Giger: This season could be worst of things for PSU football

Penn State is a whopping 23-point underdog this week at Wisconsin, no doubt a staggering number, and an almost certain loss will leave the Nittany Lions with a 6-6 season.

Not great, but certainly not terrible, especially since most people picked the Lions to go just 8-4.

The big question is: Will this be the bottoming-out year for the program in the fallout of the Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions?

There are a lot of reasons to believe so, and if that’s indeed the case, a low point of 6-6 isn’t that bad at all. There are dozens of programs around the country that won’t finish .500, and they’re not operating under crippling sanctions.

There is, however, the chance that next year could be just as difficult or even a bit worse for Penn State, making the 2014 season the bottoming-out point before we should see a resurgence in 2015, when the program will be back up to 80 scholarships.

Bill O’Brien’s future is obviously the biggest concern looking ahead. If he’s back next year, the Lions have a chance to improve on 6-6.

If he goes to the NFL, which will always be a possibility year in and year out, then what happens to the program would be anybody’s guess.

O’Brien dropped some hints last week that sound like he will be back, talking about future goals and changes at PSU in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way.

But Thursday night on his radio show, he said something that sounded a little peculiar.

“They’re the reason I came back here for the 2013 season, this senior class,” he said.

The coach clearly has a strong connection with the seniors last year and this year, the guys who kept the program together after the sanctions. But what happens when those players are gone, and will his desire to stay at PSU remain as strong?

I think he will be back, at least for another year.

But that all depends on what, if any, offers O’Brien gets from the NFL after this season. And part of his decision could hinge on how much he believes his stock might take a hit if Penn State has another 6-6 season, or worse, next year.

The other main concern looking ahead is whether star receiver Allen Robinson will leave for the NFL. The junior is now being projected as a late first- or early second-round pick, and the fourth receiver selected.

I think Robinson is gone.

Why would he come back after he’s already caught close to 100 passes – he has 89 so far – and set numerous PSU records? He might enjoy college a great deal, want to continue to pick up individual accolades or keep working with a more developed sophomore Christian Hackenberg to try and enhance his draft stock, but the risk of injury or any other unknown just seems too great.

Robinson has not been available to talk to the media in recent weeks, so we don’t know what he’s thinking. He has said he’s concentrating on the season and not thinking about the NFL, but there’s just no way that’s 100 percent true when millions of dollars potentially await.

If Robinson returns, Hackenberg will have a sensational receiver to help lead the offense. Without him, Penn State could have some big issues, and O’Brien surely knows it, so expect him to do everything he can to convince the receiver to stay.

Geno Lewis has potential, but he’s not Allen Robinson. No one currently on the team is anywhere near that good.

Penn State also will lose three starting offensive linemen – right tackle Adam Gress, right guard John Urschel and center Ty Howle – and part-time starting tackle Garry Gilliam is giving up his final year. That’s a major overhaul on the O-line.

Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton return in the backfield, a big plus. And tight ends Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman will all be a year older and more experienced.

It’s a given that Hackenberg should be better next year, and that’s basically Penn State’s best hope for improving in 2014.

The defense, which has had a rough year, loses five starters: standout tackle DaQuan Jones, linebacker Glenn Carson, safety Malcolm Willis, hybrid linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and tackle Kyle Baublitz, who’s giving up his final year of eligibility.

Some quality players will return, including cornerbacks Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas, and perhaps 2014 will be better for promising end Deion Barnes, who has had a very disappointing year.

On special teams, place-kicker Sam Ficken returns and will need to be more consistent next year. Senior punter Alex Butterworth is done.

A quick look at the 2014 schedule shows potential, if not likely, losses to Central Florida (in Ireland), at Michigan and to Ohio State and Michigan State at home. Other potential setbacks could be at Rutgers and home against Northwestern, plus there’s always that one game a year where PSU loses to someone it shouldn’t.

The Lions can have 75 scholarship players next year thanks to the NCAA reducing that sanction, but the incoming freshmen and many of the underclassmen probably won’t be able to play up to the level of the guys they’re replacing.

Given that, and if Robinson leaves, then next year could be another season of flirting with .500.

Even if that happens, Penn State still shouldn’t be in the kind of disastrous situation that we’ve seen with the likes of Illinois and Purdue.

The fact that the Lions can beat Michigan and take Nebraska to overtime – both storied programs that have a full 85 scholarships – is a testament to the job done by O’Brien, the players and everyone in the program.

If the worst Penn State finishes going forward is 6-6, in many ways that can barely even be seen as bottoming out.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Follow him on Twitter @CoryGiger.