Welcome to one of the most unique things you’ll find on the Penn State football beat — our point-counterpoint columns. This weekly component, which is not done by any other outlet, started a few years ago at the Altoona Mirror with Cory Giger and Neil Rudel, who has covered the Nittany Lions for more than 40 years. We’re happy to say that the point-counterpoint will continue, thanks to an agreement between Nittany Sports Now and the Altoona Mirror to share the content.
This week’s question: What would constitute a successful season for the Lions?
Giger: Simply playing all games would be big success for the team … and for our country
After all these guys have been through, simply being able to play all nine games plus a bowl game would make this a hugely successful season for the Penn State football team.
There are extremely high hopes for the Nittany Lions, and under just about any other circumstance, we’d be talking about the need to go at least 7-2 for this to be a successful year.
But in this ridiculous, crazy, historically warped year of 2020, I’ll say something outrageous: Regardless of record, participation trophies would indeed be acceptable this season if it meant playing all the games.
Athletes just want to play. Period.
Not to be quarantined. Not to have their season initially taken away from them. Not to have to wait on pins and needles every day to see if there would be a reversal so they could return to some sense of normalcy.
It’s been interesting to hear so many members of the PSU team talk about playing football and calling it their “job.” No, it’s not a job in the typical sense for student-athletes, but it might as well be, considering how much time they all put into their sport.
We can kid ourselves all we want about what college athletics should be and why football players should go to certain schools. The reality for many, though, is that they are there to play football — while also, yes, getting an education — because for most of them, that’s what they see as their purpose for being in college.
I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years talking with Penn State and Curve players about how tough it was for them to be away from their sport for prolonged periods while battling an injury.
They pretty much all say that having the sport taken away makes them appreciate it that much more that they do get to play in the first place.
Now, imagine being healthy and yet having some awful pandemic take away your ability to play sports. The odds of that are so infinitesimally small that having to deal with such a situation could only be considered grossly unfair.
Welcome to 2020, where I think we all can agree that life is not fair.
But now, in only two days, Penn State’s football players will get to do the very thing that they love. They’ll finally get to play a football game for the first time this season, and they’ve got eight more games scheduled, as well, plus a bowl game that’s essentially guaranteed.
Will they be able to play all of them?
Sadly, I just can’t see it.
We already have entered another dangerous period for the coronavirus, with cases spiking all across the country. As we get into colder weather over the next two months, the traditional cold and flu season will be upon us, and there’s every reason to believe COVID cases will continue to surge.
If that happens, many college football games across the country almost certainly will have to be canceled.
So yes, for me, it would be a great success if Penn State is able to play all of its games this season.
That also would be a great success for our country, because it would mean that we will have somehow found a way to slow down the virus.
Rudel: As long as the season doesn’t tank
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has adjusted all of our perspectives, and although sports is a welcome outlet, we’re obviously still more concerned about everything else — the health and safety of aging and isolated parents, keeping our fingers crossed for children and grandchildren about the spread within schools, all the while anxious for the economy to get back on its feet.
So when an offensive coordinator decides to hand the ball off on fourth-and-5 with the game on the line against Ohio State, and it doesn’t work, will it really be that big of a deal?
Not this year, especially since the general public can’t even attend games in person.
That said (you knew there was a but) the games will go on, which is important — to the universities, to the players, to the coaches, to all of us.
And since scores and standings count, and for sure we’ll all be watching, records will be kept, and opinions will be formed.
Regardless of a shorter season, based on these circumstances, the team fortunate enough to be standing amidst the confetti at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami come January 2021 will be at least as deserving as any of its predecessors.
But Penn State doesn’t need to go 9-0 and land in the College Football Playoff for the season to be successful. It really doesn’t even need to go 8-1 or 7-2.
As long as the Lions are competitive with everybody, win most of the games they’re supposed to and create some moments to remember, they’ll get a pass this year, as will most teams.
But what they can’t do to call this a successful season is careen from a Top 10 preseason ranking to 5-4 or worse.
They can lose to Ohio State as long as they beat Iowa and Michigan State.
They can be upset early as long as they spring a surprise.
They can lose at Michigan, but they can’t lose 42-10.
They can lose at Nebraska, but they can’t lose to Maryland or Rutgers.
They can’t have too many off-the-field troubles.
I’m not trying to be the voice of doom — and for the record, I’m picking 7-2 — but schools with rich history, cathedral stadiums and monstrous followings (Penn State qualifies on those counts) have a distinct advantage over the Purdues, Northwesterns and Indianas.
In that regard, maybe this year levels the playing field since State College and Ann Arbor won’t triple in size on gameday.
We’ll begin to see the answer to that Saturday when the Nittany Lions open in Bloomington.
Penn State gets a ton of juice from its fan base. The Lions will need to find new adrenaline without 107,000 of their closest friends and all the accompanying festivities.
Other schools, like Indiana, where players often warm up to mostly empty seats, are used to that.
With the Lions transitioning new assistant coaches and seeking leadership with the departure of Micah Parsons and now Journey Brown, stumbling out of the gate can’t be cause for the sky to fall.
After all, the sky already fell in March.
Enjoy the season. Just starting it is a success.
Niel Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.