2011 Outback Bowl: Penn State vs. Florida, The All-Encompassing Preview

This Saturday Penn State will face off against Florida in the 25th edition of the Outback Bowl.  Florida is favored to win the game, which is being played about two hours south of the Gators' home stadium.  For better or worse, it's a familiar story for Penn State: it is the third time in the past six seasons that the Lions will play in a bowl game that is located in the state that their opponent calls home.  They've gone 2-1 in those games, beating Florida State in Miami and Texas A&M in San Antonio and losing to Southern Cal in Los Angeles.

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In the past few weeks leading up to the game a few storylines have emerged.  None of them directly deal with the players, units, or schemes that will decide the football game on New Year's Day.  Rather, the media have decided that the respective coaches are the more compelling aspect of the matchup.  The first major storyline is "Is Meyer really going to retire?" and the second "Is Paterno really not going to retire?".  Actually, that second one may be a little closer to "Dude, Paterno, you'd be 85 before next season ends: please retire now."  Speculation about Meyer eyeing a future spot in Denver and Paterno's rumored health issues abound.

Speculation regarding coaches may be fun for college football fans to talk about, but it's doubtful that it will have much of an effect on the game being played next Saturday.  In my mind, the mentality of each team over their few weeks of bowl prep will have the bigger effect on the game.   Don't worry, though - I've included a poll at the bottom of the post so that our Offtackle Empire community can put to a vote which is more likely: Meyer to un-retire (again) in the near future, or Paterno to hang it up before the 2011 season?

Hit the jump and we will go through each team's 2010 journey to the Outback Bowl and discuss what kind of attitude they are bringing to the game.  Check back later in the week and I'll take a closer look at how the game itself may unfold and some matchup issues for both teams.

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Both teams playing in the Outback Bowl had dumpster fire underwhelming regular seasons.  Florida, after coming off of national championship and then BCS-bowl-winning seasons, had to be the more disappointed of the two to finish the regular season at 7-5.  Don't forget, though, that Penn State had gone 22-4 between 2008 and 2009, and had a top ten winning percentage over the past five years.

Let's take a look at each team's preseason expectations vs. regular season results.  I also think it's worth mentioning the outcome of each team's final game, each against a rival, as it's the last time we've seen the team perform.  Lastly, we'll consider the post-season drama in order to get of sense of where they stand going into the Outback Bowl.  I'll take a stab at what I think it means at the end; feel free to chime in in the comments with what kind of momentum you think each time will have heading into the Outback Bowl.

...

Penn State Nittany Lions (7-5, 4-4)

Preseason Expectations:  Penn State was #14 in the Coaches preseason poll and #19 in the AP preseason poll.  A lot of people expected something around a 9-4 season reminiscent of 2006 or 2007, give or take a game.  Some of our writers weighed in:

Graham Filler: 9-3, losses to Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State

Jonathan Franz: 10-2, losses to Alabama and Ohio State

Bama Hawkeye: 9-3, losses to Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State

Paterno Ave: 9-3, losses to Alabama, Northwestern, and Ohio State

GregGoBlue: 9-3, losses to Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State

When the majority of prognosticators are thinking 9-3 and you end up at 7-5 [my bad], it's hard to call that a huge disappointment. 

Regular Season Results: However, those people expecting a 9-3 season had envisioned a team that was in contention for the Big Ten championship until November.  That did not happen at all.  Penn State went from the middle of the pack, to the bottom of the barrel after the Illinois loss, and then slowly crept back into the second tier of the conference while never challenging for a share of the title.  The first ever home loss to an Illinois team was a crushing defeat at the time.  While games against Alabama, Ohio State, and Iowa may have been competitive at halftime, when the clock struck 0:00 in each of those contests audiences knew who the clearly superior team was, and it was not our Lions.  Ranking-wise, the Nittany Lions fell out of the rankings completely and, even with a win against Florida, probably won't challenge for the end of season top 25.

Penn State's defense never developed into the top-10 outfit we've come to expect over the last decade/forever.  It's hard to say that the quarterback position ever really settled into a place fans were comfortable with.  Evan Royster finally got his act together over the second half of the season, but at that point people had already resigned themselves to the fact that it was a rebuilding year.  To me, I think the toughest aspect of this season to deal with was realizing that Penn State had by no means taken the next step up to become a "reloading" vs. a "rebuilding" program like many had hoped.

Final Regular Season Game: A dramatic almost-great-comeback in the last "rivalry" game against Michigan State.  There's another word for "almost comeback," though, and unfortunately it's "loss."  MSU had an 18 point lead in the third quarter which the Lions were able to fight back to within 4.  In the end it was too little too late and the Spartans notched their first-ever win at Beaver Stadium.  It was Penn State's most competitive game against one of the good teams on their schedule, and if a few more things had gone their way earlier in the contest who knows what might have been.  The end result was a frustrating loss, but it was by no means a complete disaster.

Post-season Drama: Joe Paterno is old (84 yesterday, Happy B-day big guy) and rumors of his demise/retirement have been around for more years than most head coach's entire careers.  This year Joe appeared a little more out of it at press conferences than he has in the past.  He admitted to being sick in the offseason, and speculation that things were worse than he let on has been constant.  In the past week or so the rumors have been particularly scary.  After admitting that these types of rumors are commonplace and should be taken with a grain of salt, Chris Houston of Yahoo Sports relayed information that has allegedly been getting passed around in PSU circles:

These emails that are circulating within the PSU community point out that Joe Paterno may not in good health. In fact, there has been talk about possible  mini-strokes and even possible intestinal cancer. Whether it's true or not, who knows? Maybe these recent Joe Paterno health rumors are nothing concrete as usual.

Frightening stuff, and hopefully just the result of exaggerations among some of the more dramatic elements of the fanbase. These kinds of rumors stick, though, because we are talking about an 84-year-old man, and ailments such as these are at least within the realm of possibility.

Penn State had a few other bits of drama as well: Kevin Newsome has not made the trip to the Florida and will probably transfer, and Penn State assistants have been interviewing for other coaching positions.  I'm not so sure either of these will have an impact on the team's mindset going into the game on Saturday.  Even the departing Seniors appear to be excited and eager for a W:

"It really helps build momentum for the next season," Wisniewski said, "so we really want to get this one on the national stage against a big-time program like Florida to leave our mark as seniors, leave on a positive note."

...

Florida Gators (7-5, 4-4)

Preseason Expectations: The Gators came in at #3 in the Coaches' preseason poll at the end of the summer after their trouncing of Cinncinati in the BCS last post-season.  They were the preseason magazines' consensus pick to win their division.  SBN's Alligator Army provided one of the more sobering preseason expectations that I could find for the Gators, and still thought that SEC East contender was a likely role for this year's team.  Simply put, when you're coming off a four-year run that included 48 wins and 2 National Championships, expectations are going to be high.

Regular Season Results: Unfortunately for Gator fans, those sky-high expectations had to be re-evaluated, and painfully lowered, on an almost weekly basis over the course of the season.  Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking back it seemed that some regression was almost unavoidable after losses of so many of the men responsible for the past years of Florida hegemony:

No part of the death machine [Meyer had] assembled remained in place. Tebow was gone, along with Harvin, Spikes, Haden and one half of the Pounceys. His right hand, Dan Mullen, was gone to resurrect Mississippi State, with immediately obvious consequences even in 2009. His left hand, Charlie Strong, was gone to resurrect Louisville. Meyer himself was the only common thread to that legacy, and he had literally driven himself beyond the brink of collapse.

Florida lost 4 games in-conference and a fifth against rival Florida State.  They were held to a touchdown or less in three of the losses, and in four of the losses had at least 30 points hung on them.  The Florida attacked came in tenth in the SEC in average yards per game.  The wheels came off, and particularly at the end:

The Gators began the season with John Brantley under center, but freshmen Jordan Reed and Trey Burton later saw time running Meyer's familiar spread option formation. Brantley only threw nine touchdown passes in 12 games and finished 87th nationally in pass efficiency.

The offense especially sputtered toward season's end, turning the ball over six times and averaging 251.0 yards in Florida's last two games against FBS opponents, losses to South Carolina and Florida State by a combined 67-21.

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Final Regular Season Game:  Florida ended the regular season with crushing loss to their rivals, the Florida State Seminoles.  I have not seen the game, but the AP recap pulls no punches, and puts the loss in historical perspective:

Florida (7-5, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) capped its worst regular season under Urban Meyer with its first loss to FSU since Meyer took over in Gainesville in 2005.

"Obviously we're down," Meyer conceded. "I didn't believe we'd be that far down, but we are."

...

The Gators were awful Saturday, committing four turnovers and scoring only on their opening drive.John Brantley's 21-yard touchdown to Robert Clark was set up by Andre DuBose's 62-yard kickoff return.

Florida had won the last three in the series by an average of 30 points. The Seminoles' 24-point winning margin was its largest over Florida since a 52-17 victory in 1988.

Ouch.  Over the past few years Florida had taken it's place among the super-elite in college football, and the Florida State loss was a bitter end to a season which showed that, as elite as the program has become, even the Gators are not above the reality of transitional years.  

Post-season Drama:  Drama, thy name be Brett Favre  Urban Meter resignation statements.  As we've all heard, Meyer has stated he will step down after the bowl game to spend time with his family, this a year after he stated he would be resigning for health reasons and then returned (very) shortly thereafter.  There's been speculation that, this time, he may be getting out of the college game but may in fact be interested in an NFL gig in the not-too-distant future.  Florida has responded by hiring former coach-in-waiting and defensive coordinator at Texas, Will Muschamp.  In addition to Meyer's pending resignation, the coaching staff will be dealing with Offensive Coordinator Steve Addazio's departure to become the next head coach at Temple.  Lastly, quarterback John Brantley may be looking to transfer after the season.

Take Away:  After comparing the two teams' regular seasons, I'm lead to think that the team with more momentum coming into Saturday's bowl game is Penn State.  PSU's worst losses, the ones that forced the team re-calibrate what a successful season would be this year, were months ago.  They had success in the first half against Ohio State and in the second half against Michigan State; both of those losses were tough but I think they could give a team some hope going forward.  The Paterno retirement rumors may be unsettling, but at this point they are a yearly occurrence in some form or another.  While every team wants to win championships every season, realistic expectations for the Lions this year put them in a New Year's Day bowl game in Florida.  Moreover, just last year Penn State's Capital One Bowl win was the feather in their cap that essentially salvaged the season. This year's team could see the Outback Bowl to have the same redeeming quality and be motivated by that prospect.

Public perception is that Florida's season, on the other hand, was more of an underachievement than Penn State's.  Additionally, Florida struggled at least as much in its last few outings as it did throughout the season.  Florida has had enough success recently that anything less than a BCS game is probably considered a failure by many fans.  Instead, they'll be practicing at home and taking a two-hour bus ride up the highway.  It's hard to tell how much of an effect playing in a game will considerably less pomp-and-circumstance will have.  The real wildcard, of course, is Meyer's retirement.  The new head coach will be standing on the sidelines during the game.  The current offensive coordinator may be gone.  Will playing for a lame duck coach turn off underclassmen?  Will it unite and fire up the team to send him out on a win?

While I may think that Florida has less momentum heading into the game, Vegas doesn't think it's enough to keep them from pulling out a win.  I'll take a look at the actual players and schemes in a few days, and we'll see how that offsets any effect that motivation or apathy may have on the teams' performances on Saturday.

Until then, I'm interested to hear what the readers think about the matchup on Saturday...but probably more interested to hear what thoughts are regarding the respective coaches' retirement situations.  Who will be around in two years?  Hell, which of the two will be at spring practice?  And check back in on Friday for another look at the Outback Bowl.

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