2011 Outback Bowl
Penn St (7-5) vs.
Saturday, January 1st, 1:00, ABC
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By Pete Fiutak
It’s the Second Annual Urban Meyer Farewell Concert vs. the 14th Annual Joe Paterno Isn’t Leaving Extravaganza. But while one era is ending and another keeps on rolling, both programs are moving forward and this should be a jumping off point for what should be a very, very interesting 2011.
For Florida, this is a chance to show exactly what’s stocked in the cupboard before Will Muschamp moves in, and it’s a chance to try to put a capper on a bizarre and trying season that never got off the ground. For a program that has the talent to be in the national title chase year in and year out, 7-5 doesn’t cut it, and considering Meyer is known for being an offensive wizard, having an attack that sputters and coughs has made his leaving this time around more of a yawner than a stunner.
Of course it’s a big deal that Meyer is done, but we’ve done this before. Last year was supposed to be the big exit into good mental and physical health, but instead the 51-24 obliteration of Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl was nothing more than an exclamation point on the end of the Tim Tebow era. This year, the team looked lost and confused, and while the loss of Tebow and his talent had something to do with it, the problems stemmed more from a lack of identity and direction from the coaching staff.
With an NFL caliber passer in John Brantley taking over under center, Florida sort of tried to start throwing the ball a bit more, but it sort of dabbled in the spread, and it sort of tried to get the running backs to be a bigger part of the equation, and it totally relied on the defense and the timely big plays to get out of jams. From the nightmare of a time getting the shotgun snap to work, to the inability to move the chains, the season got off to a bad start with a mere 212 yards of total offense against Miami University a hint of things to come.
But even with all the problems and even with all the inconsistencies, the Gators still had their shot to win the SEC East to take their puncher’s chance against Auburn, but a manhood-taking 36-14 home loss to South Carolina ended that charade. Yes, the Gators ended up beating five bowl teams on the year, but the best win of the season came against Kentucky. Yippee.
The regular season might have been a disaster, but for the second year in a row the bowl game could serve as an exhale. The 2009 team was so uptight and so joyless that once the pressure was off after the SEC Championship blasting from Alabama, it was almost like the team could just go out and play again once it hit New Orleans. This year’s team suffered from not being the team of previous seasons, and it also suffered from not being able to fast-forward. Recruiting-wise, the class brought in by Meyer in February has made the current Gators as talented as ever, but it was an immature group that needed seasoning … and better coaching. Now that Meyer is done, there’s a chance the team gets to Tampa, relaxes, and finally starts to show off all its potential.
And then there’s the Penn State situation.
If Paterno was in his 60s, this season would be seen as a typical Penn State stepping-stone/transition campaign. While the Nittany Lions have been consistently powerful under Paterno, there’s always a lull every few years or so as a calm before the storm, and then the team full of seasoned veterans starts to play up the program’s normally high standards. This year, the team simply wasn’t very good.
The defensive front lacked the whirling dervishes on the outside of the previous few seasons, and the secondary struggled from the lack of a pass rush up front. The linebackers were fine, but there wasn’t the block-of-granite, running back-eaters that the team is known for. The offensive line didn’t generate a consistent push for the ground game, the passing game was spotty, and overall, this was a mediocre year with few big highlights outside of Paterno getting his 400th win.
But like Florida, Penn State has a bright future ahead with the hope that the young players that struggled this year can start to translate experience into production, and if nothing else, strangely enough, the stability at the top matters. Anyone going to Penn State now knows that the Paterno retirement issue is always going to be a factor, and it hasn’t seemed to matter all that much. However, like Florida, 7-5, with the biggest wins coming against bad Michigan and Northwestern teams, doesn’t sit too well even if the second half of the season wasn’t that bad, and even with the potential for bigger things down the road.
So neither team is all that great and this might be a battle of reputations more than talent, but it’s the Outback Bowl; it’s going to be good.
Northwestern battled Auburn in an overtime thriller last year, and seven of the last nine SEC-Big Ten battles have been good, entertaining games. For those SEC snobs who think the Big Ten can’t play, the SEC has a 9-6 advantage since the game turned into a showdown of the two power conferences, and Penn State has carried most of the water for the Big Ten going unbeaten in the three appearances. Florida is 1-2 all-time in the bowl with the all the appearances coming since 2003. Penn State has won four of its last five bowl games and ten of its last 13, with one of the losses coming to Florida in the 1998 Florida Citrus, while the Gators have won four of their last five bowl games with two national titles.
Players to Watch: Florida’s biggest issue might be a lack of personnel. Gone is top corner Janoris Jenkins to a shoulder injury, the best defensive tackles, Lawrence Marsh to a hip problem and Tarron Sanders to a shoulder problem, and versatile offensive tackle Maurice Hurt to a knee problem. On the plus side, the team’s most explosive player, RB Jeff Demps, is just good enough to go on a hurt foot that never got right this year. A superstar sprinter, the 5-8, 184-pound junior led the team in rushing with a mere 531 yards and three scores. He was supposed to be an all-around playmaker this year who gave the offense some pop, but it never happened and now he’s needed more than ever. Call him the X factor; Penn State doesn’t have any answers if he hits a few home runs.
While Florida quarterback John Brantley was a superstar recruit who could’ve gone just about anywhere, Penn State’s Matt McGloin is a former walk-on who’s still getting used to the spotlight. Thrown into the mix in the middle of the season when the team needed a spark, he came through with some big late season performances throwing for 225 yards or more in four of the last five games including a 315-yard day against Indiana and a 312-yard day against Michigan State. He doesn’t have top-shelf tools, but he has a sound, accurate arm, he doesn’t get rattled, and he’s a good decision maker. A burgeoning folk hero, his emergence turned around the team. If he gets a win, he turns into a legendary figure who saved the season, but to do that, he has to keep the mistakes to a minimum. Ohio State was able to pressure him into bad throws with two key picks turning around the game in the second half, and considering he’s immobile, he has to get the ball out of his hands in a hurry.
For Brantley, this is his shot to finally come up with something positive in a disastrous year, at least compared to expectations. He didn’t get any help whatsoever from the running game and the receivers didn’t help the cause, but after a horrible 52-yard day against Florida State to close out the regular season, he needs to produce. A top passer with a live arm, he needs better pro-style coaching and he needs help, but that might have to wait. For now, he has take a few more chances and a few more shots down the field against a Nittany Lion secondary that can be beaten if pushed. He has only thrown nine touchdown passes on the year and just three in his last eight games, but a good showing would do wonders for his reputation and for the expectations going into the offseason.
Florida will win if ... it scores. Injuries and all, the defense should be able to do the job against a mediocre Penn State offense that’ll bog down way too often. The problem is that the Florida attack hasn’t done much of anything when it doesn’t get the occasional big play or if the coaching staff switches to some sort of quirky hybrid of the spread and whatever it is the offense tries to do on a regular basis. Unless something way out of the ordinary happens, Penn State will need to push to get more than 24 points and will probably be held to under 20. The question is whether or not the gator offense has the punch to do anything on its own. Penn State can be pounded on with a strong, physical running game, but that’s not Florida.
Basically, Brantley needs to have a good game. In Meyer’s final outing, the playbook will be emptied, several players will get their turn at bat under center in a variety of formations and in a multitude of ways, but the best option will be for Brantley to get gunning. The Nittany Lion defensive front doesn’t get into the backfield and it doesn’t hit the quarterback. Brantley will get time to let the deep patterns develop, and he has to connect. If he can give the Gators any lead of significance, Penn State won’t have an answer.
Penn State will win if ... the offensive line beats up the Gator defensive front. The line has been iffy at times to begin with, with little pass rush and no consistency against the better running teams, and there should be bigger problems without Sanders and Marsh to clog things up on the inside. This isn’t a vintage Penn State running game in any way, but Evan Royster, the program’s all-time leading rusher, has produced at times when the offensive line has gotten into a groove, like it did against Northwestern. Florida got bullied by South Carolina and Mississippi State, and the problems trickled down to the rest of the team. It was almost like the team’s manhood was taken away in both losses, and Penn State has to try to do the same thing.
This is a momentum game. Penn State isn’t nearly as talented as Florida and it doesn’t have the punch to keep up in any sort of a shootout. However, the Nittany Lions never went into the tank at any point this year like the Gators did. Against Alabama, Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Florida State, the Urban Meyer Party Machine simply stopped cold. Nothing worked. No, the team didn’t give up in any of those games, but it didn’t exactly play inspired. If Penn State can get up early and can play with an edge on defense, that might be enough for the fragile Gators to pack it in.
What will happen: Florida has to unleash the hounds at some point, right? There’s too much speed, too much athleticism, and too much talent to be this bad. The problem for Penn State is that it’s just not good enough to take advantage. Last year’s team would’ve ripped through these Gators like tissue paper, especially on defense, but this year’s team is just too mediocre across the board. Florida will win, but it’s not going to be pretty. The offense will get just enough out of the spread when Meyer decides to get funky to get by, and while the Nittany Lions will keep it close, there won’t be the one big play they’ll need to turn the game around.
CFN Prediction: Florida 23 … Penn State 17 ... Line: Florida -7.5
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Outback Bowl History
2010 Auburn 38, Northwestern 35 OT
Tennessee 21, Wisconsin 17
Iowa 31, South Carolina 10
Penn State 20, Tennessee 10
Florida 31, Iowa 24
Georgia 24, Wisconsin 21
Iowa 37, Florida 17
Michigan 38, Florida 30
South Carolina 31, Ohio St 28
South Carolina 24, Ohio State 7
2000 Georgia 28, Purdue 25 OT
Penn State 26, Kentucky 14
Georgia 33, Wisconsin 6
Alabama 17, Michigan 14
Penn State 43, Auburn 14
Wisconsin 34, Duke 20
Michigan 42, NC State 7
Tennessee 38, Boston Coll 23
Clemson 30, Illinois 0
Auburn 31, Ohio State 14
Syracuse 23, LSU 10
Michigan 28, Alabama 24
Boston College 27, Georgia 24
Pick ATS: Florida
Confidence Score: 25
OVERALL CONFIDENCE (35 most - 1 least): 8 out of 35
Pete Fiutak: Pick ATS - Penn
State Pick Confidence -
- This sounds like a great matchup, but Penn State and Florida are bad at playing college football. This will be a phenomenal game ... next year. The Gators are rebuilding and haven't found an identity in an uneven season, while the Nittany Lions were mediocre throughout with the one good win coming against Michigan, and the second best win coming against Northwestern. Neither team has much of an offense, but they're each is playing a team its own size.
Richard Cirminiello: Pick ATS -
Florida Pick Confidence -
- With ample time to prepare, Urban Meyer has a lot to prove after losing five of his last seven games with FBS teams. Penn State would benefit from the same sloppy surface it had a year ago, when it played LSU on New Year’s Day.
Matt Zemek: Pick ATS - Penn State Pick Confidence -
- What a poignant goodbye it will be on New Year’s Day, as a sport expresses its gratitude to a highly successful coach who has won the national championship of college football on more than one occasion. But enough talk about the Florida Gators. How will Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions fare in 2011, JoePa’s 46th season?
Russ Mitchell: Pick ATS - Florida Pick Confidence -
- Another match-up of two teams that underperformed in 2010. However, PSU had an excuse. Urban Meyer and his coaches never managed to find the right mix of talent and strategy. As was the case throughout the season, there is more talent on the Florida sideline in this contest – but if it’s not utilized correctly, what difference does that make. PICK ‘EM.
Barrett Sallee: Pick ATS -
Florida Pick Confidence -
- Both of these teams have been disappointing, but two traditional powers squaring off on the gulf coast to start 2011 will be a nice sight as many nurse New Year’s hangovers.
Gabe Harris: Pick ATS - Florida Pick Confidence -
Brian Harbach: Pick ATS - Penn
State Pick Confidence -
Matthew Smith: Pick ATS - Penn State
Pick Confidence - 22
Billy Gomila: Pick ATS - Florida Pick Confidence
Clucko (A coin flip): Pick ATS -
Florida Pick Confidence