Sellout crowd. An undefeated opponent. Prime-time kickoff. Urban Meyer. Ohio State.
Will Bill O'Brien be able to orchestrate a win over the Big Ten's top team?
Your head spinning yet?
There is no denying Penn State will play its biggest game of the season on Saturday night when the Buckeyes invade Beaver Stadium at 5:30 p.m. And this game is big for so many reasons.
If Bill O'Brien used road thumpings of Illinois and Iowa and a comeback home win over Northwestern to show the Big Ten (and more than a few interested observers around the nation) that he can coach a bit, he has a chance to establish himself as the alpha dog in a fresh group of conference coaches if he can win his initial battle with Meyer.
If the dozens and dozens of recruits who will line the sidelines on Saturday night (O'Brien's estimate of 80-100 last week was likely modest) are impressed by the crowd, the facilities and the way the Nittany Lions play, they'll come away even more impressed (perhaps enough to make a big decision a few days later) if the home team can take down the program that's recruiting a lot of them just as hard.
If a group of Nittany Lions that's playing with poise and confidence can turn aside a team that has had its ups and downs but is quite possibly, top to bottom, the most talented squad in the Big Ten, then how challenging can the rest of what seemed at one point to be a brutal second half of the schedule look to them?
It's tough, and often shortsighted, to place too much importance on one game. But you have to consider the big picture -- O'Brien and the Nittany Lions are about to take a big plunge, a plunge no other program has ever taken. After the season, the scholarship reductions will begin to take hold. Each step they take will be uphill. Maybe they will be able to endure, holding on to the top recruits who have already committed, bringing a few more on board and, most importantly, keeping the rest of their current roster intact. Even if they do all of those things, it's hard to envision them chewing through the Big Ten as easily as they have the past few weeks.
And yet, whatever success the Nittany Lions have during the final five weeks of this season will help them fill their lungs with air for that big plunge, allow them to enter the final three years of the sanctions with precious momentum. And they need this game to keep building on it. Should they stumble, it could lead to a few more losses, which could lead to a few more lost recruits or transfers at season's end. The same applies for the attendance and, in turn, the health of the athletic department. Win this game in front of the first sellout crowd of the season, and there's no reason Penn State shouldn't expect big crowds for the Indiana and Wisconsin games, to say nothing of future seasons. Lose it, and the empty seats that were so glaring in September could return.
The other thing to consider is the opponent. It would be one thing if Penn State were taking on Alabama or USC this weekend. But it's playing Ohio State, a team that has the potential to be (or remain) its chief adversary during the sanction years and beyond. This is a pivotal game for the Buckeyes as as well. Whatever O'Brien and his squad can do, both on the field and the recruiting trail, to keep Meyer and the Buckeyes from establishing the high ground during the sanction years will go a long way and pay off when the chains have been lifted and Penn State is once again operating at full strength.
Yes, there's a lot of football left after Saturday, but it's hard to see the coach who wins this game not winding up as the Big Ten Coach of the Year. It's hard to imagine the winning team not winding up at the top of the Leaders Division standings at year's end, even though neither team is eligible for the Big Ten championship game.
Instead of folding under the NCAA sanctions, Penn State has used them as a rallying point. That, coupled with a quick and remarkable meshing with the new coaching staff, has the Nittany Lions playing some of their best football in years. Even with a loss this week, they could continue that impressive play and go into 2013 with more momentum than most expected.
The momentum that a win over Brutus the Buckeye would generate, though, is another thing entirely.