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The Hunt For Blue October

In this day and age the trend for most conferences is to backload the schedule of their better teams putting off their better games until late in the season. The thinking goes like this: let your powerhouse teams rack up impressive 8-0 or 8-1 records and then let them go at it. Any team with eight wins late in October is most likely ranked and attractive to television. Pit two highly ranked teams against one another and you get a lot of attention. Lots of attention means national television appearances which is good for the conference as well as the two programs involved. But this year the Nittany Lions should coast through their three games in November if all goes well. As Frank Bodani points out, our real test will be the month of October.

Then comes the most memorable October on record.

The Lions play back-to-back road games against Purdue and Wisconsin, which are backed up against homecoming vs. Michigan and a trip to Columbus, Ohio.

What a stretch.

By the time the bye week hits on Nov. 1, the Lions will be either in the national title hunt or will be regrouping once again.

I see a lot of Nittany Lion fans already putting on the blue tinted glasses. They are scoffing at the preseason polls that rank us in the 20's if at all. They hold up other polls as gospel when they predict us in the Top 10. People, have we learned nothing over the past two years?

Count me as cautiously optimistic about this season. I think we'll have a good team. And why shouldn't I? We return nine starters on offense and eight on defense. But you have to admit their are some questions about this team. And if we've learned anything in the past two years, it's that these questions don't always magically work themselves out.

We're going to be starting a new quarterback this year. While it's tempting to say nothing could be worse than what we had the last two years, that doesn't necessarily mean we'll get something great. Many people are convinced Daryll Clark is the next Michael Robinson after he rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown in the Alamo Bowl. But oddly the coaches didn't even let him attempt a pass in that game. And honestly can anyone remember him completing a pass? The stats say he has, but he hasn't had any meaningful playing time his entire career other than the 2006 Michigan game. He looked completely terrified of the Michigan defense in that game. Perhaps rightfully so as he was the second quarterback of the evening to be carried off the field blowing snot bubbles.

But as far as the offense as a whole I'm not too worried. We sport a veteran offensive line and two great running backs. That alone is enough to score a lot of points. The new quarterback, whether it be Clark or Devlin or even Cianciolo, will just be asked to keep it simple and don't make mistakes. And he'll even have a veteran corp of wide receivers to work with. The offense will be fine. It's the defense I'm worried about.

The defensive line is killer. Evans, Odrick, Koroma, and Gaines all have NFL potential. If the worst case scenario happens and Joe Paterno runs them over in a fit of road rage, we'll simply throw Lattimore, Baker, Taylor, and Maybin out there. If those guys decide to go "party walking" and stomp some guy in front of 50 witnesses on College Avenue we'll just go with Hayes, McEowen, Okoli, and Still and you know what? That wouldn't even bother me one bit. The defensive line will not be a problem with this defense. The linebackers and defensive backs? Meh...

The loss of Sean Lee is huge. Yeah we've recruited well in recent years, but Lee was the heart and soul of this defense. And now he's gone leaving a huge leadership void. I think our linebackers will be ok, but I would feel a lot better if our opening day lineup was Lee, Colasanti, and Bowman rather than Hull, Gbadyu, and Sales as it appears at this point.

In the secondary we obviously lose Justin King, which may or may not be a bad thing considering the way he got torched like a marshmallow at girlscout camp in the second half of the season. A.J. Wallace looks like he has the physical tools to be a good corner, but whether he has the discipline to stay under control remains to be seen. Also, I'm not convinced Mark Rubin is a great choice for safety. I think he'll be great in run support, but with our defensive line and linebackers I'm not sure we need him there. We need a great cover guy that can lock down the tight end or third wide receiver. I'm not sure he has the speed to do that.

And we can't completely ignore the schedule. It's damn tough. The out of conference schedule should be challenging, but manageable. Illinois is a team that always plays us tough. Zook always has a surprise for us. In 2006 he broke out the option for the first time against us. In 2007 he brought in backup quarterback Eddie McGee in the second half, and he promptly broke off a 60 yard run on us. Count that game as one that scares me.

The night game at Wisconsin is a bit frightening, but I have a good feeling about that game. Their power running game plays into our strength on defense. And we pretty well demoralized them at home last year. One or two lucky bounces in 2006 we would have beat them despite our horrible quarterback and offensive line play. I think we'll get that one.

Michigan has more questions than answers, so that's a game we should win at home. Count Ohio State as a loss. So it would sound like I'm talking myself into an 11-1 or 10-2 season. But there is always the Paterno factor. Joe is notorious for puckering up on the road and playing conservative. I have to think there will be one or two games we come out flat and grossly underachieve. Games at Purdue and at Iowa look like prime targets. Couple the fact that Indiana went to a bowl game last year and Dantonio is bringing Michigan State around and I think it's highly possible we drop two of those games.

I'm not prepared to make an official prediction until I study all of these teams in more depth. (I have to go out and get my copy of Phil Steele this week.) All I'm saying is let's not make asses out of ourselves like recent years. We have the potential to go 12-1, but it's also likely we could end up 9-4 for the third year in a row.