Top 25 countdown: No. 5: Penn State

The Times' Chris Dufresne unveils his preseason college football top 25, one day (and team) at a time.

No. 5 Penn State

Penn State is poised for a terrific fall, a possible sixth undefeated season under Joe Paterno, and has to be considered a candidate to make the Bowl Championship Series title game next January in Pasadena.

We know this because, at a news conference in early August, Paterno said: "Nothing excites me yet. I'll be honest with you. We're lousy. I have nothing to be excited about right now as a team. I'm serious about that."

Start polishing the Big Ten trophy.

Paterno wasn't serious -- he was sandbagging. Rankman was born at night, but not last night.

Penn State, of course, has issues; everybody out there does except maybe Florida.

The Nittany Lions lost their three top receivers, the offensive line needs to be retooled and concerns about the secondary are primary.

But how good Penn State really is really doesn't matter. All it has to do is win the woebegone Big Ten, which it won last year, when it defeated Ohio State in Columbus, a fact lost on Big Ten pundits who picked Ohio State to win the league this year.

Penn State's non-conference schedule has basically been delivered by a bellhop on a platter. Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois are first, second, third and home plate on the patsy grand slam.

Penn State's exciting home-and-home against Alabama doesn't start until 2010, which gives Happy Valley an excellent chance of going undefeated -- and possibly getting squeezed out of another national title.

Penn State needs to hope it doesn't get locked into a three-way undefeated battle with Florida, Oklahoma, Texas or USC -- because the Nittany Lions will probably lose that BCS standings battle.

Penn State has won two national titles under Paterno, in 1982 an '86, but there were four other years -- 1968, '69, '73, '94 -- in which the Nittany Lions were undefeated but were not crowned champions by the major polling indexes.

The perception of playing weak schedules has haunted Paterno teams for years. And this could be one of those teams, and one of those years.

Penn State, otherwise, has plenty returning from the team that lost the Rose Bowl showcase game that helped make USC's Mark Sanchez a multi-millionaire and starting quarterback for the New York Jets.

The Nittany Lions have a tremendous center of gravity behind center, starting at quarterback with quarterback Darryl Clark, who returns after a stellar season in which he threw a school-record 29 touchdowns.

Clark is buffeted by two talented backs, Evan Royster and Stephon Green.

Penn State will be significantly bolstered on defense by the return of linebacker Sean Lee, an All-American-type talent who sat out last year because of a knee injury.

And, to boot, the Nittany Lions have Jeremy Boone, the Big Ten's top punter.

Penn State has to beat the teams it should beat and worry about four games: Iowa on Sept. 26, at Illinois on Oct. 3, home versus Ohio State on Nov. 7 and the Big Ten season-ender at Michigan State on Nov. 21.

With the Rose Bowl hosting two games this year, the chances of Penn State landing in one of those games appears strong.

The countdown so far: 25. UCLA; 24. Nevada; 23. Notre Dame; 22. Oregon State; 21. Florida State; 20. Nebraska; 19. North Carolina; 18. Utah; 17. Georgia Tech; 16. California; 15. Virginia Tech; 14. Alabama; 13. Georgia; 12. Boise State; 11. Texas Christian; 10. Mississippi; 9. Louisiana State; 8. Ohio State; 7. Oklahoma State; 6. Oregon; No. 5 Penn State.


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