PRESSWIRE)
Writing about Penn State these days isn't what it used to be. Oh, there's opinion out there. A lot of it, actually. Some quite reasonable and some not so much. What happened there was an unfathomable tragedy - that's beyond dispute - and the subsequent cover-up made the world collectively wretch. While the main actors appear to all either be dead, awaiting trial or in jail, there's an undeniable institutional component as well. The NCAA seems very, very likely to level some sort of major punishment on Penn State Monday morning:
NCAA source tells CBS News athletic assn. will announce "unprecedented" penalties against Penn State, football team cbsn.ws/QnwOzy— CBS News (@CBSNews)
Writing about Penn State has become difficult as a Pitt fan. There's a very delicate balance here. Penn State was once upon a time Pitt's greatest rival and Joe Paterno its greatest villain. In the minds of some fans, they still are. But a brief resumption of the series in 2016-17 aside, the two programs only compete for recruits in Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. And that's where any sort of penalties on the Lions will directly impact Pitt. And while no one is happy about the unspeakable horrors perpetrated at State College, there's a competitive side of this story that deserves some amount of coverage as well.
So very carefully, we take a look at what Penn State sanctions could mean to Pitt.
And yet here I am about to talk about football. If, but more likely when, the NCAA lowers the boom on the Nittany Lions, shockwaves will be felt around college football. Nowhere will those shockwaves be more severe than in Western Pennsylvania. I believe that three programs (Ohio State, West Virginia, and your Pitt Panthers) will benefit from the punishment that will likely be levied against the Lions. Some think Penn State will police themselves and dole out their own sanctions.... In any case, the penalties will be severe, and a combination of a bowl ban, scholarship reductions, and other penalties are assuredly on the horizon.
With Chryst and his new system poised to move to the ACC... and new Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer doing his usual thing in Columbus, the footing could get slippery for the Nittany Lions in Western PA. As much as Penn State has recruited all over the East Coast, it still needs local prospects from Western PA to be successful.
There will be fallout, no doubt. And at least theoretically, that fallout should benefit the only other in-state big conference program (as always, Temple doesn't count). If Penn State's penalties are severe and include a multi-year bowl ban, then Pitt should have much less competition in-state for top recruits. Couple that with some positive momentum from a successful final season in the Big East and the fanfare of upgrading conferences, then Pitt could be poised to make some real gains. But will Pitt be able to take advantage of it? If Chryst is a disappointment this season (or more troubling, long-term) then Pitt football will once again fail to seize an opportunity just laying there for the taking as top players flee the state in droves.
More immediately, Pitt could be a beneficiary if Penn State's recruiting class falls apart. Pennsylvania tight end Adam Breneman and athlete Zayd Issah would be fantastic additions, but offensive lineman Dorian Johnson would be at the top of Chryst's wishlist. The Belle Vernon product picked Penn State over Pitt in a bit of a surprise move last month. Could a switch be in the works? KDKA's Matt Popchock says Pitt might not necessarily be his next option:
Based on my conversations with Post-Gazette reporter Paul Zeise, safety, as is often the case, was a major concern for the family of this student-athlete. The serenity of Penn State’s rural campus was attractive. The perceived hustle, bustle, and tussle in Oakland was not.
That's a problem. While Pitt may have been the runner-up in the Dorian Johnson sweepstakes, the kid has plenty of offers out there. As one of the top offensive linemen in the country, Johnson could take his time, go on official visits and consider nearly any school in the country. Not believing Oakland to be a safe place - thanks at least in part to the campus's own recent tragedy - seems like it could be a deal-breaker, even if he decommits from Penn State in the wake of "unprecedented" sanctions.