Harrison: Penn State As The Big Ten Spoiler

Posted Oct 1, 2012

Phil Harrison Monday Thought: Penn State is getting it done ... on the field.

- Cirminiello: Geno Smith Is The Real Deal
- Zemek: The Teams That Aren't For Real
- Harrison: Penn State As The Big Ten Spoiler
- Johnson: The ACC's Woes Continue
- Doan: So What If Ohio State Goes 12-0? 

By Phil Harrison
Follow me on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFN

Remember when everyone was writing off the football version of Penn State? Remember when the Nittany Lions dropped their first two games and it appeared for all the world as though delaying the inevitable deep slide wasn't going to happen? Remember when It appeared as though the sands in the hourglass of football relevance had run out?

Well, while lowering football expectations in Happy Valley was a foregone conclusion, someone forgot to tell the players suiting up every Saturday. They forgot to tell the much-maligned Matt McGloin, who now--somehow, someway--leads the Big Ten in passing. They forgot to tell a defense that has continued to plug on with a stout group of linebackers and all-effort guys. They also forgot to tell head coach Bill O'Brien, who didn't get the memo. He has continued to steer the ship straight ahead despite the icy waters the institution of Penn State is navigating.

It may be time for the rest of the Big Ten to at least fix a hesitant gaze on the plain-Jane uniform-wearing team out East.

While nobody would ever try to take away from the hurt and pain of the child-abuse scandal that ripped through everyone's collective psyches late last year, there is still football being played in Central Pennsylvania. We will all continue to remember the many victims in our hearts, prayers, and thoughts first and foremost. Still, there are young men that had nothing to do with all those abuses of power, young men who are trying to continue playing a game they love.

They are doing so with distinction.

In case you've been hiding in a bunker preparing for the Mayan apocalypse, let us break the news to you: The Big Ten has been enduring some struggles this season. It has lost arguably every single spotlight game this year--and looked awful doing so. Wisconsin and Michigan, thought to be two of the sure-money teams this year in the conference, have fallen flat.

Michigan State, which was burdened with carrying the banner for the league as well, has dropped the torn and tattered flag after being bloodied up in September. In fact, the best win the conference has had might be the one found buried in the deeper pages of the sports section the day after it occurred, a Northwestern win at home versus a weak SEC opponent, Vanderbilt, on September 8.

That's not exactly the stuff of legends (pardon the painfully awful pun).

Meanwhile, Penn State has won its last three games. After faltering big time against a fairly solid MAC team from Ohio, and then losing a close one at Virginia, the Nittany Lions have handled Navy and Temple at home, while completely obliterating Illinois on the road this past Saturday. The team seems to be coming out of a hangover of sorts, one that would be easy to understand.

Let's not go crazy here, however. The Nittany Lions still have plenty of holes, and nobody is going to mistake them for a championship-caliber team. The postseason is not in play, and the team likely won't finish atop the Leaders division. Still, it's starting to look as though maybe, just maybe, Penn State isn't the trainwreck on the field everyone thought. Maybe there's a chance that Bill O'Brien can get his crew to play spoiler by way of engineering an upset or two against one of the contenders in either of the wacky division names.

To that end, PSU has already put a blemish on Illinois' chances. While it was a long shot anyway for the not-so-Fighting Illini to do really big things this year, there are more opportunities for other teams that do have a shot at decent seasons to hear the roar of the Nittany Lions. It's even more plausible when you realize that there's not a single team in the Big Ten that couldn't stumble against almost any other team this year, at least when the conditions are ripe.

The plucking begins next week.

First up, the Nittany Lions host Northwestern for a high-noon showdown against a surprisingly undefeated Wildcat team. Sitting at 5-0, and with a rather unimposing schedule ahead, the Wildcats have a real shot at a decent bowl this year... and maybe more, given the state of the Big Ten. A loss next week to Penn State would put a fly in the ointment of optimism for the Wildcats.

But that's not the only chance of making a statement the Nittany Lions have in front of them.

PSU also has cross-over road games against Iowa and Nebraska, two teams that won their first Big Ten games this season to get off on the right foot. Nebraska looks like a serious contender in the Legends division, and despite Iowa's non-conference struggles, it has shown that it generally gets things together during conference play and could also be in the mix.

Then there's the Nittany Lions' own real-estate market, the Leaders division. Ohio State is in a similar boat race with Penn State and can't go past league play, but many believe the Buckeyes may be the class of the Big Ten with their showing at Michigan State over the weekend. OSU can still finish atop the division and take home a trophy, but that'll be tougher if Penn State can make some noise on October 27 when the scarlet and gray come to town.

There are of course the other two supposed suspects in the division as well with a game at Purdue on November 3, and the season-ender at home versus Wisconsin on November 24. Both teams figure to be vying for a shot at going to Indy--if they can avoid one too many slip-ups--a slip-up that could come at the hands of a Penn State team still playing to the end.

Simply put, the Big Ten is a conference of mediocrity this year. There's not one team that is the hands-down favorite to blast away at the competition and steal the show. While the jury is still out on whether Penn State is a formidable foe within the conference, it's now appearing as though it is at the least a foe that may not be on life support just yet. As evidenced by the methodical win in Champaign, this year's 2012 version of the Penn State football team could play the spoiler role in the upcoming Big Ten race that's coming to a theater near you, with showtimes beginning next week.

Are you taking notes, Big Ten brethren?

- Cirminiello: Geno Smith Is The Real Deal
- Zemek: The Teams That Aren't For Real
- Harrison: Penn State As The Big Ten Spoiler
- Johnson: The ACC's Woes Continue
- Doan: So What If Ohio State Goes 12-0?