It’s that time again, Nittany Lion fans! With the season opener looming in a little more than two weeks, this Turkey will look ahead at the forthcoming season.
As usual, I’ll look at the Sports Illustrated pre-season rankings as a sanity check and starting point. I can pull rankings out of my ass just as easily as SI can, but since they’ve already done so, it will save me the trouble. Besides, it is much easier and much more fun to impugn and ridicule someone else’s rankings.
Pre-season rankings are ultimately as good as the paper they’re written on, usually totally collapsing by Week 3, but still, some useful information can be gleaned from them. Two years ago, the Sports Illustrated/Nittany Turkey collaboration hit the Lions’ record right on the head. Last year, we screwed up. Sports Illustrated had Penn State ranked #30, and the Official Nittany Turkey projection was for a 7–4 record and a Top 20 finish. You know how it wound up. A veritable fairy tale season: 11–1, an Orange Bowl win, and a #3 final ranking.
This year—well we’ll get to that soon enough. First, let me say that Sports Illustrated has picked Ohio State to be (still somewhat mythical) national champion. They, as the USA Today coaches, seem to be enthralled with the Troy Smith/Ted Ginn, Jr. combination, even if the Buckeye defense, having lost all three starting linebackers, is largely untried. Still, Ohio State is a damn good team, deserving of a lot of respect. Alas, Sports Illustrated has given them the infamous Kiss of Death, so they won’t be #1 this year.
This Turkey thinks that anyone in the top ten, and quite a few outside of the top ten could compete for the SSMNC. It’s that wide open this year. Thus, I won’t be picking a national champion. Instead, I’ll focus on Penn State.
Folks, you know that we lost our defensive secondary to graduation (or whatever they call it when kids leave college for the NFL these days). Though most of you would have gladly let Michael Robinson take a hike before last season started—c’mon, admit it!—he turned out to be perhaps the greatest individual contributor to last season’s success. Now he’s gone. Our offensive line, such as it was, was also decimated, although Levi Brown is All-America material. Yet, we have good, solid linebackers, including all-everything Paul Posluszny, and we have some speedy receivers for the rifle-armed Anthony Morelli. Derrick Williams is a spectacular player, and this Turkey believes that he’s still only showing us a fraction of what he’s got.
With only 11 returning PSU starters, I think Sports Illustrated’s starting rank of #19 is fair. Given that Notre Dame on the schedule the second week of the season it won’t take long to see if this team is up to the task. Sports Illustrated predicts a #3 finish in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State and Michigan, with a 9–3 record.
Let’s look at the schedule and the SI rankings of all our opponents. (Home games are all caps.)
AKRON – 56
Notre Dame – 2
YOUNGSTOWN STATE – (I-AA)
Ohio State – 1
NORTHWESTERN – 57
Minnesota – 62
MICHIGAN – 10
ILLINOIS – 89
Purdue – 42
Wisconsin – 35
TEMPLE – 119
MICHIGAN STATE – 33
Based on those rankings this is a pretty bifurcated schedule. Just off the top, one can see three losses, seven wins, and two maybes (Michigan State and Wisconsin). Youngstown State, by the way, has been placed in the top ten of a couple of pre-season Division I-AA polls. I’ll assign them an arbitrary rank of 50 to arrive at the first Meaningless Nittany Turkey Statistic, the average rank of opponent. For 2006, this number is 46.33. Last year, it was 51.2.
Looking at the season, these young guys will learn that they have to bring their game to the field when they face Akron on September 2. It’ll give us heartburn, like last year’s South Florida game, until the realize that they actually have to play this game. They’ll beat the Zips, but there’ll be some shaky moments, with the inexperienced lads looking forward to the following week’s big matchup in South Bend.
Notre Dame has 16 returning starters, and they have one of the most savvy quarterbacks in their history, which includes guys like Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, and—oh yeah—Terry Hanratty, but I digress. Brady Quinn is a legitimate Heisman candidate. The Irish defense, however, is not exactly world class. Ohio State rang up 620 yards against it in January’s Fiesta Bowl. If PSU can exploit that weakness… Well, we still can’t win. Not even if the McCabe sisters were substituted for the starting secondary would we have a chance of winning. Those of you who are going to South Bend, take along an extra six-pack of Old Bushmill’s. The game will be worse than your hangover.
Let us hope that the boys can rebound from that loss with a win over Youngstown State, back at the Big Beave. A young, psychologically fragile team could potentially hang its collective head and lose to an up-and-comer like the Penguins, especially with the Buckeyes looming in a week. I think Posluszny and Brown won’t let that happen. Count this one as a W.
Ahh, the Buckeyes. With yet another potentially exploitable defense, Ohio State will be a rough one. Although the Bucks are returning even fewer starters than the Nittany Lions, they have a strong program and last years’ backups are seasoned and ready to step into starters’ roles. And they have Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr. That’ll be too much for the Lions’ unseasoned defense. The Buckeyes, who will be pissed off after losing to Texas again this year, will avenge last year’s Paternoville White Out defeat by thrashing the Lions in the Horseshoe. High Street will be humming, and we all know that Buckeyes give good hummers.
Returning to Beaver Stadium, the Lions, no matter what their mental state, will beat Northwestern and then travel to Minnesota‘s frozen north to ferret out the Gophers, who will find their emergency exits blocked with nowhere to hide.
And then, we host Michigan in this year’s major grudge match. Guys like Barry Walters are still grousing about the two seconds the referee put on the clock last season, in our last second 27-25 loss to Michigan in the Big House. This year, we’re playing in OUR DAMN BIG HOUSE. Michigan can kiss my ass and they can shove their #10 SI ranking up theirs. Even their 18 returning starters won’t help their asses as Morelli proves that Henne would have been a mistake for Penn State, even if he can spell better than Morelli. I initially wrote this game off as a loss, but I changed my mind. It’s too emotional, it’s one we all can get pumped up for, and it’s at home. Besides, I’m going to be there. Thus, the Nittany Lions cannot lose! After Ohio State, Iowa—not Michigan—is the team to beat in the Big Ten this year. In this Turkey’s opinion, it is fortunate that the Hawkeyes are not on our schedule.
A laugher for homecoming comes next. Illinois goes down in flames, as usual, even if the boys are still euphoric from their big win over Michigan.
Purdue is another one for the win column, but I’m feeling a little shaky about this one.
After dispatching the Boilermakers, we’ll go to Camp Randall and I think this will be a tougher game than meets the eye as Wisconsin battles our Nittany Lions for the first time in the post-Barry Alvarez era. This one is tough enough, in fact, that I’m going to give it to the Badgers, which will make the Big Ten pennant race very interesting late in the season.
Now, who of you thought we would ever be playing Temple again? Not this Turkey. Yet, here we are. With due respect to noted Temple alumnus Dr. Bill Cosby, the Owls are the perennial laughing stock of Division I-A. Hell, they sucked even back in Cosby’s day. Those of you who are old enough to have heard his early stand-up routines in which he recounted his experience playing halfback for Temple against the far superior opposition of Hofstra will remember him disparaging his hapless team. Ahhh, those were the days—I used to listen to that Cosby comedy album, entitled “Why Is There Air?”, way the hell back in the 1960s when I was attending Penn State, but I digress. The prospect of this game is so boring that I’m driven to distraction. I remember the last Temple game at Franklin Field—the only TV available was a raw feed on my satellite, without any commentators or anything. The cameras were picking out hot babes in the bleachers—or not so hot babes, maybe—any port in a storm when the live attendance is 623. I wonder if that sorrowful experience will be repeated this year. I guess side bets are the only way to maintain interest in this game. Will the PSU third team enter the game in the first or second quarter? Will Levi Brown pancake three Temple pass rushers at once? How many yards in excess of 700 will PSU ring up? Will Morelli remember the playbook? No way to lose this one unless the entire team is kidnaped and the cheerleaders decide not to play in their stead.
And then, we wrap up at home with Moo U. The Michigan State game is rarely close, frequently unpredictable, and usually pretty wild. This year should be no exception. The mighty Land Grant Trophy is at stake, so anything goes. The weather can be a factor, too, as this so-called rivalry game is always played in late November. However, we gots da home field advantage this year. We’ve dominated the series. Game, set, match to the Nittany Lions.
And so, by virtue of the Turkey’s best case Pollyannaesque prescience, we will wind up the season with a 9–3 record and that should be good enough for a Capital One or Outback Bowl bid. Yeah, but there’s a lot of wishful thinking in those projections above. Everything will have to fall into line early in the season. I’m talking myself out of the 9–3, even as I write this.
After all that gobbling, I’m going to give you an alternate scenario that I think is plausible. Waffling, as you know, is the Turkey’s specialty—it’s a prime component of bullshit. The boys are young. They might not have what it takes to beat Michigan and Michigan State. Purdue could be this year’s Northwestern, being played in front of a hostile crowd in West Lafayette. So, my worst case fallback hedge projection will be 6–6 and a Toilet Bowl bid.
What’s more likely is 7–5 or 8–4. How’s that for the consummate, split-the-difference, strawberry Belgian waffle?
Hey, I am still a bit more optimistic than the analyst (I forget which one) who said, “Penn State gets to six wins pretty easily. Any more than that and Paterno is Coach of the Year again.”
I think that a big thing this year will be the young team’s quick maturation, which will give them the ability to bounce back from losses—and there WILL be losses. This is not a BCS season, but it can be a respectable one. This Turkey thinks that no matter how the rest of the season goes, a win over Michigan will be the high point. If the Lions can beat Notre Dame or Ohio State—nahhhhh, now I’m getting carried away. At the moment, I’m just hoping that we’ll be ready for Akron.
Anyone else want to go out on a limb with some projections?