Smith’s Slant: Everything Counts A Little More Than We Think

Story posted September 9, 2011 in Sports, CommRadio by Dan Smith

We put too much emphasis on the beginning of a sports season, about how these games are supposed to set a tone for the season. Many teams need a few games to put it all together: the coaches figure out the best lineups, the players start to gel, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. It is a story we see play out year after year, and many fan bases in many leagues have fallen in love with these late blooming teams.

NCAA football does not allow for these teams to succeed. With just 12 games in the regular season, few teams can afford to falter even once during a season. Of the many flaws with the Bowl Championship Series, this one stands out.

Down the road, when we stand in judgment of the 2011 Penn State Nittany Lions, this Alabama game will weigh heavily on our perception. Is it fair? Probably not, but our hand has been forced.

It’s never comfortable to say a team needs to win a game this early in the season. The word feels reserved for the final week of the season, when two teams are competing for a division title in Major League Baseball, or for the last Wild Card spot in the NFL Playoffs.

But in college football, an early season loss is a ban from that season’s BCS bowls. It’s a knife to the thread that Penn State hangs from to stay in the Top 25. And it sets a tone that Penn State will be playing from behind the rest of the season, with a number of Big Ten teams poised to enter conference play undefeated and heavily favored against the Nittany Lions.

Penn State needs to win this game.

That’s not to say that Penn State will not win; Penn State can win this game. They are a long shot, but they have some pieces. With a much improved defense and a dangerous running back in Silas Redd, Penn State will have a chance in every game this season.

But it will be a very tough matchup for the Nittany Lions. The Crimson Tide boast one of the best running games in the country with Trent Richardson at tailback and a talented offensive line. Richardson will cover up a lot of the growing pains of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.

Redd is also an impressive runner, and the Lions hope he too can mask the growing pains of their quarterback, Rob Bolden. The big issue with this line of thought is the offensive line. Penn State’s line play was inconsistent against Indiana State, and cannot afford to stumble out of the gate against a powerhouse like Alabama.

Some are comparing the situation on Saturday to the situation Penn State found themselves in against Louisiana State in the 2010 Capital One Bowl because of the playing conditions on the field. A muddy field in Orlando neutralized the patented “SEC speed” of LSU and Penn State prevailed in a sloppy game, 19-17.

Conditions could be similar on Saturday, after record rains in Happy Valley this week. If the conditions slow the game down, it is definitely an advantage for Penn State.

Ultimately though, this game will not be about the weather. It will not even be about Alabama; they are a proven commodity in college football, a certainty. They are the standard bearer here.

This game will be about how good Penn State is. Has a year of experience made the difference for the team that was too young to compete last year? Can one quarterback step up and lead this team to a successful, memorable season?

This is the weekend many have been waiting for, so the reaction to it will be strong. The stories will flood from Beaver Stadium, announcing a team that has made the leap back to the top tier, or a team that will once again tread water throughout the Big Ten season.

Many fans will make up their minds on this Penn State team on Saturday, whether that is fair or not. But in a sport where the polls rule and perception is reality, fairness doesn’t matter at all.

Dan Smith is a junior majoring in Broadcast Journalism and is ComRadio’s Executive Editor. To contact him, email des5249@psu.edu.