The question of whether the program will be able to recover from those sanctions in the long run will not be answered for years.
But when No. 9 Ohio State is hosted by the Nittany Lions on Saturday evening in Beaver Stadium, some questions will be answered.
No matter that both teams are ineligible for postseason play, this game has significant meaning.
For the community
Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) is on a five-game winning streak, and tied with the Buckeyes (8-0, 4-0) atop the Big Ten Leaders Division.
The Leaders trophy is the only tangible award Penn State can capture this year, and the winner of this game will be the favorite to bring it home.
However, that isn't the main reason for the hype. Besides the fact that Penn State and Ohio State have been rivals for years, this one is about proving something.
"I go back and I compare it to everything that's happened," Penn State football historian Lou Prato said. "We're not going to win a national championship, we're not going to win any Big Ten championships, we're not even going to go unbeaten. This is one for the pride and one for Penn State to show people what they're trying to do."
Perhaps proof of that is Nittanyville, the student encampment that awaits gameday outside of Beaver Stadium. It is hosting its largest crowd ever this week.
"I think it just brings to light that there's so much more behind this football team than the actions of a few," senior Kim Graf said. "And there's so much more behind this football team than just [former head coach] Joe Paterno. It'll all move forward and live on after him."
As Penn State's blowout win at Iowa last Saturday was finishing up, Twitter was alive with excitement from Nittany Lions fans for the Ohio State game, which will be the season's official "Whiteout."
If Penn State comes away victorious, it will be the first time it has knocked off a Top 10 opponent since 2008 against Ohio State.
"I don't even know where to begin with that, man," Nittanyville president Troy Weller said when asked what a win would do for the community " . . . I think that it's really just going to energize a lot of people and I think people around the nation are kind of just going to look at this and think, 'OK, maybe this team still is as good as advertised.' "
For a program that nearly got the "death penalty," lost nine players to other schools, and started the season with two tough losses, the magnitude of the Ohio State game constitutes a pleasant surprise.
And though Penn State is sanctioned, spokesman Jeff Nelson said there will be 80 to 100 recruits attending Saturday's contest. The "Rally In the Valley," in which O'Brien will speak to students at Rec Hall, is planned for Friday night.
"Win or lose, it's a big game in history. Now, how big it will be will depend on where they go from here, what happens if Penn State wins if they go unbeaten the rest of the year, they win the division. Historians might look back and think it wasn't that big," Prato said.
But Prato said what is signficant is how the Penn State community has seen the team stay together in the face of adversity.
For the players
O'Brien thinks his players have this one coming.
"I would definitely say that these guys have earned the right to play in this type of game," O'Brien said. "They've put a lot of time in. They've been through a lot. They've done it. Everything that we've asked them to do, they've done."
The players agree.
"I think so, yeah," quarterback Matt McGloin said when asked if the game is a reward for sticking with the program. "Ourselves and Ohio State both deserve to get into a game like this. I mean, this is the reason you play college football."
Last season, Penn State defeated Ohio State in Columbus, 20-14. But since the sanctions have stripped Penn State of wins from 1998 to 2011, the Lions have not recorded an official win against the Buckeyes since 1997 in Beaver Stadium.
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said this is the biggest game of his career.
"For our seniors, it's our last Whiteout, our last time to go out here in front of the Whiteout crowd, and the last time we play Ohio State," Hill said. "With the situation we're both in, with the seasons we're both having, in my opinion, it's the biggest game for us."
O'Brien has consistently praised the dedication and leadership of Penn State's seniors throughout the year. With only three homes games left, and five in their careers, the Ohio State game could be the best chance the seniors will have to not only help recruiting, but make a statement to the nation.
"I mean, playing Ohio State, a win is going to do a whole lot," senior fullback Michael Zordich said. "There's many things that would filter into, but we have to just concentrate on the game, and not really think about the effects of a win or a loss or the impact it would have.
"We're sticking to what we've been doing, and that's to go out every Saturday and beat the team that's lined up across from you. Even though this is a very big game, and there could be a lot riding on it, we have to stay focused."
Penn State has a lot riding on this game. And the Nittany Lions are on a five-game win streak, including a blowout at Iowa last week. Unbeaten Ohio State is coming off close wins against two sub-.500 teams, Indiana and Purdue.
Penn State wins a great game, 28-27.
Who: Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. Ohio State (8-0, 4-0)
When: Saturday, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park
TV/Radio: ESPN / WNTP (990-AM), WNPV (1440-AM)
3 things to watch:
1. The atmosphere certainly will be the best of the season. Take the magnitude of the game, the "Whiteout" and the expected sellout crowd, and it makes for must-watch television. There's also another storyline; Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, widely rumored to be Joe Paterno's successor at this time last year, said this week that he wouldn't do anything differently to prepare for crowd noise. Nittanyville has posted a part of the quote on Gate A at Beaver Stadium. Will Meyer regret that? "After Saturday, I hope he does,'' senior defensive tackle Jordan Hill said.
2. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has said he's ready to go after injuring his neck in Ohio State's last game, against Purdue, according to ESPN. That is certainly good news for the Buckeyes, as the dual-threat sophomore has rushed for 959 yards and 10 touchdowns and passed for 1,384 and 11 touchdowns. If he is unable to play, the backup is Kenny Guiton, who led Ohio State in the fourth quarter and in overtime against Purdue last week.
3. Bill O'Brien has gone for it on fourth down 23 times. A lot of that has to do with the situation, but some could have to do with kicker Sam Ficken, who is 4-for-11 on field-goal attempts. In such a huge game, it will be interesting to see how O'Brien utilizes Ficken, especially if the game is on the line late.