The Big Ten, once the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league, is having a hard time shedding that reputation despite drastic changes to the way its teams have played football in recent years. As stereotypes go in college football, there is none more common, or outdated, than the Big Ten's being a league built around big and powerful players moreso than players with skill and speed.
When Penn State plays Tennessee in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, the Nittany Lions are looking forward to the opportunity to prove they are just as fast as their counterparts from the Southeastern Conference.
"We went through the same thing last year when we played Florida State [in the Orange Bowl]," Penn State senior linebacker Paul Posluszny said. "Everyone is talking about the speed of the South and all of these things. The Big Ten is obviously one of the toughest conferences in the country and it's not because everyone is big and slow.
"There are great athletes in the Big Ten. If you look at our roster and some of the guys we have, they can flat out fly. I don't think you can say Tennessee is just so much faster than us. We both have great athletes."
Yes, that is a chip you detect on Posluszny's shoulder. There is more than a tinge of resentment when the subject of speed is brought up to Penn State players in respect to Tennessee and the SEC.
"I think it's kind of a joke to say that they're so much faster," senior running back Tony Hunt said. "I don't think it's accurate to say that."
But the stereotype is perpetuated by almost everyone involved in the game from media to the coaches and players. In previewing Penn State, Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge said Penn State was "not as athletic" as some of the defenses he had faced in the SEC this season, but complimented the Lions for being "well-coached" and "always in the right position."
SEC coaches routinely refer to the players in their league as the fastest in the country. And there is a basis of truth in their statements. The SEC has traditionally been a league based on speed and skill because the conference recruits most of its players from the southern states, where high schools tend to produce players whose strengths are speed and quickness.
The Big Ten has had the reputation of playing with big farm boys on the offensive and defensive lines and with skill players who might be a step slower than other conferences. But, with many of the Big Ten's teams adopting passing offenses that attract the best of the best skill players from around the country, the league's elite teams are stocked with highly skilled players.
"When we watch teams on tape, we feel like we're just as fast as them," Penn State sophomore linebacker Sean Lee said. "Maybe they don't feel that watching us. If they don't, come Jan. 1 we're going to prove that."
Added sophomore receiver Deon Butler: "The secret will get out, man. We're faster than people think."
The SEC has come to understand that other conferences are catching up to them speed-wise. Georgia, the SEC champion a year ago, was humbled by West Virginia's skill players in the Sugar Bowl, a game in which the Mountaineers repeatedly ran by slower Georgia players.
Games like those do not go unnoticed by Penn State players.
"I've heard it 3,000 times in the weeks leading up to this," Butler said. "I think we'll be able to run with them. That's just a stereotype people have. I don't think they watch the Big Ten too much. If they did, they would see game-breakers at a lot of positions everywhere in the Big Ten. It's just an opportunity for us to show that we can go out there and run with teams like these. We're not really worried about it. We just want to be a better football team. We don't want to get in a track meet with them."
The SEC was 3-3 in bowl games last year and has an 8-6 edge in bowl games against Big Ten teams since 2000.
"Obviously, the SEC is a very tough conference from top to bottom," Posluszny said. "But, if you look at the Big Ten, we have the No. 1 team in the country, and Michigan was up there all year. Wisconsin is up there. Both conferences are obviously great conferences to play in and have great tradition. It's tough to say which one is better."Bob Brodbeck, Associated Press
Deon Butler gives Penn State the speed that usually isn't associated with Big Ten teams.
Click photo for larger image.
Who: Penn State (8-4) vs. Tennessee (9-3).
When: 11 a.m., Monday.
Where: Tampa, Fla.
Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Penn State running back Tony Hunt doesn't buy into the perception that Big Ten football is a game played at a slow speed.
Click photo for larger image.John Beale, Post-Gazette
"The secret will get out, man. We're faster than people think." -- Deon Butler on the misconception of Big Ten football.
Click photo for larger image.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1230.