Here's the thing about Penn State football and the Big Ten: We've never really been a good match.
I mean, I can certainly understand why this marriage came to pass. It just seemed so perfect. So sensible. So easy. Take a massive state university with a big-time football program and far-reaching fan-base and drop it into a conference of similarly massive state universities (plus Northwestern) that (at the time, at least) were competing at the highest level of college football, thereby creating the first iteration of the college football superconference. It sounded great. Looked great, too, especially in terms of dollars and sense and television contracts and all the rest. And so, of course, it came to pass. For better or worse.
The addition of Penn State to the Big Ten, as we know now, was seismic; it continues to shake the college football world today. Though it would take years before the rest of the dominoes would fall (if, indeed, they are done falling), that one move—the Nittany Lions moving from carefree independence to the historic, monolithic, stately old Big Ten—was ultimately the singular event that gave us the college football world we have now, a world in which any school from any locale can play in any conference, so long as it all checks out on the balance sheet.
And, yes, it should be said here that, judging by that metric alone, the move has been a good one for Penn State. Playing in this league has given the Nittany Lions a grander stage to play on, offered them vastly improved bowl prospects, placed them on television, guaranteed, every single week (mind you, there was a time when this was not the case) and, yes, made them a whole bunch of money. From every one of those angles, joining the Big Ten has been absolutely fantastic for Penn State. I freely admit this.
There is just this one little problem.
We don't fit in. Never have.
Except, that is, on the one weekend a year when we do fit in. That weekend is now upon us.
And here’s the good news: Even though we've been to hell and (halfway) back over the past year, it’s a weekend that still matters. Maybe more than ever before.
The weekend of which I speak, of course, is Ohio State week—the weekend that sees the football Nittany Lions take on the one school (with the possible exception of Michigan State) in this completely non-Penn State-ish league that actually kinda-sorta feels like Penn State. And what a glorious weekend it has turned out to be.
Talk to anybody who has played for Penn State over the past 15 years or so and I'm quite certain they'll tell you the same thing: The game that matters the most these days in Happy Valley is the Ohio State game. Whatever Pitt was back in the 70s and 80s, or whatever Syracuse was back in the 60s, well, that's what Ohio State is today; indeed, it could be all of that and more.
The "O-State" game, as I've heard players call it, stands out above the rest—as the highlight of the season, as the one game that actually feels like a real rivalry, as the one event that makes Penn Staters feel, if only for a three hours or so, that they actually belong in this league, that we’re supposed to be in this league, that this league has something to offer us beyond a nice big paycheck from Chicago.
It's not difficult to see why. Fact is, Ohio State and Penn State have an awful lot in common. Which, of course, is precisely why they seem to hate each other so much, why this game now carries so much weight, why Penn State has become (even though the Buckeye fans may deny it) the second-most important date on the Ohio State calendar. These two schools, these two mammoth football powers, were meant to be rivals, because they are cross-border mirror images of each other.
Both are massive state universities that have been playing football for almost as long as football has existed. Both count themselves among the Top 10 winningest programs of all time (at least, according to reality, as opposed to NCAA record-keeping). Both play in mammoth stadiums that hold in excess of 100,000 fans, thereby providing further proof that college football, forever and always, has been and will remain far superior to the NFL. Both boast some of the finest uniforms that football has ever seen. Both have won national championships, Big Ten championships and Heisman trophies. Both have won Butkus Awards, and both have claimed over the years to be rightful heirs of the Linebacker U. moniker. Both have been coached by legends, both have celebrated those legends, and both have seen those legends leave under, well, less than ideal circumstances. Both fan bases hold their schools near and dear to their heart—consider their schools to be part of their identity, really—and always will, and if you don't like that, well, that's just too bad, because you don’t get it and never will.
Finally, and most importantly, there is this: Both still play some pretty damn good football, even though both find themselves slogging through some rather unpleasant times.
Among the most remarkable aspects of this particular iteration of the Ohio State-Penn State game is the fact that this particular iteration of the Ohio State-Penn State game actually matters. Like, it matters nationwide.
I mean, I want you to think about that for a moment, folks. Because it really is truly, truly remarkable.
Despite the fact that Ohio State cannot play for anything of note this season, and despite the fact that Penn State cannot play for anything of note either this season or next season or the two seasons after that, Urban Meyer and Bill O'Brien have somehow managed to make this game into a real event—possibly the biggest event of the Big Ten football year. In a season where just about everyone in the conference has proven themselves to be somewhere between stunningly average and deeply disappointing, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions stand out (thankfully) for being unique, and interesting, and best of all, not the least bit boring. They can’t say that up in Madison or over in Iowa City, I assure you.
In Columbus, we have witnessed the dawn of the Urban Meyer era, an era that we can only assume, given the early results and Other Issues Of Note within the conference, will ultimately result in multiple Big Ten championships, one or two national title runs and—maybe, just maybe—a day in which the Big Ten will field at least one team that can actually compete with the SEC. Yes, this is the promise of Urban Meyer: The promise not just of a better Ohio State, but a better Big Ten. As a Penn State fan you can pretend to dislike him, and heck, maybe you actually do dislike him (there are plenty who dislike the man down South, I can assure you), but one thing that you can't deny is that Meyer can flat-out coach. With the obvious exception of Nick Saban, there simply isn't a better coach in the nation today, and indeed, the Buckeyes' 8-0 mark so far this year is mostly a testament to Meyer's influence; after all, this is probably the least talented Buckeye team we've seen in years, especially on defense. But they don't give up, and they refuse to lose, and they make the plays they need to make, because that's what their coach demands. It's just damn impressive stuff.
And then there's Bill O'Brien, a man who was greeted in State College, if we are being completely honest, with a blasé emotional cocktail of skepticism, and disappointment, and sad resignation. There may have been a couple Penn Staters who actually believed this guy was the right guy to take over the program, but for the most part, folks pretty much came to the conclusion that the only reason O'Brien got the job was because athletic director Dave Joyner had struck out while in pursuit of, oh, his first 47 or so candidates. No, Bill O'Brien was not what we expected. Not after years of telling ourselves and everyone who would listen that when Joe retired, Penn State was going to hire a superstar—one of the biggest and best names in the business. Not after weeks and months of ridiculous rumors about Jon Gruden and Mike Munchak and Mark Richt and so many others. Not after we convinced ourselves that Penn State was still a coaching dream job, even as reality dictated that it was going to be One Of The Toughest Coaching Jobs Ever.
But that just goes to show you what we knew. Because here we are, eight weeks into O'Brien's first season ever as a head coach at any level of football, and what we have learned? Well, we have learned plenty.
We have learned that O’Brien can take one of the most maddeningly inconsistent and physically limited quarterbacks in the country and turn him into The Best Passer In The Big Ten. We have learned that he can take a collection of castoffs and backups and untested newbies and cobble together an offensive system that is not only highly effective, but also downright entertaining to watch, which, it should be said, is a quite a refreshing change. We have learned that he doesn't like the Twitter, or birthdays, or the beach, or theme parks, presumably because he prefers to spend his time drawing up cool new offensive sets featuring multiple tight ends and/or turning average players into very good ones. We have learned that he's not afraid of a challenge, that he has real perspective on what real hardship is, that he doesn't think or care about things he can't control and that he's not interested in talking about what Penn State doesn't have at the moment because he's much more interested in what it does have.
Mostly, though, we've learned that Penn State football is in good hands, and that we’re lucky to have him.
This season could have been a disaster. And after two weeks, that's precisely what it looked like it would be.
But now, five games after that horror show in Charlottesville, we find ourselves living in a somewhat bizarro world in which many commentators are calling Penn State the best team in the Big Ten (that is, if the best team isn't Ohio State) and an equally bizarro world in which Bill O'Brien, who opened his career by putting a linebacker deep to return kickoffs, is the leading candidate for Big Ten coach of the year (that is, if the Big Ten coach of the year isn't Urban Meyer).
Yes, it is Week 9 of the 2012 college football season, and the two most irrelevant programs in the Big Ten find themselves in smack in the middle of the spotlight, playing in a game that will light up Happy Valley with the kind of electricity that we've seen so many times before in this beautiful and brutal series: in 1995, and 1997, and 2001, and 2005.
Despite all of the nonsense and off-the-field insanity, despite the NCAA penalties and the ongoing struggle with scandal, these two coaches and these two teams have battled and fought their way right back to college football center's stage.
And now we get to see them go to war.
Yes, this latest chapter in this New And Important College Football Rivalry is a strange chapter indeed. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are certainly not what any of us would have preferred or expected. In truth, not too long ago, these circumstances are probably not what any of us could have possibly imagined.
I mean, it wasn’t all that long ago when everything, both in Columbus and Happy Valley, seemed so darn ... stable. At Ohio State, Jim Tressel was winning games and setting records and dominating the Big Ten like no coach in memory; he was untouchable. At Penn State, well, Joe Paterno was Joe Paterno, being Joe Paterno; he was untouchable, too. Perhaps even more so.
Then, of course, everything got blown to pieces. Ohio State endured their own kind of hell, which seemed a pretty awful hell indeed, until Penn State plunged several stories deeper into that abyss, and so by the time this season kicked off, there was this sense that both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions were playing nothing more than glorified exhibitions—games that mattered but hardly mattered at all. It took me weeks to finally feel normal about this season, and I'm guessing there are a lot of Nittany Lions fans (and Buckeye fans) that felt the same way, too.
But all of that seems so long ago now, so distant in the past, because here we stand on the cusp of Ohio State-Penn State, the Much-Messed Up 2012 Edition, and I have to say, I can't remember the last time I was this excited for a game of college football. Against all odds, this one has the feel of all of the biggest games I've ever seen in my Penn State football life—right up there with Penn State-Ohio State in 1997, still the greatest game I’ve seen seen, and right up there, too, with Penn State-Ohio State in 2005, one of the most important games Penn State has ever played, even if the record books state it wasn’t played at all.
The fact that this game suddenly matters so much in strictly football terms, that it's generated so much buzz, that it's made both fan bases forget All The Crap, well, that's a testament to Meyer, and to O'Brien, and to the players on both teams, the ones wearing blue and white most especially.
They could have caved. They could have run. They could have gone through the motions. They could have given up.
But none of these guys have, and on Saturday night, we all stand to benefit.
Yes, Ohio State-Penn State is upon us again.
And despite the fact that it doesn't really matter, I tell you this: It matters more than it ever has before.