ORLANDO, Fla. - To hear some people tell it, Penn State is a "typical" Big Ten team, which is to say the Nittany Lions are big, strong - and slow.
Many of the same people suggest that the LSU Tigers, whom the Lions play Friday afternoon in the Capital One Bowl, are emblematic of the kind of jackrabbit football played in the Southeastern Conference. Oh, they're big and strong, too, but fast as a hiccup.
There sometimes is a fine line between perception and reality, but when old stereotypes are repeated often enough, that line can become etched in stone. Some of those holding aloft the Big Ten's tattered banner insist they've had enough of the snide remarks and unflattering innuendos. They are sick and tired of being portrayed as Midwestern plodders who can't keep up with Deep South players whose presumed superiority in team speed makes the Big Ten guys look as if they're running in cement shoes.
The matchup of No. 11 Penn State (10-2) and No. 13 LSU (9-3) might be the best college football game being played here this week, but it isn't the only one. Last night, 24th-ranked Wisconsin (10-3) upset No. 14 Miami (9-4), 20-14, in the Champs Sports Bowl at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
Penn State All-America defensive tackle Jared Odrick happened across Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema a few days ago and, after they exchanged pleasantries, Bielema said something that the 6-5, 296-pound anchor of the Lions' d-line took to heart.
"Coach Bielema shook my hand and said, 'Represent,' " Odrick said. "What he was telling me, basically, was to go out and represent our conference well."
Until some Big Ten team or teams prove otherwise, the conference's fading national image is likely to remain in place. Big Ten teams were 1-6 in bowl games after the 2008 season, including Penn State's 38-24 thrashing by Southern California in the Rose Bowl, in which Trojans quarterback Mark Sanchez passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns.
It was hardly an aberration. The Big Ten hasn't had a bowl record over .500 since 2002, and with each passing season, the league whose offensive philosophy former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once characterized as "3 yards and a cloud of dust" seems to be clinging to its conservative ways, to its detriment.
Is LSU faster than Penn State, man for man? Certainly the Tigers - who are 4-0 in bowl games under coach Les Miles, outscoring opponents by a ridiculous combined margin of 157-44 - think so.
"Our two conferences are a lot different," LSU's 19-year-old sophomore quarterback, Jordan Jefferson, said of the Big Ten/SEC comparison. "The SEC has a lot more speed-type people. [The Lions] have a lot more big guys.
"We've got great receivers and running backs to try to take advantage of something Penn State doesn't have."
Odrick doesn't doubt that LSU has players - principally diminutive running back Trindon Holliday, true freshman utility player Russell Shepard and wide receiver Brandon LaFell - who can stretch any defense, including Penn State's nationally rated unit. But he disputes the notion that his team is a bunch of plow horses choking on the dust of LSU's thoroughbreds.
"We think we're pretty fast," Odrick said. "I think I'm pretty fast for my size. Look, there's speed everywhere. There are reasons for why the Big Ten is thought of the way it is."
Those reasons, Big Ten partisans insist, have little to do with stopwatches. They have more to do with calendars.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno, at 83, college football's grand, old man, on the one hand might be cut from some of the same tradition-heavy cloth as Hayes, but on the other he is a firebrand for change. JoePa is not a proponent of the BCS format for determining a national champion in the Football Bowl Subdivision; he's long made a case for settling things on the field, with a playoff. And he said it's imperative that the Big Ten add a 12th team, so the league can be split into two six-team divisions, the better to stretch the season a bit and keep the league competitive with the SEC, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Lions played 12 games in as many weeks without a bye, opening their regular season on Sept. 5 and ending it on Nov. 21 with a 42-14 blowout of Michigan State in East Lansing. That means Penn State will take the field against LSU without having played a game in 40 days. LSU, meanwhile, had a bye week and concluded its regular season on Nov. 28 with a 33-30 overtime victory over Arkansas, giving the Tigers only 33 days of down time since then.
Paterno, big-time college football's all-time winningest coach, has a 23-11-1 bowl record, with four victories over SEC teams since 1992. But he said a team can lose its edge if it goes too long between games, which often puts Big Ten squads at a disadvantage.
To try to offset the rust-collecting factor, Paterno brought his team to Daytona Beach, Fla., on Dec. 20 for a week of intense, two-a-day drills before heading farther south. Whether that has enabled the Lions to regain the sharpness they displayed against Michigan State remains to be seen.
"Everybody's looking good and crisp, senior tight end Mickey Shuler said. "It came right back when I got to work. It's all muscle memory anyway."
Odrick agreed, saying, "I don't think we need to put in any 'Annexation of Puerto Rico' plays to beat LSU," a reference to the movie "Little Giants," in which a supposedly outmanned peewee team pulls off a huge upset.
Still, Odrick noted, beating LSU - a 2 1/2-point underdog - would be a major boost for a team that came up short in its two signature matchups, home losses to Iowa and Ohio State.