Penn State Football has two appearances in the Bowl Championship Series. In the 2005 season, the Nittany Lions earned an Orange Bowl victory over Florida State, and in 2008 PSU fell short to USC in the Trojans backyard at the Rose Bowl. There were a lot of similarities between those two teams, and examining these will provide a lot of guidance as to the chances of the 2011 Penn State team.
1) Ohio State
In both 2005 and 2008, Penn State was able to defeat the Buckeyes in close, hard-fought, low-scoring games in front of a prime-time audience and ESPN's College Gameday. Considering the lopsided scores against the Lions in the other PSU/OSU games in recent years, this is a pretty significant commonality.
Also, both in 2005 and 2008, Penn State shared the regular season Big Ten championship with the Buckeyes. Due to the their head-to-head victories in both seasons, Penn State was the Big Ten's automatic qualifier into the BCS each time.
Looking forward to the upcoming season, Penn State plays in Columbus on November 19. Ohio State will have a different look this season following all of the fall-out from their off-the-field issues, so the chances of securing a win against them looks to be much more likely than in most previous years.
2) Last-Second Road Losses After Big Wins Against Ohio State
After the Nittany Lions' break-out victory against OSU in 2005 came a loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, when Chad Henne connected with Mario Manningham on a last-second touchdown pass (shortly after the infamous Lloyd Carr asking for and receiving two seconds be added to the game-clock).
Similary, in 2008 the Nittany Lions looked to be rolling to an undefeated season after topping Ohio State in Columbus. However, the next game saw a loss in Iowa to the Hawkeyes after a second-half collapse which culminated in a last-second field goal from the home team.
In 2011, the game following the Ohio State game is also the last game of the season. It also happens to be a road game at Wisconsin, a very difficult place to win and what could be one of the Big Ten's best teams. Thus, a last-second loss to the Badgers looks very plausible, which is something that could ironically spell good things for the Nittany Lions.
For the sake of fairness, however, the Nittany Lions had two extremely convincing wins against Wisconsin in both 2005 and 2008. Thus, it is impossible for both of these similarities to hold true for 2011.
When finding a single player to attribute the success of the 2005 season to, it doesn't take long to decide on senior QB Michael Robinson. Robinson made huge plays with his arms and legs throughout the season. Some of the most memorable were a 4th-and-20 conversion to Isaac Smolko at Northwestern on the game-winning drive, literally paralyzing a Minnesota defender in front of the home fans, and leading the offense to what could have been a game-winning drive in Ann Arbor.
The 2008 team was led by a similar player at the quarterback position. Daryll Clark drew comparisons to the aforementioned Robinson throughout his career, and performed close to Robinson's level in 2008. Like Robinson, Clark was extremely dangerous with both his arm and legs. Though he may not have had as much success in close-game situations, Clark clearly showed the ability to lead the team to many victories.
For 2011, it is looking more and more likely that Matt McGloin will be the quarterback. Despite some obvious differences in skin color, mobility, and experience, McGloin did show some glimpses of brilliance a season ago. McGloin threw for 250 yards in a big game against Michigan, led a furious comeback charge against Northwestern by throwing for 225 yards and four touchdowns, and threw for 315 yards against Indiana in the nation's capital.
McGloin's performance in his freshman campaign is much more accurately summarized by his performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. He showed signs of being a good quarterback with over 200 yards passing, but ultimately cost his team the game with five interceptions. Based on a year ago, projecting McGloin to be an elite quarterback that can lead his team to a BCS bowl game is an extreme stretch; however, I do not believe it to be out of the question.
4) Non-Conference Wins
In both 2005 and 2008, the Nittany Lions cruised through their non-conference opponents. All but one of these games were at home, and all but one (the 2005 season opener against South Florida) featured very impressive Penn State performances. However, none of the games were played against very strong teams (though the 2008 win over Oregon State looked like a quality win by the end of the season).
In 2011, there is a huge obstacle to overcome in the non-conference schedule, and it is coming up from Tuscaloosa on September 10. Penn State won't have trouble with the rest of their non-conference games, but winning against Alabama is not a highly likely outcome. However, if PSU can build off of the incredible atmosphere that is sure to be present at Beaver Stadium and pull off the monumental upset, then that should spell wonderful things for the rest of the season.
5) Running Backs
The 2005 and 2008 teams both had two very capable running backs. In 2005 the clear top running back was Tony Hunt, but Austin Scott functioned as a capable back-up (particularly in the Orange Bowl against Florida State). In 2008, Evan Royster was the featured back, but Stephfon Green provided a very effective change of pace.
For 2011, the running backs look to be the strength of the Nittany Lion offense. Silas Redd will be the main back and showed off enormous amounts of talents in his freshman season last year. He will be accompanied by the aforementioned Green and also Brandon Beachum, who also had numerous impressive runs last season. The talent is certainly there at the tailback position. The better question is whether Penn State will utilize that talent to its potential. In recent years, the offense has become very pass-happy; using the run effectively could immensely help the rest of the offense.
6) Offensive Line
The offensive lines for the two previous BCS teams were well above-average and exhibited several standout players, including Levi Brown, A.Q. Shipley, Rich Ohrnberger and Stefen Wisniewski. These groups gave their quarterbacks (see item three) enough time to make plays and gave their running backs (see item five) enough holes to run through.
For the 2011 season, the Nittany Lions will be without their best player by far (Wisniewski) from a unit that was fairly weak a season ago. Penn State will also have a new center, but returns three other starters whose experience last season could provide large improvements for 2011. There are no linemen likely to be stand-outs, but if these guys can perform well together they could still provide solid results.
7) Back-up Quarterback
In 2005, Michael Robinson was backed up by Anthony Morelli, a young quarterback who was viewed as having a lot of potential. In 2008, Pat Devlin played behind Daryll Clark and was also highly regarded by the Penn State fan base. Morelli was never really called on to do much in 2005, but Devlin did play a key role in the big win at Ohio State in 2008, when Clark went out with an injury.
Assuming McGloin is the starter, that leaves sophomore Rob Bolden as the back-up. Bolden, the first true freshman to start for head coach Joe Paterno, started seven games in 2010. Veteran Kevin Newsome has transferred and freshman Paul Jones is academically ineligible, which raises some depth questions at the quarterback position.
8) Defensive Playmakers
Like most football seasons at Penn State, the 2005 and 2008 teams had very good defenses. They also had numerous playmakers that stepped up big at key points in the season. Perhaps the most memorable example was Tamba Hali stripping Ohio State's Troy Smith to seal the win of the season in 2005. The 2005 defense also featured Paul Posluszny and Alan Zemaitis, and the 2008 defense had Navarro Bowman, Aaron Maybin, and Anthony Scirotto.
The 2011 defense is coming off a year in which they did not perform as well as other recent Nittany Lion defenses. They also lack clear playmakers coming into the season. If players like Nate Stupar, Drew Astorino and Mike Mauti can step up and have big seasons, then the chances of a great year will be much improved.
1) Bowl Game Results
This one is pretty clear. The 2005 team won a triple-overtime thriller against Florida State in the Orange Bowl while the 2008 team suffered a mildly embarrassing defeat to USC in the Rose Bowl. I use the term mildly because with the exception of the second quarter the game was very close, and I still maintain that the Nittany Lions could have had a good chance of a comeback at the end of the game had they played with a little more sense of urgency.
2) National Championship contention
Though the 2005 team was undefeated late in the season and was on the national radar, an appearance in he BCS Championship game was never really a realistic possibility due to the dominant teams in Austin and Los Angeles.
The 2008 team was much more in the picture for a national title. As the Big 12 teams beat up on one another, and as Penn State defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus, it looked as if Penn State would have a legitimate shot at a national championship (until the loss to Iowa the following week).
3) Player experience
The circumstances leading up to the 2005 and 2008 seasons were very different. Penn State had losing seasons in both 2003 and 2004, and the program was at an extreme low heading into 2005. Though a lot of the key players on that team had plenty of experience, none of them had much experience in winning big football games.
Conversely, in 2008, Penn State was coming off of three straight winning seasons and three straight bowl wins. The teams featured key players with experience, such as the exceptional wide receivers (Jordan Norwood, Deon Butler and Derrick Williams), kicker Kevin Kelly and captain Sean Lee (though he didn't play the entire year due to injury). The experience of these players likely played a huge role in the team's success.
4) Close games
Perhaps one of the reasons the 2005 squad was able to come out on top in the Orange Bowl was their experiences in close games. The opening game of the season against South Florida was fairly close, and the team also played very close games against Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State.
This experience in close games was lacking for the 2008 team, as their only real close games were against Ohio State and Iowa. This could have been a contributing factor in the team's lack of preparation for the Trojans in the Rose Bowl.
Some of the pieces are in place for a run to a BCS game in 2011, but there are many more question marks for this year's squad.
We will likely be able to tell what kind of season this team is in store for after the week-two clash with Alabama. If the team is able to perform well and at least play a close, competitive game against the Tide, then I predict that a BCS game is well in reach with how the conference schedule lines up this year.