It wasn't supposed to be that easy for Penn State. Come to think of it, nothing this year was supposed to be that easy.
In a statement game last Saturday night, Penn State didn't just go into Iowa City and beat the Hawkeyes. No, the Nittany Lions dominated Iowa in a 38-14 rout that extended their winning streak to five games. Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) scored twice in the first quarter and led 24-0 at halftime. Iowa scored twice late, but the game was never close.
While Penn State has been winning football games, the detractors have responded by insisting that the Big Ten is down this year. According to the anti-Nittany Lion crowd, any opponent they beat is having a bad year. You see, Penn State isn't getting much respect these days. That's a shame.
If you're looking for proof of the lack of respect, a good place to start is with the polls. Because they're on probation and ineligible for the postseason, the Nittany Lions are not ranked in the USA Today Coaches Poll. The same goes for the Bowl Championship Series Rankings. But Penn State is eligible for the AP Top 25 Poll, and that's where I take issue.
In this week's AP poll, Penn State received 18 votes. They're close to getting in, and certainly a win this weekend over Ohio State would get them there, but Penn State should be ranked in the top 25 right now. As for who they should replace, well, that's where it gets tricky. I'm not suggesting the Nittany Lions should occupy one of the top spots, so I'll focus, at least for now, on the bottom 10. Louisville, South Carolina, Rutgers, Stanford, Michigan, Boise State, Texas A&M, Ohio, Louisiana Tech, and West Virginia occupy the No. 16 to No. 25 spots respectively. You're telling me Penn State isn't better than some of those teams? Penn State couldn't beat Louisville, Rutgers, Boise State, Stanford, or Louisiana Tech? I'm not saying it would be easy, but they would be competitive against all those teams. I know they lost to Ohio in week one, but if the Nittany Lions and the Bobcats were to play today, Penn State would win. And if they were to play again after that, Penn State would win again. With all due respect to Michigan, the Wolverines beat Michigan State by two last weekend. Michigan State lost to Iowa the week before. Penn State blew out Iowa on Saturday.
This weekend, Penn State will play its biggest game of the year when the Ohio State Buckeyes (ranked No. 9 in the USA Today poll) come to Happy Valley. In front of a national audience in prime time, Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten) and Penn State will battle for first place in the Big Ten Leaders Division. Ironically, neither team is eligible for the postseason, meaning there will be no Big Ten title for either team, despite the fact that they just might be the two best teams in the conference.
Given the magnitude of this game, you would think that there would be more attention paid to it. Yet, all the talk this week is about Florida-Georgia, Notre Dame-Oklahoma, Texas Tech-Kansas State, and Mississippi State-Alabama. Without a doubt, those are all great games involving matchups of high-ranked teams. But Penn State-Ohio State, with one team ranked in the top 10 and another one that's making its move, I'm sorry, but there's no excuse for this game to be flying under the radar like it is.
This isn't about what happened in the past. This isn't about Graham Spanier or Tim Curley or Joe Paterno, who all got it pretty bad in the Freeh Report. I get why the public sentiment has shifted against Penn State. What I don't get is why this current team is being labeled the scapegoat.
What this should really be about is the 2012 Penn State Nittany Lions and how they're writing the feel-good story of the college football season. If they beat Ohio State on Saturday, you won't be able to ignore Penn State any longer.
Charles Costello is a lifelong fan of the Penn State Nittany Lions.