If you didn't notice, folks, Penn State is playing some pretty good football all of a sudden.
After a 0-2 start that saw the Nittany Lions suffer a second-half collapse against Ohio and lose an absolute heartbreaker against Virginia, there were many out there who assumed that Bill O'Brien's team would go in the tank. After all of the turmoil of the past few months--the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the firing and death of Joe Paterno, the crushing sanctions handed out by the NCAA--it was hardly a reach to believe that this program, and those players, would simply throw in the towel. I mean, they were already playing for nothing--banned from postseason play, unable to bring home the Big Ten championship crown--so once they came out of the gate with those two losses, what could possibly keep them going? How could they ever get back on track?
Well, they did it. O'Brien did it. His players did it.
And after three straight wins, including this weekend's impressive 35-7 beatdown of Illinois, some of the same folks who were wondering if this team would win even a single game this season are now pondering the possibility that Penn State could actually win the Big Ten Leaders Division. You can count me among them.
Yes, this team is short on depth. Yes, the kicking game is a mess. And yes, the loss of such former stars as Silas Redd and Justin Brown hurts.
But O'Brien's team, led by vets such as linebacker Mike Mauti and quarterback Matt McGloin, are playing with the kind of poise and passion that can overcome limited talent.
This may not be the best team "on paper" in the Leaders Division. But they won't be an easy out for anybody.
♦ When I wrote up my Preseason Top 25 back in January, I decided to leave West Virginia off the list. I knew the team was talented, of course. I knew they would boast one of the better offenses in the country, too. But I had my doubts nonetheless, mostly because I wasn't totally convinced that the Mountaineers, despite all of that talent, would be able to transition into the much-tougher Big 12 without a few hiccups along the way. Those hiccups may still come up down the line--I mean, the 'Eers have only played one league game so far--but for now, at least, it's clear that was flat-out wrong about West Virginia. Because this team is playing as well as anyone in the country. In their first ever Big 12 game against Baylor, Geno Smith and the Mountaineer offese was downright unstoppable, racking up an astounding 807 total yards en route to a thrilling 70-63 win in Morgantown. Smith cemented his status as the Heisman frontrunner with a virtuoso performance--45 of 51 passing, 656 yards, eight touchdowns, no interceptions. Granted, the Baylor defense is a train wreck at the moment, and yes, the 'Eers are going to have to improve their defense as well if they hope to make a national title run, but this team looks legit. Which is precisely what they'll need to be if they hope to pass their next Big 12 test--a visit to Austin to take on a much improved Texas squad.
♦ At the start of the season, I think it's safe to say that the prevailing wisdom of the college football world was that we had three truly elite teams on our hands: We had Alabama. We had USC. And we had LSU. The prevailing wisdom, it seems, was wrong. Five weeks into the season, only Alabama has looked "truly elite" at most every turn. USC, of course, saw their season derailed by Stanford a week ago, and new questions have been raised about the Trojans' lack of depth--a problem traceable to the NCAA sanctions it's just now starting to recover from. As for LSU? Well, its true that the Tigers are unbeaten. But it would be a real stretch to say that this team has looked "elite," or even "very good." Their latest mediocre performance came on Saturday night against tiny Towson, an FCS school that battled hard and threw a real scare into the Tigers down at Death Valley--at least for a half. Towson took 9-7 lead midway through the second quarter and only trailed 17-9 at the half before seeing LSU overpower them down the stretch. The win wasn't enough to placate the Tigers fans in attendance, who grumbled and booed their way through a truly uninspired performance. Coach Les Miles seems to be aware of his team's shortcomings, too. Asked if he saw any improvement in his team after their so-so 12-10 win over Auburn last week, Mile said: "To say that we made improvement, I can't say that. I'd have to say it was the same style of football that we played last week."