POINT/COUNTERPOINT: Are Penn State & Alabama Back?

 Brian Curtis and Eric Sorenson slug it out over the most pressing football questions

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    Brian Curtis, CSTV Senior Editor Eric Sorenson, CSTV.com Analyst
    NO.  Alabama is 4-0. Penn State is 4-0. Excited? Well, if you are fans of the Nittany Lions or the Crimson Tide, you should be. I mean, honestly, there hasn't been much to cheer about in recent years for either team, so I can understand a little excitement from the faithful. But people, let's not get carried away. Vanderbilt is undefeated and so is Baylor. You really think those two will be highly ranked or undefeated in another month?

    Now, I'm not here to crush the hopes of thousands, nor am I here to bash Mike Shula or Joe Paterno - though the latter may want to think of retirement. Let's just look at who these teams have played and what lies ahead.

    Alabama
    The Crimson Tide needed a good start - and got one. They sit at 4-0 heading into a Saturday showdown with Top 10 Florida. To date, the schedule has not been that impressive. The four teams the Tide have beaten have a combined record of 4-9. Middle Tennessee State has yet to win; Southern Miss is 1-1 with its win against McNeese State; South Carolina is decent but sits at 2-2 and Arkansas is 1-3. USC beat the Hogs, 70-17; Alabama could muster just a 24-13 win. So the schedule has not been strong but will get there. In addition to the game against Florida, Alabama still must face Tennessee and LSU, not to mention Auburn on the road.

    The Alabama defense has been good, ranking seventh in the nation, but remember who they have done it against. The offense has been OK, not great. Putting up just 26 against MTSU and 24 against a porous Arkansas defense are not great numbers. Brodie Croyle is playing well, throwing for six touchdowns.

    The bottom line? The jury is still out on Alabama. Though it has yet to lose, it has yet to play good teams, like it will this weekend. There is the other factor of what conference the Tide plays in. The SEC is the best football conference in America now, so you have to be better than decent to rise to the top. Mike Shula & Co. have done a tremendous job, but 'Bama is nowhere near reclaiming its past glory.

    Penn State
    Old Joe Pa's team has won games in 2005 that they might have lost in previous years-and that is a good thing for a young team. With many freshmen and sophomores seeing playing time, the Nittany Lions need all the early season confidence they can get. Again, let's keep things in perspective.

    Penn State opened the season with a 23-13 win over South Florida, which looks even better after South Florida crushed Louisville this past week (but whose other wins are over Florida A&M and Central Florida). Paterno's club then beat Cincinnati, a Bearcat team that got pounded this week by Miami, Ohio, 44-16 and sits at 2-2. Then there was mighty Central Michigan (1-3) and last week, a road win at 2-2 Northwestern, 34-29. So the Lions' opponents are a combined 8-7. Like Alabama, the true tests lie ahead. First up is a ranked Minnesota team with a great offense, followed by dates with Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. In fairness to JoePa, it is a tough second half of the season.

    The defense is not great - allowing 314 yards of offense a game and giving up 916 yards through the air overall. The offense has fumbled 13 times, losing 7. QB Michael Robinson has thrown 9 touchdowns but with 6 interceptions. Good news, bad news stats. Penn State is not the dominant team it used to be, nor is it even close. The Nittany Lions are an average team who, in 2005, haven't beaten a ranked opponent. Perhaps that will change in the coming weeks, perhaps not.

    So before you all jump on the Alabama and Penn State bandwagon, keep some perspective. Remember, many in America thought Michigan, Iowa and LSU would be national title contenders.

    YES.  But for once it's probably good to think INSIDE the box for this one. I'm not saying that this 2005 season will end with one of those legendary scenarios like Barry-Krauss-slams-into-Mike-Guman-on-fourth-down-to-decide-the-national-title between these two. No, what I'm saying here is that Alabama and Penn State are back to respectability. This is the first time since 1996 that both teams are 4-0 at the same time and the national spotlight shines on them once again. Finally, opposing teams are back to saying, "uh-oh, better pull the chinstraps on a little tighter this week."

    That's certainly the case now, as both teams play host to the biggest games to hit their home stadiums in some time: Alabama hosts No. 5 Florida and Penn State hosts rising No.18 Minnesota.

    Let's face it, in the past three or four years, Alabama and Penn State would be candidates for blowout victims. Not this year. The main reason? Defense, better quarterbacking and the actual presence of playmakers.

    Alabama
    Alabama has lived by the D the last few years, but the Tide has upped the ante this year. In four games so far, they've given up just 230 yards a game. Though this will be a much bigger test, I think their stellar defensive back-seven gives them a chance in this game against the Gators.

    And with Brodie Croyle back from last year's injury-filled season, he's offered a good balance to go with Ken Darby's determined running. Even if the Tide falls here to the Gators, that duo, along with the great young receiving corps, will keep 'Bama in contention for the SEC title game all season long. I see them back there for the first time since the 1999 season. In other words, they're back.

    Penn State
    Like the Tide, Penn State has been another poster child for great defense and weak offense the last few years. Especially with last year's unit that gave up no more than 21 points in any game - a tribute to D-Coordinator Tom Bradley, one of the most underrated assistants in the country. Yet because of a tepid O, the Lions still only won four games.

    So here's why they're back this year - Michael Robinson. With the second best quarterback rating in the Big 10, Robinson's mobility and effectiveness has made a big difference the PSU attack.

    Which brings me to another big difference - the playmakers. Freshman wideouts Deon Butler and Derrick Williams have teamed with Robinson to make the kind of big plays at key times that we haven't seen from the Nittany Lions in a couple of years. Butler averages 22 yards a catch and the highly regarded Williams made the game-winning grab at Northwestern in the last minute on Saturday.

    Keep in mind, I'm not ready to include these guys in the Tournament of Roses parade this January (Sorry boys, no meeting the marginally delightful Kathy Lee Gifford or anything). But let's face it; these guys are making their hometown fans take the grocery bags off their heads. Finally.

    Will they string it together for a few years in a row? I'd say Alabama is more likely to do so in this case. For Penn State, it depends on how long Joe Paterno stays and who his successor is.

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