The surprise in dank and gray Tuscaloosa, Ala., last Saturday afternoon was not that Penn State beat Alabama. After all, the only predictable aspect of college football is its unpredictability. Rather, the surprise was in the scope and the sweep of the devastating 23-3 victory that the Nittany Lions hung up on the end zone scoreboards in the gathering gloom. The Crimson Tide played very well. The Crimson Tide also had no chance.
'Bama is a team that had averaged 265.6 yards per game on the ground en route to winning its first six games. On Saturday it rushed for 44. This is a team that had averaged 33 points per game. On Saturday it got a field goal and thereafter never came within 30 yards of the Penn State goal line. This is a team that had the nation's longest unbeaten string (12-0-1). This is a team that played as hard as it could, but that was not nearly enough.
All of which means that maybe, just maybe, people will start taking Penn State seriously. From last year's squad, which merely went 11-1 and played for the national championship in the Orange Bowl, Penn State has 37 of its top 44 players. Even coach Joe Paterno knew he was loaded. Way back last summer he confessed that this season's team didn't have a single weakness. And Paterno, as we know, isn't free with the hyperbole. Nonetheless, until this week, the Nittany Lions had been ranked no higher than fifth in either wire service poll. (They have been No. 2 in SI's since the beginning of the season.)
Penn State's problem is its schedule, which before Saturday consisted of Temple, Boston College, East Carolina, Rutgers, Cincinnati and Syracuse. These six juggernauts have a combined record of 19-24-1, but that doesn't bother Paterno. "This team has lost only one game in the last two years," he says. "We play the traditional people we are supposed to play. I don't think Miami is making excuses for playing Northern Illinois. How good are [other 'Bama opponents] Memphis State and Tennessee?" Problem is, the truth makes Paterno mad. Plus, he still recalls 1968, '69 and '73, when the Lions went undefeated but were not voted national champs because their schedules were found wanting.
That won't be a problem this season because the Lions have suddenly become primary suitors for a New Year's Day dream date with top-ranked Miami. Should both teams win their remaining four games—and they are stout favorites to do so—it will mean that the two teams most coveted by the bowls will be independents and therefore will be free to perform wherever they please on Jan. 1. As a result, the corporate coffers of a pair of lesser bowls without conference affiliations—the Sunkist Fiesta in Tempe, Ariz., and the Florida Citrus in Orlando—will likely be opened wide in an effort to bring about a national championship confrontation.
In the past neither the Fiesta nor the Citrus has paid its participants anywhere near what the Big Four have. Last year the Rose shelled out $6 million to both the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs, while the Sugar (which has a contract with the SEC), the Cotton (with the SWC) and the Orange (with the Big Eight) gave each of their teams about $2 million. The Fiesta schools went home with $1.1 million apiece, and a visit to the Citrus was worth just $750,000.
By virtue of its five seasons of New Year's Day exposure, the Fiesta is more prestigious than the Citrus—which, for years, was known as the Tangerine Bowl—but for a holiday trip Disney World may be more appealing than the desert. Moreover, a game in the Citrus Bowl, which is being held on Jan. 1 for the first time since 1960, would almost be a home game for Miami. However, creature comforts won't matter if the two bowls get into a bidding war for the game. On Monday, the Citrus people went scurrying to ABC, which will broadcast the game, to plead for additional bucks. The Fiesta (read Sunkist) seems at least as hungry for the matchup. Said one official last week, "We will pay anything to get that game." And if either the Fiesta or Citrus does end up with the nation's two top teams and upstages the Big Four, it could throw the whole bowl arrangement permanently out of whack. The Citrus Bowl becomes the Super Bowl of college football?
Of course, if either team loses, the game will go pfffft, and the Fiesta and Citrus will remain minor bowls for another year. The Hurricanes have to get by Florida State this weekend, and both Miami and Penn State have a date with rapidly improving Pitt. But if Saturday is any indication, Penn State is improving just as rapidly. Paterno was so confident upon arriving in rainy Tuscaloosa that when someone asked him on Friday evening whether he thought rain would help his club in light of the Tide's blazing speed, he shook his head and said, "Naw, I don't want it to rain because I don't want them to have any excuses when we beat them." Those are remarkable words for a coach who sees danger even if the opponent is the Jackie Collins Community College for Aspiring Writers.
Against Alabama, the Lions' offensive line was brilliant. Exhibit A came at the start of the second quarter. On a play that Penn State has been running forever, tailback D.J. Dozier bolted right up the middle nearly untouched—"a few little hands, no big ones," he said later—for 19 yards and a touchdown. Exhibit B was Penn State's other TD, a simple reverse from quarterback John Shaffer to Dozier to tailback Blair Thomas that covered three yards. Nary a hand was laid on Thomas, either. It was just your basic I-can-run-over-you-and-you-can't-run-over-me football.
The line also helped the often criticized Shaffer to have a marvelous day. Directing an attack that is more simplified than last season's, he completed 13 of 17 passes for 168 yards with no interceptions and, at least for a while, silenced his detractors. Says Shaffer, "All the criticism Eve received has taught me how much fans know about football."