Constructive Criticism

Making an argument that the pot shots being leveled at No. 3 Penn State are actually good for its national title hopes.

I never liked a certain aspect of Roy Firestone's interviewing style.

You remember Roy, don't you?

He was the original host of a 1980s ESPN show called “Sportslook” (which later morphed into “Up Close”), and was (and still is) a talented guy. But he rarely had the gumption to directly ask a tough question.

Tough stuff was usually attributed to “They.”

As in: “You know what 'They' are saying about you, [insert troubled guest's name here]? That you beat your wife, steal candy from babies and pull the wings off butterflies. How do you respond to that?”

The tactic buffered him from the direct wrath of the guest and from “Them,” since he usually never said exactly who “They” were.

The viewer was left to determine if “They” were the media, fans, peers, opponents, bookies or some secret cadre of cigar-smoking old men appointed by Ronald Reagan to covertly sway public opinion regarding sports issues.

Fast-forward to 2008, and Roy Firestone has been dispatched to some triple-digit cable channel. But “They” are as powerful as ever, and at the moment they've set their sights on the Penn State football team.

Penn State is 9-0, ranked No. 2 or No. 3 in the nation (depending on which poll you follow) and, with three regular-season games remaining, has proven itself to be the class of the Big Ten so far. But Joe Paterno's program, which is gunning for its first perfect season since 1994 and first national title since 1986, is getting next to no respect.

Late last week, a St. Louis columnist called Penn State a “Big Ten football fraud” that was going to be “gangster-slapped” by a Big 12, SEC or Pac-10 team in the BCS title game. I'm not quite hip enough to know what gangster-slapping is, but I'm guessing it's not a positive.

Sunday, Fox college football expert and former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said there were at least four or five teams better than Penn State and — in what came across as a completely classless rip from a former coach — said there were at least four or five quarterbacks better than Nittany Lion junior Daryll Clark.

And since Saturday night — emboldened by their home upset of No. 1 TexasTexas Tech fans have been ripping Penn State on message boards. You know you have something to prove when followers of a program whose postseason claim to fame is a 1-8 record in the Sun Bowl start kicking sand in your face.

But that is where Penn State is, thanks to a less-than-impressive non-conference schedule, a down year for many of the perennial powers in the Big Ten and Ohio State's colossal flops in the past two national title games.

And if you're a Nittany Lion fan, your blood is probably boiling and you're on the verge of “gangster-slapping” the next critic who calls out your beloved team.

But you shouldn't be.

Because all of this is working out PERFECTLY for Penn State.

Think about it: The Nittany Lions just emerged from a tough stretch that included a win at Wisconsin, a home victory over Michigan and then a road W at Ohio State. If there was ever a time for heads to swell and complacency to set it, it was after breaking long losing streaks to the Wolverines and then in Ohio Stadium.

Then the PSU players and coaches had a bye week, which gave them a chance to sit back, watch what was going on around the nation, and — most importantly — hear a myriad of talking heads tell the world how bad they are.

You think Clark might be the slightest bit motivated after being called out by Switzer on national TV? You think his teammates appreciated that line, or all of the other negative stuff that was said about them over the weekend? You think they are a tad ticked that a program with zero tradition like Texas Tech jumped them in the BCS standings and the Associated Press media poll?

The “us-against-the-world” approach to motivation is so overused it has become cliché, especially in Happy Valley. Penn State players and even certain assistant coaches are constantly saying “no one gave us a chance,” even in games in which they were favored.

In this instance, however, they have every right to be steamed because people really are blasting them.

The Lions close out the regular season with a road trip to Iowa this week, followed by home games with Indiana and Michigan State. They figure to be solid favorites in each of those contests. And now they figure to be extremely motivated to prove themselves, even against the hapless Hoosiers (who, by the way, played a key role in PSU being snubbed for the national title in 1994).

I know what you're thinking: All of this negative talk about Penn State is going to cost it a national title shot, just like negative press hurt the Lions in 1994. But I don't see it that way.

If the season ended today, Alabama and Texas Tech — ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the BCS standings, respectively — would square off for the national title.

But Alabama (9-0) must travel to defending national champ LSU this week. If it gets past the Tigers, it finishes with home tilts against Mississippi State and Auburn, and then will likely face dangerous Florida (No. 5 in the BCS now) in the SEC title game.

The road is even more precarious for Texas Tech (9-0), which has No. 9 Oklahoma State at home this week, then a bye, then closes at No. 6 Oklahoma and versus Baylor. As good as the Red Raiders are, they have not had a perfect November since 1993, when they handled TCU, SMU and Houston.

The bottom line is, if Alabama and Texas Tech both navigate their ways to perfect regular seasons, they will and should land in the title game based on their own accomplishments and their respective conferences' strength of schedule, regardless of what anyone says or writes about Penn State.

Meanwhile, the chances of at least one of the teams ahead of the Nittany Lions losing in the next few weeks are extremely high. If and when that happens, Penn State need only take care of business in its final three regular-season games — thus remaining the only other (or perhaps only) unbeaten BCS conference team — to advance to the BCS title matchup.

And if you're thinking a one-loss team might jump a zero-loss Penn State at some point, forget about it. The gap between the Nittany Lions and the first one-loss team in the BCS standings (Texas) is enormous.

So coming full circle here, the last time Penn State rolled into November unbeaten was 1999. The Nittany Lions were 9-0, ranked No. 2 nationally, loaded with future NFL talent and appeared to have a fairly manageable road to an unbeaten regular season. “They” had nothing but good things to say about PSU.

But that team became wrapped up in its press clippings and — according to Paterno — several stars became more concerned about their pending pro careers than attending the task at hand. The result, as you surely recall, was a lack of focus and motivation that led to back to back to back losses.

This year, there has been zero talk about the NFL. As for getting wrapped up in press clippings, that's difficult to do when practically all of them are negative.

“They” may not have many nice things to say about the Nittany Lions these days. From this angle, though, it sure seems like they're doing Joe Paterno and his program a huge favor.


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