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Historic college football season starts with unanswered questions

By Mike Jensen, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

This college football season will go down in history — as the season after.

Mostly, of course, as the season after Sandusky, after both Joe Paterno and so much of his legacy died, after the NCAA and much of society decided Penn State had committed the worst wrongs ever committed in college sports and would pay for them in as many ways as possible.

Beyond Happy Valley, 2012 is the season after. The one after realignment rearranged the landscape. The time fear took hold across the land. “What if our hallowed institution (and parking lots equipped for Winnebagos) was left in a have-not league, unable to reap television millions or contend for a national title?

This is the year after West Virginia paid the Big East Conference an extra $12.5 million to bolt the league one year early for the Big 12. Instead of paying the $7.5 million Syracuse and Pittsburgh paid in a negotiated exit fee to leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference after this season, West Virginia paid $20 million to get out right away.

First, of course, West Virginia sued, and the Big East countersued. Ill will on all sides carried the day. Other lawsuits (eventually dropped) were filed by Pitt and Texas Christian, which joined the Big East and then left for the Big 12 before ever playing a game, reportedly paying $5 million for the privilege.

The West Virginia development turned out to be the most crucial one on North Broad Street. When the Mountaineers bolted, the Big East was left in desperate need of a school that could start playing football in the league immediately, this fall. The conference football schedule was past due to be released and the league still didn’t have a full slate of games. Enter the Owls. Once kicked out of the league for lack of performance on the field and at the ticket window, the Owls return stronger, with better facilities. Just as important, the rest of Temple’s programs will be joining the Big East next year.

The Owls were picked last in the Big East preseason media poll. A question about that: Were they picked last because of long-ago history? Or because they lost most of their offensive line to graduation? Last year’s Temple team would have competed quite well in the Big East, which was nobody’s powerhouse. If the Owls take a slight step back it wouldn’t be a shock, but we’d bet they don’t finish last. Have to believe ancient history played a part in that vote.

Nobody knows where the Nittany Lions will finish in the Big Ten, only that expectations also are lowered after some top players transferred, led by star running back Silas Redd, who left for Southern California after the NCAA allowed any player to leave and become immediately eligible after the governing body dropped its carpet bomb of sanctions.

The NCAA became the new common enemy for PSU faithful (and so many remain exactly that). Interestingly, Bill O’Brien has more support today than he did in the days soon after he was hired. On the day of Joe Paterno’s memorial service, I remember listening to a couple of Paterno allies, a former assistant and a former player. The general vibe of the conversation: O’Brien had better not screw up what we built.

So much has gone down since then — the Freeh report, the NCAA probation, the Sandusky trial itself — that any uneasiness about an outsider taking charge doesn’t carry much weight. Penn State’s hierarchy knew it couldn’t have anybody with Paterno ties. Question anything else about their decision-making process, but that decision remains sound.

Around the country, there is no uplifting story line to carry the day.

Urban Meyer, fabulously successful but burned out at Florida, takes over at Ohio State. (Except the Buckeyes are on probation.) LSU may have been preseason No. 1. (Except its top returning player, a folk hero of sorts nicknamed the Honey Badger, was dismissed from the team and checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center.)

USC comes off probation as a national title contender. The other top suspects to wear the crown are the usual ones, most from the usual place, the Southeastern Conference. Last season, Alabama and LSU played twice, each team failing to get across the goal line the first time, but with the national championship on the line in the rematch. Can the defending champion Tide roll again, winning their third in four seasons?

So the season after begins next weekend, with Temple hosting Villanova on Friday night and Penn State getting started Saturday afternoon hosting Ohio University.

Another way to look at all this, of course, is as a new beginning. That’s the case on North Broad Street. They have no choice but to look at it that way in State College. We’ll see about the rest of the country. Let the games begin, finally.

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