There have been a lot of coaches who have taken heat from their fans over the years. Nobody has taken more criticism for a longer period of time than Paterno. The criticism has been mainly on point. The idea of Penn St. winning a National Championship is probably #3 on the list of improbable things in sports behind future employment for Matt Millen and Adam “Pacman” Jones ever shedding his nickname. The Penn St. offense has been horrific for the better part of a decade. The talent in Happy Valley has been at an all-time low. From 1966-1997, Penn St. won 298 games with a 79% winning percentage. Only Nebraska was better over that span. From 1998-2007, Penn St. won only 60% of its games which was only good for 35th among I-A teams. The last ten years haven’t been a total failure in Happy Valley but they’ve come pretty close. Paterno had the first back to back losing seasons of his Penn St. career and he did it twice. Through 1999, Paterno had one losing season in 34 years. From 2000-2004, he had four. Paterno had never won fewer than five games in a season until 2003 and 2004 when he won three and four games respectively. Penn St. did go 11-1 in 2006 but I doubt fans felt that was a fair tradeoff for four losing seasons.
Not surprisingly, fans became disenchanted over the years because of the on-field results, or lack there of. To make matters worse, before the season even started ESPN ran a feature on the Penn St. football program and the inordinate number of players who had gotten into trouble with the law. Two months ago, there was a dark cloud headed directly for Happy Valley, or so it seemed. Then out of nowhere came the Spread HD. The guy who doesn’t even know how to send a text message has brought us the most technologically savvy nickname in sports history. I have no idea where this resurgence came from. Penn St’s average recruiting ranking by Rivals over the last five years is 22nd. Penn St.’s average final ranking over the last five years is “not applicable” or, out of the top 25. That should hardly forecast a National Championship. Apparently, though, it does. Penn St. is the only team in the country in the top ten in both total offense and total defense. The Nittany Lions haven’t won by fewer than 14 points yet this season. With the Big Ten at its weakest in recent memory, Penn St. is clearly the class of the conference and has proven it by beating Illinois rather handily and crushing Wisconsin by 41 points in Camp Randall. Penn St. is for real.
October 25 will be the biggest day the Penn St. program has seen since 1986. Penn St. travels to Columbus in what will surely be PSU’s first and final major obstacle to the National Championship game. Penn St. will be favored and—considering Ohio St’s recent troubles on offense—looks to be the better team. The season finale at Michigan St. won’t be easy but if you’ve seen Brian Hoyer play, you know why Penn St. shouldn’t be worried. Ironically, if Michigan St. beats Ohio St. this weekend, then the Penn St./Michigan St. season finale could be an accidental Big Ten Championship Game.
There are two teams ahead of Penn St. in the major polls. However, there is virtually no chance that Alabama (@ LSU, Auburn, and likely Florida) and Texas (Missouri, Oklahoma St., @ Texas Tech, @ Kansas, and likely Missouri again) will both finish the season undefeated. Alabama has the best shot and that’s probably no better than a 25-33% chance. That means that if Penn St. wins out, then it will play in the National Championship game. No matter how many times I type that or run it through my head, I cannot believe it. Other than this Saturday for obvious reasons, I will be rooting for Penn St. the rest of the way. There are too many ridiculously amazing storylines to root against it not to mention it would halt having to deal with the incredibly nauseating experience of having Ohio St. come out of the Big Ten yet again. Of course, getting to the National Championship game is only half of the equation. Ohio St. certainly knows that but JoePa knows it better than anyone. Paterno has four undefeated seasons that didn’t result in National Championships four times. At least this year, he might get a chance to win it on the field. The old man who became a running joke amongst college football fans might actually have the last laugh and I expect that laugh to last for a long, long time. Crazy.