September 10, 2010
Breaking down the second Saturday's big intersectional tilts: Penn State at Alabama.
• Miles traveled. Roughly 915 from State College, Pa., to Tuscaloosa or a nearly 15-hour drive for Penn State fans. That's roughly the same distance as their in-conference trip to Minnesota on Oct. 23, and a couple hours shorter than the occasional Big Ten visits to Lincoln, Neb., beginning next year.
• Respect the decibels. This is the first big, nationally televised game since Bryant-Denny Stadium expanded to over 100,000 in the offseason, which will bring down possibly the loudest "Rammer Jammer" in recorded history on a true freshman quarterback, Robert Bolden, who had to be reminded by teammates to speak up in the huddle last week against Youngstown State. I've been on that field with the Tide faithful approacing full throttle, and I can say from experience that this week, Bolden won't even hear the request.
• Of course you know, this means war. Joe Paterno once lamented his 0-4 record against Bear Bryant, most notoriously on the goal line stand in the 1979 Sugar Bowl that ran the national championship tally (at that point) to Bryant 6, Paterno 0. JoePa ultimately went on to win four of eight against 'Bama after the Bear's death in a decade-long home-and-home series in the eighties, though, and as soul-crushing losses go, it's hard to top 1989 in Happy Valley, opposite soon-to-be-fired Bill Curry:
I don't know how "Win one for Ray Tarasi!" will play as a rallying cry in the Nittany Lion locker room, but combined with the '89 block, the '79 stand and the reprise of the goal line stand in 1981, Paterno is due for a memorable ending – something better than fair-catching a pooch kick – that goes his way.
If the Alabama partisans need a little rilin', there's always 1983. But there shouldn't be much need for that.
• Advantage, underdog: On the other hand, Alabama will be short a Heisman Trophy winner on offense and the BCS Championship MVP on defense for the second straight game. San Jose State was a preseason warmup: With Mark Ingram and Marcell Dareus or without, the game was still over a few seconds into the second quarter, at the latest. Against Penn State's veteran offensive line and always-solid defense – coming into the season, the Lions have finished in the top 15 nationally in total D six years running – the Tide could be running into another down-to-the-wire struggle a la Tennessee or Auburn last year.
• Meanwhile, back in reality. True freshman quarterback against a Nick Saban defense: That's all you need to hear. Even if Robert Bolden manages to avoid Garrett Gilbert's five-turnover effort in relief of Colt McCoy in the BCS title game, he'll be doing extremely well for himself to get out of town with his job and confidence intact. This won't necessarily be the case for the rest of the year, but for now, 'Bama shouldn't have to score a whole lot, as usual.