When star running back Silas Redd transfered from Penn State to USC in July, it seemed like an eminently reasonable decision. Redd had come to Penn State when its football program was known for its immense fan base, for Joe Paterno, and for its recent resurrection after a few down years—in the five seasons prior to Redd's first, the Nittany Lions had won 11, 9, 9, 11 and 11 games. By the end of Redd's second season, Paterno was gone, the fan base was fractured, and those wins (and every Penn State win from 1998-2011) had been vacated.
On July 23, in the wake of the Freeh Report, the NCAA handed down sanctions against Penn State that included the stipulation that its players were free agents: they could transfer to different schools without enduring the traditional redshirt season. It was a sanction for the university, but it was also a gift to the players—Penn State would be bowl ineligible for the next four seasons, and short on scholarships. Simply put, they were going to be bad and playing for nothing, by design. The conventional wisdom was that Redd may as well leave—"you couldn't blame any Nittany Lion for not wanting to stick around," said ESPN—and he did about a week later, announcing his transfer to USC. Redd may well be happier in Los Angeles, but his exit from Happy Valley has a strange dissonance to it: he a left scandal-wracked PSU program with, by order of the NCAA, nothing to look forward to at the end of the season, and went to go play for inveterate jerk Lane Kiffin at a USC program with, because they kind of suck, not much to look forward to at the end of the season.
With games left against Arizona State, UCLA and Notre Dame, USC is 4-3 in the Pac-12 and 6-3 overall. After last week's lost to Oregon, they're 0-2 against AP ranked opponents; assuming the Trojans win today, the showdown against UCLA (ranked 18 right now, one ahead of USC) on November 17 could well drop them to 5-4 in conference. Though much has yet to be decided, USC may finish fourth in the Pac-12, good for a plum spot in the...Sun Bowl, against UNC or Duke probably. Traditional football powers.
Redd's season hasn't been bad, but he's arguably taken a step back statistically. More touchdowns this year—nine at the moment, to last year's seven—but with four games left (including the inevitable bowl game), Redd has 509 yards fewer than last year, on 109 fewer attempts. It's impossible to say what Redd would be doing at Penn State, but his counterpart there, the far less heralded Zach Zwinak, has become the Nittany Lions' main back in his sophomore year, amassing 117 rushing attempts and 545 yards thus far, fine totals that suggest Penn State's blocking and offensive attack weren't entirely decimated by outward transfers.
Other things that suggest the team held up despite bleeding talent in the offseason: Penn State is 6-3, second in the Big Ten, boasting the 17th-best defense in the country by the measure of points against. They may lose to 16th-ranked Nebraska today (they're headed to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln), but with remaining home games against Wisconsin and Indiana, it's possible that Penn State will improve on its win total from last year, despite being bowl ineligible. For a team barred from the (alleged) most exciting part of the season, practically every game has felt like a bowl game: they got their signature win of the season over Northwestern in October, and blowouts of Iowa and Purdue had boosters who had been silent for nearly a year crowing on Twitter and talking trash to anyone that would listen. Almost exactly a year since the Nittany Lions took the field against Nebraska following Joe Paterno's abrupt and disputed retirement, articles are heaping praise on the resilient football team and its brilliant new coach.
So Redd's situation raises the question of how you'd prefer your team lose. Would you rather defy non-existent expectations, or—on a better team—fall short of towering, unrealistic expectations? Is it better to play in the shadow of an enormous scandal that dominated every headline about the school for a year, or in the midst of daily and far pettier scandals that suggest an odd set of priorities currently entrenched at your institution? I don't think there's an obvious answer, or that Redd made the wrong decision, but conventional wisdom told Redd to flee, and conventional wisdom may have been rash in that regard. Few predicted that Penn State would be a feel-good story again this soon—well, Drew foresaw exactly that in July, actually—but you can predict pretty safely that USC will be a feel-bad story most years. Perhaps Redd helped his NFL draft prospects, but he doesn't seem to plan on declaring until 2014, so it'll be a while until we know. In the meantime, Penn State looks like its having fun despite everything, and USC doesn't, despite everything.
There's no point in castigating Redd for leaving, nor castigating anyone, in particular an unpaid student athlete, for leaving Central PA for southern California: Redd admitted that State College is "kind of in the middle of nowhere," and that he thought of transferring the moment "it"—the Sandusky allegations—"first hit the fan," without even knowing that the NCAA would waive its redshirt requirement. Still, it has to be tough: Redd came in when the Nittany Lions were riding high and State College was aflutter, watched the team go 7-6 from the bench his first season, played through a disturbing, constantly proliferating sex scandal in his second, and skipped town for his junior year, struggling somewhat during a disappointing year for USC while Penn State was doing storyboard for a sentimental sports movie in Happy Valley. The consequences are obviously in a different league, and Redd may well be enjoying the sun in LA, but as far as making everything difficult, ambiguous and confusing, the Sandusky scandal is still claiming collateral victims a year after it first broke.