Chasin' The Devil: Penn State's O'Brien shows promise for future

Bill O'Brien was 8-4 last season and 6-5 this year at Penn State. (USATSI)
Bill O'Brien was 8-4 last season and is 6-5 this year at Penn State. (USATSI)

Behind the NCAA restrictions and the NFL cachet and replacing JoePa, there’s a first-time head coach trying to get better.

Penn State’s Bill O’Brien is tired of talking about the sanctions, as he indicated in a recent interview last week, because it’s time to move on, time to coach. O’Brien “doesn’t really go down that road” anymore, he said.

He’s 6-5 right now but it’s his 6-5.

Most acknowledge Penn State’s rebuilding job will be arduous, which is why O’Brien’s 8-4 debut with a depleted roster became a great story.

Now that storyline has faded, and O’Brien’s OK with it. He’s having fun. He’s finding his identity as a coach, he says. Hard to tell whether he’ll ever bolt for an NFL job, but it’s clear he’s looking for ways to sustain long-term success as a head coach.

In other words, he’s ‘Chasin’ the Devil’ -- the name of’s season-long series chronicling coaches looking to unseat Nick Saban. This week examines coaches with the best chance to catch Saban in the next three-to-five years.

O’Brien is on the fringe of the top 10. He’s not yet established in college football royalty but has tons of promise.

“It’s a process and we’re working our way back to where we can be a good program,” O’Brien said. “We can improve in a lot of areas.”

O’Brien is playing a freshman quarterback and a bunch of walk-ons as a result of the scholarship restrictions. Penn State could sign no more than 15 players in a class starting in 2012, though in September the NCAA committed to gradually restoring some of those scholarships.

With losses to UCF, Indiana and Minnesota, O’Brien knows this season has been ugly at times. But he sees a roster with chemistry and a coaching staff that’s improving and a quarterback with a serious future in Christian Hackenberg.

O’Brien still stings from what he calls bad clock management in a 17-16 loss to Virginia last year. He called two timeouts early in the fourth quarter and had one left for the final drive, which resulted in a missed 42-yard field goal from Sam Ficken with a second left. He vowed to improve his clock management and felt those improvements helped Penn State handle tight overtime wins over Michigan and Illinois.

“We’d like to be 10-0 and we’re not,” O’Brien said. “But it’s been a lot of fun to coach this team. I don’t get into evaluating, grading myself. I try to improve, I really do. I take the losses to heart. First thing is, ‘What can I do better?’”

These coaches below are asking themselves the same thing.

Chasin' the Devil
Rank Coach Devil Rating Comment

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State -- There's a three-year Sunshine State window primed for Fisher to burst through. Florida is drunk and can't find the car keys. Miami is improving but isn't all the way back. Meanwhile, Fisher is stockpiling talent and is going on his third first-round quarterback in four seasons. From 2013-15, nobody is more ready to chase Saban. Expect FSU to sign Fisher to a hefty contract extension at season’s end.

Urban Meyer, Ohio State -- The only thing Meyer doesn’t win is the court of public opinion. Otherwise, Meyer throws up more Ws than the Westside Connection. He wins ugly. He wins with blowouts. He wins in the Mountain West, in the SEC, the Big Ten. He wins with pocket passers or spread offenses or the I-formation. He wins recruiting battles. And, oh yeah, he’s knocked off Saban before.

Mark Helfrich, Oregon -- So the Ducks are playing uninspired football, and Helfrich has to answer for that. But don’t forget Marcus Mariota’s knee problem sapped his ability to run, which is arguably the biggest threat of Oregon’s offense. That Stanford loss sucked the life out of this team. Still, Helfrich has serious resources and still recruits serious speed. Next mission: Finding a way to combat the most physical teams up front.

Les Miles, LSU -- The Notorious L.E.S. can’t be counted out of any year. The Louisiana recruiting hotbed is ridiculous, and not many protect their home states like Miles. If not for the youth on defense that plagued the Tigers at times this season, LSU might be contending right now. Cam Cameron doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, which sophisticates the offense.

Gus Malzahn, Auburn -- Any Auburn coach must thrive off needling Alabama at every turn. Malzahn looks up to the task after a momentous seven-win turnaround from a year ago – make that eight if he somehow takes the Iron Bowl on Saturday. Auburn has no problem recruiting well nearly every year and as talent couples with innovative offense, the Tigers can be dangerous for many years.

Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State -- So this is what the Cowboys look like with an elite defense. If the defensive edge on display Saturday night against Baylor had been in place for years, Gundy might have snagged a national title by now. Give Gundy credit for adjusting this year’s offense with a run-heavy attack while waiting on the quarterback play to catch up. Now, if only Gundy could avoid the curious lapses (West Virginia, Iowa State) that once plagued Jimbo Fisher.

Art Briles, Baylor -- Briles is positioned for the long-term chase in part because of his development of quarterbacks, who can flourish without sacrificing the running game. Despite the breakdown in Stillwater, Baylor is no fluke. This program is ready for a serious five-year run in the Big 12. Consider Baylor recently lost a Heisman-winning quarterback, two quality NFL receivers…and got significantly better. Briles just re-upped for a reported $4 million per year.

Steve Spurrier, South Carolina -- At 68, Spurrier is almost too old for this list, but he’s eyeing a third consecutive 11-win season. What he’s done in Columbia is remarkable. The next step is an SEC title. That’s the only thing holding him back at SC. The season appeared to be slipping from Spurrier when assistant coaches were scrapping on the sideline during the Georgia loss, but the Gamecocks have regrouped. Knowing he has a few more good years until it’s over, Spurrier will chase history. He’ll chase Saban.

David Shaw, Stanford -- There’s a clear-cut formula in Palo Alto. As long as the Cardinal run the ball and play defense like the last few years, Stanford’s relevancy quotient will always be solid. Quarterback Kevin Hogan can be erratic but overall has nice potential. Shaw doesn’t appear interested in an NFL return, which helps with stability. A lot to like here, though one question remains: What is holding Stanford back? There seems to be one ingredient missing from a championship run. Not sure what it is.

Dabo Swinney, Clemson -- Clemson has made incremental steps to a title chase every year since Swinney stepped on campus. The latest breakthrough includes wins over LSU and Georgia. Clemson believes it’s closer to FSU than last month’s 51-14 loss suggests, so it’s time to punctuate those claims with an 11-1 finish, exorcising Gamecock demons that have followed Swinney since 2009. What kind of heat does Swinney have at QB in the post-Tajh-Boyd era?

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M -- Where will Sumlin be in a month? Guy’s been linked to more movement than a Zumba class. USC. NFL. A&M. Clearly the guy’s good at what he does. If he does stay at A&M and wins a title, #Gigem will build a statue for him. For those who say Sumlin will struggle without Johnny Football, we enter Exhibit A: Keenum, Case.

Still in the chase: Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, Louisville's Charlie Strong, Penn State's Bill O'Brien, Michigan State's Mark Dantonio, Wisconsin's Gary Andersen, Miami's Al Golden, Georgia's Mark Richt, Fresno State's Tim DeRuyter, Northern Illinois' Rod Carey, Vanderbilt's James Franklin.

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