Alabama and Penn State both spent the opening weekend of the football season engaged in obligatory affairs, games with foregone conclusions against weak opponents. In both cases such opponents were scheduled for the sole purpose of their relative weakness, and in effect neither game was much more than a glorified scrimmage. Some positives were gleaned and some criticisms levied based on the respective performances, but in general both contests were merely exhibitions and little of substance could be meaningfully derived from their outcomes.
Beyond the roar of the crowd, heavy rains in recent weeks have brought historic flooding to central Pennsylvania. The Susquehanna River is expected to crest at approximately thirty feet, mass evacuations have been ordered by government authorities in flood-prone areas, and Penn State officials have been preparing for gameday traffic nightmares the past several days. Another inch of rain is forecast for today, with another expected tomorrow on gameday. The hourly forecast is still murky at this point, but a near constant rain could be present throughout most of tomorrow afternoon.
Accordingly, the weather will to be a major issue tomorrow and its impact should have a significant effect on the outcome of the game. The playing field will be soggy from the start and could be a mudpit by day's end, and the beaten track mixed with the high, thick bluegrass of Beaver Stadium will undoubtedly reduce the Tide's overall speed advantage. Footing will be be a major concern, and ball security will be an added concern with a wet football, especially in a week after Alabama threw four interceptions to go along with four fumbles underneath the Tuscaloosa sunshine. Furthermore, the cooler Pennsylvania temperatures likely won't allow Nick Saban and company to pound the Nittany Lions into S&C oblivion like the Tide did a year ago.
Establishing the run will be critical for both teams. Outside of Charles Robinson reserving a hotel room near your campus, there can be no greater recipe for disaster than placing an inexperienced quarterback in a hostile environment, handing him a wet football, and telling him to put the offense on his shoulders and win the game through the air against a sound defense. It's difficult to see Alabama coming home victorious tomorrow afternoon without controlling the line of scrimmage, and even with the home crowd behind them, Penn State figures to face much of the same reality. The ability to alleviate pressure on the quarterback by consistently and successfully running the football figures to be a key to victory for both teams.
While any prediction is inherently speculative in nature, tomorrow looks to be a relatively low-scoring, conservative match-up unless turnovers lead to easy points. With an inexperienced quarterback under center playing in bad conditions there is no real chance that Alabama spreads the field like it did a year ago in Tuscaloosa, and given their own struggles at quarterback Penn State will try to run the football between the tackles from the base three-wide set. Risk-taking figures to be kept to a minimum by both teams, and every point tomorrow could be crucial. So long as turnovers remain in check, seventeen or twenty-one points may be all it takes for either team to secure victory tomorrow afternoon.
Meanwhile, Penn State looks to use this game as a means of redemption for their poor showing last year in Tuscaloosa, a game in which Alabama was clearly the more physical team and which the Nittany Lions never seriously challenged 'Bama down the stretch. Trent Richardson ran for 144 yards a year ago, including 93 yards after contact, so expect the Nittany Lions to attempt to be unusually physical tomorrow in an attempt to erase their disappointments from a year ago.
To be entirely certain, Alabama will face more difficult teams as the year progresses. The showdowns against Arkansas and LSU will present stronger opposition that anything the Tide will face tomorrow, and the same may be said of another conference opponent as well. That is no real insult to Penn State, mind you, but it should serve as a reminder of where the Nittany Lions look to fall among the backdrop of the remainder of the schedule for Alabama.
Admittedly, having washed away the dark days of the early-to-mid 2000's that saw four losing seasons in five years, Joe Paterno has experienced a resurgence in recent years, with fifty-one wins coming in the five seasons from 2005-2009. With that success in mind, however, the last truly great Penn State team was back in 1994, and the next truly great Penn State team will almost certainly be coached by someone other than Paterno. Moreover, in spite of the recent resurgence, Penn State was a disappointment a year ago with a meager 7-6 overall record, their worst showing since 2004.
What Penn State lacks in greatness, however, it compensates for with steadiness. While the team generally lacks a crop of true star players, it is a talented, physical team that places a premium on strong line play, good special teams, and solid fundamentals throughout the roster. They have struggled greatly in recent years against top-end opponents, but their strong record outside of those games indicates clearly that it generally takes very talented teams executing at high levels to knock off the Nittany Lions. For Alabama, that means victory is here for the taking with a strong showing, but such a victory won't come easy and it perhaps won't come at all if the Tide suffers a repeat of many of the mistakes it made a week ago against Kent State.
In any event, while a win in Happy Valley does not look to come easy simply because of all of the alarming circumstances present here for the Crimson Tide, 'Bama can hardly afford a loss at the hands of the Nittany Lions if it wants to control its own destiny in the national championship race. Unless Penn State surprises most observers with a particularly strong show this season, a loss to them does not figure to be the quality of loss that national pundits and computer rankings will gloss over come late November. A loss here would be a black mark on the resume in a way a loss to, say, Arkansas or LSU would not, and if 'Bama drops its de facto season opener tomorrow afternoon that will be a weight for which it must carry for the rest of the season. If Alabama expects to win a national championship in 2011, the path to New Orleans must begin tomorrow afternoon in Happy Valley.
Hope for the best.