Friday, August 7, 2009

Twelve Games: Two Big Questions

In my former blog, I used to preview the upcoming season by analyzing the schedule, from what I perceived as the easiest game to win through all the games in order to the game I think we will have the most trouble winning. I still plan to do that countdown, but I want to look at the upcoming season from the big picture first.

If you are looking for in-depth analysis, recruiting stars, 40 times and player weights, then you have come to the wrong site. Granted, I dabble with computer rankings and analyze data sets between teams and conferences, but we all know that in the game of football, there are elements that cannot be described by mere numbers. For every probability of winning, there is also a probability of losing, and since the advent of tie breakers in college football, one of those two outcomes will surely occur, unless the game is delayed for some reason.

In other words, there are teams that have a high probability of winning the national championship (USC, Florida, Texas, etc), and teams that have a very low probability (Temple, Kent State, Buffalo, etc.) Everyone else falls somewhere in between. The actual outcome of any given game depends not on the relative probability, but on a myriad of uncontrolled factors (injuries, illness, mental focus, luck, officiating, etc.)

For instance, while Florida may have had a high probability of winning the BCS last year, who could have predicted they would lose to Mississippi? Likewise for USC losing to Oregon State. Or even Penn State’s loss to Iowa.

As such, Penn State’s season might not come down to a simple matter of a good offensive line, some receivers stepping up, or how well the secondary can be rebuilt. I think this is true this particular year more than most, because the schedule is so favorable for an undefeated season on paper. We’ll look at that later in closer detail.

I think the success of this season depends on what you define as success, and there are two key questions, that will determine that success.

But before we ask those questions, perhaps we should ask an equally obvious one: what will be a successful season? Can we put a numerical value on that?

Last year, even despite a loss and missing out on a possible title game by a late field goal by the Hawkeyes, and a rather dismal second quarter in the Rose Bowl, most fans would declare the season a success. But that is only because the outcome has to be tempered against the expectations. Daryll Clark was an unknown factor. Many fans thought Devlin should be the starter at this time last year. The gauntlet of Illinois, Wisconsin, THEM and Ohio State seemed insurmountable, and many fans thought that 2-2 over that span would be great, let alone 4-0!
But scanning the messageboards this season, you will find a greater number of fans thinking undefeated year, most thinking BCS bowl game, and the majority thinking that 10-2 is pretty doable. The Coach’s USA Today Poll already put PSU in the Top Ten at #8.

The expectations are higher this year, whether that is justified or not.

Look at the schedule. There is not a team on there that can’t be beaten. There is not a single non-conference foe that really has a legitimate shot of beating Penn State. Iowa and Ohio State are within the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium—friendly for Lions, not for their opponents. But Illinois, Michigan State, Northwestern and even THEM present opportunities for the Lions to disappoint. Where could things go wrong?

Question One: Will Clark stay healthy?

When you talk about the offensive line, the underlying theme is whether Clark will have the time to find receivers—whom have had little or limited playing time. The question is not whether Clark can get the job done or even if he has the ability. Rather, can they protect the quarterback???

Some fans have likened the 2009 season to the 2005 season, directed by Michael Robinson. The comparisons between those two quarterbacks are obvious, but the contrast between those two seasons is not negligible. This team is NOT like the 2005 team. I grant you that there were no snickers behind their backs at the Big Ten Media Day last month. The 2005 team was coming off a 4-7 season and a streak of 7-17 dating back to a Capital One Bowl loss to Auburn. Things were dark. Visitors in the night came to Paterno’s house to force him to retire.

That is not 2009. We are coming off a 10-2 season and Paterno still has a couple of years left on a contract that seemed quite improbable in 2004. Whereas MRob was a great athlete, he had spent three years playing nearly every position but linebacker and water boy. If I’m not mistaken, he even filled in for the cheerleaders. (Just Kidding!) But his QB experience was limited to gadget plays where Mills was a receiver or called draw plays. That is not Mr. Clark, thank you very much. This young man has a great year under his belt and certainly has given no indication that he will not progress. I personally think he is going to have a great season.

In 2005, no one realized how good Penn State was until the Minnesota game. Penn State will likely make the top 15 of most preseason polls in 2009. It wasn’t until the week before the Ohio State game that people talked about a Big Ten title. People are talking about it right now before the season has just begun. If anything, last year’s team was the team to compare to 2005, but even that team had greater expectations after a couple of 8-4 seasons. I, for one, will never forget the emotion of that 2005 season and a lot of it had to do with I TOLD YOU SO. But that attitude was the product of dismal losing seasons, and I would never want to suffer through that again, even if it means catching lightning in a bottle a second time.

But back to 2009 and Clark. His health is a great concern. He suffered a concussion against the Buckeyes last season, which just might have been one of those unpredictable factors that led to a loss in Iowa. (That and the lack of sideline heaters!) If he goes down against Ohio State this year, is it even remotely possible that Newsome or McGloin can orchestrate scoring drives like Pat Devlin? The likely answer is no, but we won’t know unless it happens, God forbid. Newsome could pull a Pryor-like freshman mistake at an inopportune time—I think you would expect that from a freshman, more than you would expect a game-winning touchdown pass.

The other issue is whether the staff—and in particular, Joe Paterno—change the game plans to protect the quarterback. Problems on the offensive line or with the receivers could be offset by Clark’s ability to scramble and make plays. If the staff tries to protect him too much, they may limit his ability to make things happen. In a worst case scenario, the receivers can’t get open, the line can’t maintain the pocket, and defenses settle into a plan of containing Royster which would be highly effective in shutting the offense down at that point.

My personal feeling is the staff won’t alter the HD offense against most opponents, but look for the Ohio State game and possibly the Iowa game, to be ugly, defensive slugfests. The first three games will also likely give the back-up quarterbacks a chance to get some playing time, and the staff will have a better sense going into the Big Ten schedule of how precarious the offense might be without Clark.

Question Two: How badly does Joe Paterno want another undefeated season?

For the most part, the legend has publicly stated time and again that he doesn’t pay attention to things like how many wins he has, or what milestones he has achieved. But in 2003, in an NBC interview, Joe admitted that he wanted another undefeated season.

“I’ve coached undefeated football teams in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s four decades that I’ve had undefeated teams,” Paterno said Friday, two days before he turns 77. “We had a shot at the national championship in every single one of those decades.

“I want to do it for five decades. Every year that’s what I want to do. I really thought we had a legitimate shot at it last year [2002] and I’m working my butt off to give us a chance to get it done before I get out of it. I understand what it takes to get it done and I know how to get it done.”

Well, Joe, it’s 2009—time is running out on this decade. Can he do it? (Yes he can!)

But that might mean coaching outside of the [press] box. It might mean taking some chances he wouldn’t ordinarily take. It might mean personnel changes that will result in wins rather than rewards for seniors who have put in their time. It might mean opening up the offense on the road against Illinois or THEM, something we traditionally don’t do (Wisconsin 2008 was a pleasurable exception!)

Those are the two questions, and the answers to those will largely determine the outcome of this season, more so than dissecting the secondary, comparing this year’s receivers to last year’s, or fretting about a rebuilt offensive line. Those things are important, but not insurmountable. On the other hand, significant problems in any one of those areas could be the difference between 12-0 and 8-4.

I'll look more closely at the schedule in the coming weeks.

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