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I. Case History/Opening Statement
A. Case History
In this same column last year, I went into the 2010 season with a strong sense of optimism. From 2005-2009, PSU averaged over 10 wins per season, putting them into the top 7 in win percentage nationally. The Nittany Lion faithful had become well re-acquainted with success, and 2009's 11-win season was considered somewhat of a disappointment to most. Despite losing all three linebackers and a defensive lineman to the draft, many (myself included) felt that Penn State would be able to absorb the losses and field another top-15 defense as they consistently had done for almost a decade. The question, it seemed, was whether Penn State had broken the cycle of building towards one great season in every three or four, and was going to be able to reload for another double-digit win year.
Well, we certainly didn't reload.
The defense suffered an almost historic rash of injuries. The depleted unit lead to PSU losing by 20+ points in four games, which if the BTN crew is to be believed, hasn't happened to the Lions since 1897. A true freshman starting quarterback, poor line play, and an underwhelming farewell season by Evan Royster lead to an anemic attack through the first couple games on the season. 4-4 in the Big Ten, plus a beating by Alabama, a frightening near-loss to Temple, and a heartbreaking finale against Florida, has Penn State fans looking for some optimism heading into 2011.
B. Opening Statement
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, picture this: on November 19, 2011, a top-10 ranked, one-loss (none in the Big Ten) Penn State squad travels to Ohio State. Between that game and the one the next week in Madison, the Leaders' Division first race will be decided. Storylines for the game: Penn State is the darkhorse contender for the B10 Championship and Terrell Pryor is LIGHTING IT UP in the NFL.*
But how did the Nittany Lions get there? As you'll hear, most commentators (and almost every writer for this site) peg the Lions as an 8-4 team. My colleagues agree onetwo things: Penn State will lose to Alabama, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, and Purdue players will tear their ACL's. Most also think a loss to Nebraska is likely.
But the schedule, while challenging, sets up nice for the hypothetical B10 title run. Losing to Alabama will have no bearing on their conference standing. The three other biggest contenders are entirely backloaded on the schedule, with the Lions' final three games home vs. Nebraska, @ Ohio State, @ Wisconsin. If Penn State can manage a consistent run attack (they should), some improved quarterbacking (they should), and return to form on defense (aside from defensive end, very likely), it's not difficult to imagine them overcoming the Iowa, Purdue, and Illinois (all home, probably all in worse shape than last season). Northwestern should be a challenge, but I think by late October Penn State's superior talent should be up to the task. They then host Nebraska for the first time since 2002. Nebraska should be good, but I was at the 2002 game. At times, it was the loudest and wildest football atmosphere I have ever been a part of. While 2005 Ohio State was crazier as a whole, 2002 Nebraska still had its moments. If Penn State has not yet suffered a Big Ten loss when the Huskers come to town, I would imagine it will be pretty similar.
So, by mid-November it's not far-fetched to think that Penn State has gelled offensively, not completely loss the war of attrition on defense, and leveraged a strong home field advantage to get past Nebraska. Ranked in the top ten, they would be an exciting darkhorse contender for the B10 championship game. Ohio State and Wisconsin will be tough teams and tougher venues, but as they say, "that's why they play the games."
* = Your mom may have told you that in the preseason anything can happen... except the Pryor thing. That cannot happen. Ever.
II. Discovery -
What We Can Learn From Pop Culture
Ladies and gentlemen, an analogy:
Honor is to Ned Stark as Joe Paterno is to Penn State.
Let me explain. But first, spoiler warning if you didn't watch Game of Thrones on HBO last season and still plan on doing so. (First GOT spoiler warning on this site?)
Ned Stark's sense of honor condemns him. Not sure what's up with the editing at the end.
Honor was Ned Stark's definitive quality. Honor was the foundation for all of his decisions and guided him through his life. You could say that his sense of honor ruled him. Not only that, but the other characters in Game of Thrones thought of Stark and his honor as synonymous, the one trait they immediately identified with him. Stark viewed honor as an absolute, and there was no compromising when the realistic best choice asked him to diverge from his theoretical conception of the right choice. The honorable decision was the only choice for him.
When faced with compromise he took the high road, knowing that it would bring him into dangerous conflict. And his sense of honor was the end of him.
Joe Paterno has become the definitive quality of Penn State football. He's been a coach there for over sixty years, and head coach for forty-five. He is the father of Penn State's modern football history, and the success associated with it. And he is the only steward of that success Penn State has known, guiding them through the eras and permutations of college football for decades. A like honor, Joe Paterno is a virtuous quality, known for doing things the right way with his "Grand Experiment." Most fans and the media clearly consider Paterno to be Penn State's most definitive trait: how many stories about Penn State football have you read that don't mention him, whether it be his longevity, his win count, or how successful or unsuccessful his interactions with the media are? If not for JoePa, Penn State probably wouldn't be mentioned on ESPN four out of five years. And despite the annual "Is this his last year?" debate, and the annual "Should this be his last year?" debate, make no mistake: Joe Paterno is Penn State's only choice. He is inextricably entwined in Penn State's identity (and probably booster/season ticket holder income) for them to ever part until he says so.
And while Paterno may not be the "end" of Penn State football, he is certainly the reason that they are condemned to their current second-tier status. Another traditional power may have parted ways with him when times were tough and the on-field results pointed towards going in another coaching direction. But Penn State will go with Joe, for better or worse, through thick and thin, at this point, knowing full well that having an 85-year-old head coach can lead them into dangerous territory.
Ned Stark's most definitive quality was his virtuous sense of honor, which decided his actions and ultimately condemned him to his fate (getting his head lopped off). Similarly, Penn State's most definitive quality is the virtuous Joe Paterno, who makes all of Penn State's football decisions but has ultimately condemned PSU to its fate (being a second-tier program).
III. Emotional Plea
Quarterback controversy = compelling storyline, right? Well, quarterback competitions and controversies are a dime a dozen in August and September. In 2010, Penn State saw that and raised you a controversy that went straight through the fourth quarter of their January bowl game. Who's to say we're not in for another roller coaster this season?
How about the joy of feeling your stomach in your throat every time McGloin unleashes one deep, evincing all your masochistic nostaglia of QB14 from 2006 and 2007? Or the excitement of knowing that if Bolden doesn't recognize that blitz, he just may get sacked, a concussion, pulled for the year, or all three?
Last season we had the noob freshman who couldn't get it done in the redzone vs. the Brett Favre-lite hometown hero who got more out of the offense as a whole but was intrigued by throwing back-breaking interceptions.
A. The Staff Calls the Games
The OTE Staff sees an 8-4 team this year, losing 3 games in the Big Ten. Apparently we don't even have to play the games against Alabama, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. What I really think is remarkable is the amount of people that see us breaking the Iowa curse: only ONE person projects that as a Penn State loss, after they've dropped 8 of the last 9 to the Hawkeyes.
Oh, and Graham has us losing to Temple. Most years I would have laughed. After last year's clinic on how to settle for field goals, however, it is a frightening prospect...
Bama Hawkeye 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Nebraska, OSU, Wisconsin
Ted Glover 6-6 (3-5 B1G)* losses to Alabama, Purdue, Northwestern, Nebraska, OSU, Wisconsin
Jonathan Franz 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Nebraska, OSU, Wisconsin
Chadnudj 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Nebraska, Northwestern, Wisconsin
MSUlaxer27 7-5 (4-4 B1G) losses to Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, OSU, Wisconsin
Ricardo Efendi 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Northwestern, OSU, Wisconsin
Paterno Ave 9-3 (6-2 B1G) losses to Alabama, Purdue, Wisconsin
KennardHusker 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Northwestern, OSU, Wisconsin
Hilary Lee 8-4 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, Illinois, OSU, Wisconsin
JDMill 9-3 (6-2 B1G) losses to Alabama, OSU, Wisconsin
Graham Filler 7-5 (5-3 B1G) losses to Alabama, TEMPLE, Iowa, OSU, Wisconsin