Penn State 2009: Lions deny 'soft' label on non-conference schedule
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State is poised to make a run at its second consecutive Big Ten Conference title this season.
But the Nittany Lions' soft non-conference schedule -- ranked second-worst among BCS schools by The Sporting News -- could make it hard for them to contend for the national championship.
Penn State's four non-conference opponents, all of whom will visit Beaver Stadium, were a combined 18-30 last season with no bowl appearances.
Only Mississippi has a worse non-conference schedule than Penn State, according to The Sporting News. Two of the Rebels' four non-Southeastern Conference games are against I-AA foes.
Penn State's players have tried to downplay the non-conference schedule.
"It could hurt us, but, the way we look at it, it will be hard to keep us out of the national championship," said center Stefen Wisniewski from Central Catholic High School. "Our goal is to win them all."
The Lions open the season with non-conference games against Akron Sept. 5, Syracuse Sept. 12 and Temple Sept. 19. The last non-Big Ten game is Oct. 10 against Eastern Illinois.
"We're not going to take any of those teams lightly," senior quarterback and co-captain Daryll Clark said. "It's a big-time spoiler if we're not able to take care of the job before we get to [the Big Ten opener against] Iowa [Sept. 26].
"The schedule is not soft. The teams are there for a reason. We just go out and play and win football games, simple as that."
In the Big Ten, Northwestern plays what arguably could be a worse non-conference schedule than Penn State. The Wildcats' four opponents failed to reach a bowl last season and were a combined 11-37.
Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois play three of their four non-conference games against 2008 bowl teams. Preseason favorite Ohio State, which has won or shared four consecutive conference titles, is playing two non-conference bowl opponents from a year ago, as are Michigan and Minnesota.
Linebacker Sean Lee, a fifth-year senior co-captain from Upper St. Clair, said he's not too worried about who the Lions play. He just wants to end the regular season 12-0.
"We have to concentrate game-by-game," Lee said. "You can't get into schedule things because that's not how you win football games. That's not how you go through a long season. If you start looking ahead, you're going to get bitten.
"All of us have the attitude that we're just going to control what we can control, prepare for each game as much as we can, and not worry about the stuff we can't control. We're not mentioned in the national title run if we don't win every game. You have to be perfect. That's something we stress in workouts."
All of that talk about an unbeaten Penn State team possibly being left out of the BCS national championship game last year ended with a 24-23 loss at Iowa. The Lions were 9-0 and ranked No. 3 behind Alabama and Texas Tech in the BCS standings before losing to the Hawkeyes. Their standing was due mainly to their lack of marquee wins.
Coach Joe Paterno insisted he has not given much thought to his team's weak 2009 non-conference schedule.
"Look at what's happened the last couple years with people in their opening games, where they've gotten licked because somebody thought the team they were playing wasn't very good," he said. "I don't know how good anybody else is.
"I don't know how good we are right now. We haven't played a game. ... So for me to worry about what people think about our non-conference schedule -- hey, you guys have got to talk about something. The fans have got to put something on those -- what do you guys call those things -- Twittle-do, Twittle-dee?"
Not even social networking site Twitter, which Paterno was referring to, has been kind to the Lions. Many Penn State observers believe the team's non-conference schedule is too easy.
Paterno, 82, joked that he tries not to meddle in his team's scheduling of future opponents, which includes two non-conference games against SEC power Alabama in 2010 and '11.
"Obviously, I can't be looking at who we're going to be playing in the year 2020," he said. "I'm dumb, but I ain't that dumb. And I'm optimistic, but I ain't that optimistic."
First Published August 2, 2009 12:00 am