The Alabama Crimson Tide and Penn State Nittany Lions headline the second week of college football action with a meeting in Happy Valley on Saturday afternoon. The matchup is the game of the week, pitting two top-25 teams, as well as powerhouse programs, against one another in an early-season setting with plenty of unknowns.
Both teams have followed a similar path to this point, with quarterback competitions that have stretched from the practice fields to game situations with no real resolution thus far. Alabama and Penn State will each likely play two quarterbacks while searching to find a true starter by throwing the combatants into the fire.
The Nitany Lions and Crimson Tide each steam-rolled a lesser opponent in Week 1, setting up Saturday's huge matchup. While last weekend offered fans a first-look at both Alabama and Penn State, this weekend will be the measuring stick as the Crimson Tide hit the road and enter Big Ten country.
To get a better idea about these unknowns, we grabbed some of our best and brightest bloggers to answer a few questions. Peter Gray and Chris Grovich, from SB Nation's Penn State blog, Black Shoe Diaries, and kleph, from our Alabama blog, Roll Bama Roll, were kind enough to lend some insight into the matchup ahead of the big game.
Both your teams scheduled a steam-roller game in week one as a sort-of tuneup to the huge matchup in Week 2. Do you like this approach to scheduling the non-conference? Is playing a marquee game, with both teams so highly ranked, early something you guys see as a positive?
Peter: Bold scheduling is something I'm hugely in favor of, and wish we saw more of. That said, doing it in week one is extremely risky. I'm glad Penn State scheduled a tune up game in week one ahead of Alabama, as it avoids the situation Georgia is staring at right now. I think aggressive scheduling is good for college football overall, but like I said, it's a definite risk for the programs involved.
Chris: Big fan of that scheduling approach, although we're not seeing the usual benefits of it. Penn State is working through a quarterback controversy (same with Alabama, really) so it's nice to see those players get a chance to distinguish themselves. Problem is, neither really did that against hapless Indiana State, and now the coaching staff will attempt to gauge its quarterbacks against Alabama's hellish defense. In the end, both of Penn State's opening games might not tell us much.
Kleph: There are advantages and disadvantages. In 2008 and 2009 Alabama started with then-top ten ranked opponents and went on to undefeated regular seasons. Last year Alabama started against
a Boise State conference rival cupcake and suffered three losses. If the team is prepared and has a strong showing against a top rival, it gives a lot of momentum going forward. On the other hand, a lesser opponent gives you an extra week to fine tune things.
Along the same lines, did you learn anything last week or was it kind of a throwaway game?
Peter: I think it was a throwaway game, due almost entirely to the fact that the QB race is still up in the air. Had either Rob Bolden or Matt McGloin firmly grabbed a hold of the starting job, I would feel differently.
Chris: Penn State had protection breakdowns on between one-third to one-half of its passing plays. Against Indiana State. Seriously, Indiana State. I'm sure this will totally not be a chronic impending disaster against Alabama. We also learned that we have no placekicker, Silas Redd is pretty fantastic, and Matt McGloin remains capable of at least one inexplicable, soul-crushing throw per game.
Kleph: For Alabama fans, last week certainly wasn't a throwaway game since it was the first real opportunity to see what the team looks like this season. Coach Saban has been extremely guarded throughout fall camp not only making the scrimmages off-limits to the press but only releasing a few stats. So we got to see a lot of players we've been hearing things about and get our first real look at this team. A lot of the "problems" performance wise seemed to be related to the amount of substituting and trying different players. It seems reasonable to expect a lot more consistency on Saturday.
Both your teams are playing a bit of quarterback roulette in the early season, switching back-and-forth between two guys to find a suitable starter going forward. First, what's your gauge on which player will make it out alive -- or if a two-quarterback system is in play all year? Next, does this change how your team prepares for the week, having to deal with two guys under center?
Peter: I think Rob Bolden gives Penn State the best chance to win, and I've been on record about that for a while now. However, I'm at the point where I just want SOMEONE to win the job decisively and I don't really care who it is. I don't think the two-QB system will change how Penn State prepares for Alabama, as both Bolden and McGloin have been sharing snaps in practice for about a month now.
Chris: Both are essentially pro-style guys, so it's not like we're working with two different playbooks or forcing Kirby Smart to reduce his nightly sleep from a half-hour to fifteen minutes. My sense is that Rob Bolden will emerge as the guy. More of a hope than a sense, really. McGloin has his merits and excelled against the defensive dregs of the Big Ten (Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern), but was eaten alive by good defenses in 2010 (Ohio State, Florida). Naturally, he looked good last week.
Kleph: The quarterback situation kind of follows the other two points above. The limited access to camp has given McCarron and Sims the opportunity to compete for he position without a lot of distractions. The performance in the Kent State game is probably best seen as a final scrimmage of Fall Camp than a deciding factor in and of itself. McCarron clearly had the better outing but he's got more real game experience as well. All the other things we were looking from them both we saw - as well as the fact they are young and need playing time to eliminate mistakes.
What worries you the most about your opponent this week?
Peter: Alabama's defense is scary. When I run through the match-ups in my head, I consistently have problems figuring out how Penn State's going to score. I think we'll need a career performance out of one of our QBs, as Bama's going to load up to stop Silas Redd and the ground game. There are talented wide receivers on the outside, we just need someone to get them the ball to keep the defense honest.
Chris: Their ability to keep the Penn State defense on the field for extended periods. For that matter, their ability to get Penn State's offense off the field quickly. This is probably a much better team than the one which lost at Alabama last year -- the linebackers are an unspeakably huge upgrade over last year's group -- though it'll take a few lucky breaks for Penn State to have a chance at the end.
Kleph: Penn State matches up very well against Alabama. Both teams have solid running games, good recievers and questions at quarterback. The lines have talent, size and experience but have somewhat underperformed in the past despite that. The secondaries are both superb. Matchups like that tend to come down to turnovers and special teams. If PSU has an edge it is likely with the latter.
Score predictions and why?
Peter: I've been tossing around scores all week, but I'm settling on 17-13 Alabama. Both defenses should control the tempo of the game, but I think Alabama's going to get the one extra stop.
Chris: Alabama 23, Penn State 10. I can't see the PSU quarterbacks avoiding fatal mistakes all afternoon against such a talented defense. Bolden tends to lock onto his primary receiver, McGloin tends to lock onto defenders a few times per game. We'll need Alabama to have continued ball security issues (four interceptions, four fumbles last week) to have a chance. Nothing is impossible, but this is an uphill battle.
Kleph: With a soggy field and powerful defenses, it seems pretty likely this will be a low-scoring affair. If Penn State can't handle Trent Richardson again this year the end will probably be similar to last year. Yet if turnovers turn out to be a factor, it's anyone's game.
Anything else related to the game? Players to watch, smack talk, things to keep an eye on?
Peter: No smack talk, I just hope Alabama fans visiting Happy Valley this weekend have a great time. It was awesome to hear how hospitable and kind Tide fans were to our fans last year in Tuscaloosa, and I hope we can return the favor this year.
Chris: Watch Silas Redd, then come back and tell me about SEC speed. He's the next great running back at Penn State and doesn't need much room to operate. Also focus on how Penn State mixes guys like tiny, but lightning-quick Devon Smith into the gameplan. He's our own little Trindon Holliday, only without all the touchdowns and game-changing ability. Okay, he's little and fast. Fine. Finally, if Penn State is going to have success defensively, it'll need a boost from defensive ends Jack Crawford and Sean Stanley, as well as defensive tackles Devon Still and Jordan Hill. Alabama's offensive line seems to be its Achilles heel, and those defensive linemen will have to be responsible for rattlings A.J. McCarron and his stupid, giant chest tattoo.
Kleph: If the Alabama offense gets going, it will most likely be through a standout performance by the tight ends. The ability of Michael Williams (89) and Brad Smelley (17) to set blocks and make those dump off receptions will make the difference for the offense no matter which quarterback is under center.
For more from the Alabama side of things, head over to Roll Bama Roll, where you'll find an amazing look at past Alabama-Penn State program covers from kleph, a podcast that looks back at last week's game and ahead to Saturday's, and a look at what the advanced stats say about the Crimson Tide.
For more from the Penn State side of things, visit Black Shoe Diaries, where you'll find a Q&A with a Penn State drum major, a hilarious look at odds for this weekend, and the formation of a blog mob.