The Coaches Poll has been released with the usual suspects on top. Many will shower those traditional powers with praise while others will offer outlandish predictions of their impending doom. Both practices are August traditions, and both practices are equally entertaining.
So let me entertain: No. 8 Penn State is among the over-rated and will not be a national title contender come late November.
Before you start cutting out individual letters from your 1965 La Vie and prepare death threats for my inbox, let's start with the fact that this analysis is not about today. It’s not about the very real potential of Penn State as perceived by 120 coaches on August 7. It’s not about September 19 when the Lions destroy their third feeble opponent in three weeks. It’s not even about October 24 when they face a confounding Michigan in another marquee national broadcast.
This is about the reality of November 21 and Michigan State and the fourth Nittany Lion loss of a disappointing season. A loss that will push them far from the aforementioned early season top 10 notoriety.
It all starts upstairs. Literally.
The powerful image of Joe Paterno, slumped over the table looking down on the field, sans headset, left an enduring mark on the program in 2008. The fact that this coaching legend and Penn State mystic did not effectively coach during a handful of games, did not make halftime visits, and did look wholly disconnected is glaring.
In these specific games Coach Paterno lost a certain perceived impact.
I’m not a Penn State coach. I’m not a player. I’m not the kid who holds the windbreaker, or the guy on staff in charge of telling him never to do that thing with his arms at a pep rally again.
I don’t know if he still gets in earholes, leads position drills, or rules team meetings with feared ferocity.
But public perception is our reality and Coach Paterno looks disconnected.
What does this disconnect mean?
They still won games in ’08, finished 11-2, and put a 24 spot up on USC in a Rose Bowl loss. But, last year still added to the stockpile of evidence that he’s growing distant from his program, leaving the coaching to his (capable) assistants, and substantiating the claims of a lack of institutional control.
Nearly four dozen criminal charges have been placed on PSU players in the last seven years, mascots excluded. The graduation rate, once one of the finest in the nation, has recently risen to an ordinary 78 percent in ’08.
And nobody can pretend that the sub-par seasons of ’03, ’04, and ’07 are objects that are not closer than they appear in the rear-view mirror.
There are pitfalls on the field too. The talents of three dynamic wide receivers and 1,932 total yards have matriculated. Five of the top seven tacklers are gone, including the disruptive Aaron Maybin and his 12 sacks and eight tackles for a loss. Maybin's statistical presence will be missed as he accounted for over 35 percent of all Lion sacks and over 20 percent Penn State TFL’s.
Yes, the linebacker group is typically healthy but “Linebacker U” can’t help the fact that four experienced senior defensive backs are gone and the current two-deep has made little significant big-game impact.
Offensively, Daryll Clark may be Tebow-north in terms of leadership, but is he a true passer, or the product of the great volume of yards gained after the catch provided by Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, and Derrick Williams?
There’s no doubt that Evan Royster is a rock but he’ll be running behind an inexperienced line with just 39 career starts. Stefen Wisniewski returns as the only established star in the trench. Royster will undoubtedly inflate his numbers against patsies like Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois, and Indiana, but he’ll need to prove his ability against the big dog defenses found in Columbus, Iowa City, and East Lansing.
Worse yet, road games at Illinois, Michigan, and Michigan State are all treacherous. Those newbie DB’s will have to contain Aurelius Benn and Jarred Fayson, the RichRod redux, and a Spartan team that will have more receiving threats per capita that any team not playing in the aeronautical Big 12.
Coach Paterno has turned being disengaged with the likes of the Spread HD, Twitter, text messaging, and the modern media into a Zen-like quality.
This enhanced disconnect, a young offensive line, and the loss of major play-makers on both sides of the ball will put a preseason top ranking in peril.
Penn State will stumble twice, lose additional games to Ohio State and Michigan State, and desperately try to hold on to one last Top 25 slot, far from the early season No. 8 ranking of the coaches poll.
All of this will come just before the grand Lion encounters another winter of discontent.