Saturday's matchup of Alabama and Penn State could come down to coaching. On paper, the Crimson Tide is a much more impressive team than the Nittany Lions. Fortunately for the loyal fans of Happy Valley, games are not won on paper. It will be up to the coaching staff to have their players ready to fire on all cylinders as they take the field.
In the red corner, Nick Saban brings one of the more impressive resumes in college football. He has two national titles, one with LSU and one with Alabama. He is undeniably the smoothest, flashiest coach in the NCAA. In the blue corner, Joe Paterno will call on over 60 years worth of experience in college football.
For Penn State to win this game, Paterno will need to out-coach Saban. There are some who have questioned the Penn State legend in recent years, but he remains one of the best coaches in the game. He is capable of out-coaching Saban, and must do so for his team to win.
One of the most important parts of being a head coach in the NCAA is the ability to assemble a talented coaching staff. Joe Paterno has assembled one of the finest groups of coordinators and coaches in the country.
With Tom Bradley and Larry Johnson leading the defense, Galen Hall running the offense and Ron Vanderlinden developing some of the best linebacking brigades in the country, Joe Paterno has assembled a very strong supporting cast.
Saban too has a good group of assistant coaches, but none have the amount of experience found in Happy Valley. Joe Paterno has bred loyalty in his coaches. Sandusky could have long ago taken a head coaching job, but he chose to stay at Penn State with Paterno.
Winning a game like this one, where your team is a heavy underdog, will require huge levels of cooperation between the head coach and his staff. Joe Paterno trusts his coaching staff, and together, they could knock off the Crimson Tide.
Saban has certainly been impressive in his time at Alabama and his record in big games is certainly impressive. He has led two teams to national titles, so his ability to get his team ready for a big game is not to be discounted. What people seem to forget, however, is Saban's 6-6 career record in bowl games.
Bowl games are often the biggest indicator of coaching prowess. A coach is given over a month to prepare for his team's opponent. When given that much time, good coaches find every weakness and are able to exploit them.
Joe Paterno is 24-12-1 lifetime in bowl games. No active coach even approaches that number. That bowl record includes several huge upsets.
Joe Paterno is clearly adept at discerning weaknesses in his opponent. Coaches always say that they are focused on one game at a time. There is no way this was actually the case as Penn State opened with Indiana State. Paterno would be lying if he said there was no planning done for Alabama leading up to the opening game.
Joe Paterno's teams are not affected by the SEC mystique. He has led his Lions to wins in two of their last three match-ups against SEC teams.
This speaks volumes about Paterno's ability to take down superior opponents in big games. SEC teams are nearly always favored when matching up against the Big Ten. It seems Paterno has found a way to offset the speed advantages at the skill positions often enjoyed by SEC teams.
Nick Saban has had some very good teams at LSU and Alabama. He has capitalized on an incredible recruiting ability to build some very fearsome teams. There have also been years where his teams are not all that great.
Saban has followed up both of his national championship seasons with subpar years. In 2004, LSU followed their title with a 9-3 record. His 2009 national title was followed by a 10-3 record that included three conference losses.
It's hard to call a nine or ten win season a choke job, but with the talent that Saban brings in every year, there should not be such a decline following a national title, especially last season. The Crimson Tide brought back nearly every key player but could not put it together. Their conference losses, with the exception of Auburn, came against inferior opponents. Part of being a good coach is winning the games you are supposed to. In 2010, Saban did not do that.
You don't get to 402 career victories without making a few in-game adjustments. By now, Joe Paterno has basically been shown every possible game situation. He must be ready to adjust on the fly once the game starts.
Alabama will come out looking to put the game away early. Joe Paterno's team will have to weather the early barrage as they try to find their way against a strong foe. After the first few series, it will be up to Paterno and his coaching staff to make the adjustments necessary to win the game.
Take a look back to Alabama's collapse against Auburn in last year's de facto SEC title game. The Crimson Tide led 24-0 at one point. If you think the only reason Auburn was able to come back and win was the sparkling play of Cam Newton, you would be missing the big picture.
Auburn won because Gene Chizik out-coached Nick Saban. Chizik made the adjustments necessary to turn the game around. Saban was helpless to right the ship once the tide turned against him.