But the thought for now is that the Lions, although they won one fewer game than the previous season, did not suffer a significant drop-off with the reduced numbers and lack of depth at certain positions resulting from the 2012 NCAA sanctions. That has their coach feeling pretty good.
"My perception is this: I think in this program this year, we had a small margin of error," O'Brien said. "More times than not, we beat that margin of error. We made fewer errors and won seven games and lost five. But when we made too many mistakes, we lost a lot of close games and got blown out once," at Ohio State.
"We're two years into, basically, a new program - by that I mean that on July 23, 2012, things changed because of what happened with the sanctions. To be where we are right now, could we be better? Certainly we could be better. We could have coached better, we could have played better. But I think this program's in pretty good shape right now."
O'Brien has yet to coach a Penn State game not influenced in some way by sanctions, but has somehow led his team to a 15-9 record. He consistently has waved off questions about how the sanctions affect his program, showing his NFL pedigree by often saying after tough games, "We've got to coach better," or "It starts with me."
But his efforts as a coach and as a leader are noticed.
"What Bill O'Brien and Penn State have been able to accomplish the last two years is nothing short of miraculous," said Glen Mason, a former college head coach and current Big Ten Network analyst.
"I thought what he did in Year 1 was unbelievable but was outdone by what they did this year. I thought the first year would be their best production, and then it would probably downward spiral to some degree for a variety of reasons - emotions of the players wearing off from the standpoint of an us-against-the-world mentality, the lasting down effect of not being able to compete for a championship or go to a bowl.
"After seeing the way they performed against Wisconsin, that has changed my opinion about them. I would say they're in good shape and going in the right direction."
The Nittany Lions finished the season with about 60 recruited scholarship players and several more who had walked on and won scholarships. O'Brien brought 62 players to Wisconsin, eight fewer than the maximum allowed for road games under Big Ten rules.
"These guys were essential to the game," he explained. "It was no disrespect to any player that was left home."
One of the most essential this season and for the future is quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Hackenberg kept his commitment to O'Brien after the sanctions were handed out and persuaded nearly all members of the Class of 2013 to stick with theirs. He then went out with only four weeks of training camp and played his position arguably better than any true freshman before him, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns.
"I met him for the first time before the Central Florida game," said Mason, who was on the BTN telecast that night, "and after a two-minute conversation - seeing his physical stature, the way he handled himself, and his poise - I walked away thinking, 'That's a freshman? I can't believe that's a freshman.' "
Now O'Brien and his staff can invoke Hackenberg's name when trying to woo the nation's best skill players, particularly wide receivers.
"When he stayed on board last year after he had other opportunities, it sent a message to every kid that he believed in Bill O'Brien," said Mike Farrell, Rivals.com national recruiting director. "This season, his play on the field shows that if you're a skill-position guy, especially a wide receiver, you're going to want to go there because you'll be playing with a special quarterback."
O'Brien will look for a backup to Hackenberg during spring football practice. An athletic department spokesman confirmed Thursday that the 2013 backup, sophomore Tyler Ferguson, has been given permission to speak with other schools and will be released from his scholarship at the conclusion of the fall semester. A junior-college transfer, Ferguson completed 10 of 15 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown in limited action.
The biggest losses to the Nittany Lions for next year come along the offensive line, where four of the top seven players, including two-time all-Big Ten guard John Urschel, are out of eligibility and a fifth, tackle Garry Gilliam, is passing up a sixth year of eligibility.
A major question concerns whether Robinson, who won his second straight Big Ten receiver of the year award after rolling up 97 catches and 1,432 yards, will decide to give up his senior year to enter the NFL draft. A few mock drafts have him going late in the first round.
Penn State saw its scholarships reduced to 15 after the sanctions, but the NCAA granted five extra scholarships in September. The Lions now have 20 to award to the Class of 2014, and have 16 oral commitments.
O'Brien said he felt good about recruiting. He didn't think there were any "busts" in the 2013 class, and that the Lions have three promising offensive linemen who redshirted this season - tackle Andrew Nelson and guards Brendan Mahon and Tanner Hartman.
Farrell thinks the extra numbers will help.
"They can sort of make a mistake or two and not suffer from it one year," he said. "When you have a class of 25, maybe 60 percent pan out to what you expected them to be. But when you have low numbers, you have to hit closer to 75-80 percent, and that's a lot of pressure. You can't miss. So with those scholarships back, I think it allows them a little bit of flexibility."
Farrell said the Lions' top remaining target is Brooklyn, N.Y., defensive tackle Thomas Holley, rated No. 3 in the nation at his position. The 6-foot-4, 299-pound Holley has narrowed his choice to Penn State or Florida.
"I think they're a little thin on the defensive line, and Holley would really help that situation," he said.
Farrell said the resignation of linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden, one of the program's best recruiters, could hurt, but he thought that O'Brien "certainly has a plan in mind" for a successor.
As for 2014, Penn State fans anxiously will wait for the next report in late summer from former Sen. George Mitchell, whom the NCAA named the university's athletics integrity monitor, to see if it leads to a lifting of the team's postseason ban.
But O'Brien won't lose sleep awaiting that. While he is making no predictions for a season that will see the Lions play against the two newest Big Ten teams, Rutgers and Maryland, he appears confident there will be improvement, not a drop-off.
"With the two years of sanctions that we've been under and things like that," he said, "with the limited amount of guys we could offer and guys that had left the program ... I think our program stands on pretty solid ground right now."
Urschel honored. Guard John Urschel was named a first-team academic all-American for the second straight year, becoming the 11th player in Penn State history to be honored twice.