Bill Connelly and the guys over at Football Outsiders are continuing their countdown of the top 100 college football teams of all-time, and in their most recent installment they reveal their #49 team: the 1986 Penn State Nittany Lions. Most of you will probably remember that team well given their monumental victory over Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. Jerry Sandusky's defensive schemes confused Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde all night long, and the five interceptions he threw created the path for national championship number two for Joe Paterno.
Interestingly enough, in that article Connelly also discusses the showdown Penn State had that year with Alabama:
As Miami grew in fame, Penn State worked mostly under the radar. They didn't play a ranked team until the end of October, when they traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 2 Alabama. This was their lone opportunity to prove themselves, and they did so, to say the least. Alabama was averaging 266 rushing yards per game, but the Nittany Lions held them to just 44, sacking Alabama quarterback Mike Shula five times and forcing five turnovers. Their 23-3 win vaulted them from No. 6 to No. 2 in the polls, where they would stay the rest of the regular season.
We've been talking quite a bit here lately about eras from days gone by, and with that in mind the build-up to this game was the height of the Perkins era. Coming into the '86 season we were #2 in the country and many thought it'd finally be the year Perkins brought the national championship back to Tuscaloosa. We started off the year 7-0 with wins over Ohio State (in Giants Stadium), Florida, Notre Dame, and Tennessee, and everyone was eyeballing a potential showdown against Miami. Penn State was widely regarded as a quality foe -- they had beaten us the year before in a thriller in State College, 19-17 -- but we were favored and most thought that the Nittany Lions had feasted on a weak schedule and would ultimately be unable to handle the battle-tested Tide.
Of course, though, Paterno and his Nittany Lions smoked us like cheap cigars in Tuscaloosa. We took the early 3-0 lead with a Van Tiffin field goal, but we were dominated after that. The Penn State defense was an immovable object and their offense consistently moved the chains with a well-balanced attack. It was about as close of a game as the 23-3 final score indicated.
And that, really, was the apogee of Ray Perkins' tenure. Two weeks later, we threw away the SEC Championship with an inexcusable loss to LSU in Legion Field. We dominated in total yards, but lost a nailbiter 14-10 thanks in large part to four turnovers deep in Bayou Bengal territory. Three weeks after that loss, it was another debacle in Legion Field, this time losing the Iron Bowl 21-17. Alabama ended the third quarter with a 17-7 lead, but Brent Fullwood scored on the first play of the fourth quarter on a long touchdown run, and Lawyer Tillman scored a touchdown on a reverse in the final thirty seconds to give Auburn the narrow win.
Alabama went from being serious national championship contenders in late October to losing three of its final five games. For the late season collapse, the Tide was rewarded with a trip to the wonderful sunny, drug-smuggling mecca better known as El Paso, Texas. In the process, Ray Perkins cemented his legacy as a winning coach who simply couldn't quite get the ultimate prizes of conference championships and national titles. Days later, he accepted fellow 'Bama alum Hugh Culverhouse's offer to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Perkins era officially came to an end. Enter Bill Curry.