Well, folks, let’s kick off this season as we did last season, with a pseudo-statistical look at the season ahead, using the Sports Illustrated pre-season rankings as a basis. “Poppycock!” you say? Think again! The Great Gobbler is proud to reiterate that last year’s prediction hit the nail right on the head. We said four wins and it was four wins. You can’t beat that with a stick!
Well, now, this year, we have a little different situation, but in no way am I going to get into wishful thinking. Sure, I would like to see the Lions do well. I am as frustrated as the rest of you. However, there’s a long row to hoe on the way back to national prominence.
Let’s look a bit at the SI rankings. Last year, they started Penn State at #50. This year, they’ve put the Nittany Lions at #30. You can dispute the rankings and split hairs ad nauseam, but the SI ranking is good enough for this exercise. I’ll be looking at individual games later. For now, let’s take a look at the rankings of the teams on our schedule.
Sports Illustrated Pre-Season Rankings
South Florida – 83
Cincinnati – 100
Central Michigan – 110
Northwestern – 55
Minnesota – 33
Ohio State – 8
Michigan – 4
Illinois – 69
Purdue – 22
Wisconsin – 40
Michigan State – 39
Average rank of our opponents: 51.2
Opponents ranked higher than PSU: 3
Opponents ranked lower than PSU: 8
So, just off the top, using the Turkey’s simple-minded, birdbrained logic, it would look like an 8-3 season. However, I’m not happy with that projection, because it’s a lot more than a numbers game, and what do they know at Sports Illustrated, anyway? (Couple that with the fact that Phil Grosz of Blue White Illustrated, arguably El Pajaro Grande’s preferred Pollyana predictor to pick on, pontificated to Paterno and his people that 8-3 should be the “minimum acceptable record,” and you have my word that it ain’t gonna be that good!)
While we have 18 returning starters, give or take indoor archery suspensions, this reporter feels that the team still has issues. Confidence is a great big one. As the Turkey stated last year, if the Lions manage to lose one or more of the first three games—which look even more like “gimmes” than last year—the season will go down in flames. The Bulls, the Bearcats, and the Chippewas, all lined up like ducks in a row at a shooting gallery, and ripe for the taking, all home games. The Nittany Lions had better win those games. The Nittany Turkey believes that they will.
That brings us to the first real test: Northwestern. Ranked 55 by Sports Illustrated, the Wildcats have 11 returning starters, one of whom, Tim McGarigle, is a force at linebacker. Despite the disparity in ranking, this away game will not be easy. In fact, with a reasonably good defensive showing against what might still be a creaky Penn State offense at this point in the season, I am going to give this one to the Wildcats.
Minnesota is a home game for the Nittany Lions. Laurence Maroney, the Golden Gophers’ Junior tailback, ran for 1,348 yards last year, with an average of 6.2 yards per carry. The key to this game is shutting him down. I believe that the Penn State defense will have its act together by that time, and I believe that they will be up to the task. Your Thanksgiving bird says that this game will be the Lions’ fourth home win of the season.
At that point, it gets tough. Fortunately, Ohio State is a home game and the Buckeyes will have come off a tough home battle with the SI #12 Iowa Hawkeyes, who fortunately are off the Penn State schedule for this year. The Nittany Lions’ special teams will have to do something to neutralize Ted Ginn, who tore up the Big 10 last year as a Freshman. The Buckeyes have 18 returning starters in all. They finished 20th with an 8-4 record last season. I don’t think that our boys will be up to the task. A tough home loss for the Lions.
The very next week, our lads travel to Michigan. It will be a long flight home. It will have been all over by the third quarter.
The Illinois Fighting Illini’s biggest fight will be to keep their nickname in the face of politically correct silliness by the NCAA Diversity Committee. Let’s see…not only will they want the Illini to change the name of the team, but they’ll need to change the name of the state the team lives in, and the name of the university as well. And, no more “Fighting” anything. Fighting is not good for the children’s self-image. Hell, I think that the Illini should keep their name and their mascot. After all, there’s no possibility of them being included in a post-season tournament, anyway, so there’s nothing for the Almighty Politically Correct NCAA to hold over their heads. Of course, all bets are off when basketball season rolls around. But I digress. All of this is leading up to the first victory on the road for Penn State and the second conference win, to bring their record to 5-3, 2-3.
Purdue has managed to garner a lot of respect of late, and this Turkey thinks that the Boilermakers might be even better than their SI #22 ranking. While they wound up 7-5 last year, they have 20 returning starters, including senior quarterback Brandon Kirsch. I am choosing this Homecoming game as the Official Nittany Turkey Turning Point of the Season. (Of course if the Nitty Kitties lose any of the first three games, the season will have ended early—but let’s hope and pray that that doesn’t happen!) If the Lions can manage to shut down Purdue, they will win out from this point. Common sense says so. However, if Purdue wins, the Lions will have trouble handling Wisconsin at Beaver Stadium the following week, with Barry Alvarez doing his swan song. (In case you hadn’t heard, Barry is leaving the sidelines after this year, but will remain as the Badgers’ Director of Athletics.) Then, a two week rest before Michigan State in snowy East Lansing should guarantee a win either way. (But beware! This perenially lopsided contest has upset potential every year!)
So, what’s the turkey saying? Gobbling out of both sides of his beak, as usual. I’ll summarize what I said above. If PSU loses one or more of the first three games, count on a repeat of last year: 4-7, 1-7. If, however, they can handle the powder puffs and manage to beat Purdue at Beaver Stadium, they can get to 8-3, 5-3, a non-primo bowl, and egg on the Turkey’s face because Grosz was right and I was wrong. (Ain’t gonna happen!) If they win the first three but cannot overcome Purdue, I’m saying they go 6-5, 3-5. OK, the waffling, gobbling Turkey is now going to issue his official projection. You guessed it–somewhere in-between. I’ll rule out the gory possibility of another 4-7 season and split the difference between 8-3 and 6-5. Fanfare, please! The official Nittany Turkey prediction is 7-4, 4-4, and a minor bowl. How’s that?
From deep in The Turkey’s gizzard comes a feeling that we will not be looking at a disgusting season like the last two, although we certainly would be foolish to expect a return to the glory days. The competition is too fierce in the Big Ten for that. (What glory days? 1994? PSU has only managed to run the table once in 13 years in the Big Ten.) There’ll be no “worst to first” fairy tale ending this year. The leap from seven wins in the past two years to seven wins in a single year is big enough. Along with a 7-4 finish will come post-season play, a Top 25 ranking, and renewed respectability. Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer and ESPN says, “A return to respectability ain’t a return to the Promised Land!” However, for this Turkey, a return to mere respectability this season will be satisfying enough for now!