Joe Paterno made Penn State a national football power by beating other national powers.
Between 1977 and 1983, Penn State recorded 12 victories against Associated Press top-10 opponents, including two against No. 1 teams (Pitt in 1981; Georgia in the 1983 Sugar Bowl). The Lions beat top-ranked Notre Dame in 1990 and defeated at least one top-10 team in three of the next four seasons.
But Penn State's place among the nation's elite has been shakier in recent years. The program escaped the pits of 2000-04 and won Big Ten titles in 2005 and 2008. Penn State has averaged 9.7 wins in the past six seasons, a total most teams would take in a heartbeat.
But the signature wins, the ones that put the Penn State program -- and not just its iconic coach -- in the national spotlight, have been lacking. The Lions have dropped six of their past seven games against ranked opponents, stretching back to the 2009 Rose Bowl. They have dropped six of their past seven contests against AP top-10 teams, stretching back to the middle of the 2005 season.
Here's the kicker: Penn State hasn't beaten a team ranked in the AP's top-5 since the 1999 season opener, when it thumped then-No. 4 Arizona 41-7 in the Pigskin Classic. Paterno was 72 years young at the time.
Taking the step from good to great has stifled Penn State.
Saturday afternoon, the Lions have an opportunity to take that step.
The Alabama Crimson Tide are coming to Happy Valley. They entered the season ranked No. 2 nationally, boast legitimate BCS championship hopes and carry the banner for the best conference in the country, a league that has tormented the Big Ten during its incredible run.
Until postseason play begins, no Big Ten team has a better chance to make a national statement than Penn State does Saturday. A win against the favored Tide would do wonders for Penn State's reputation and, in the process, boost the Big Ten's.
The Big Ten-SEC rivalry continues to burn, but the Big Ten hasn't made much of a case between the lines. The SEC has won the past five national titles, while the Big Ten last claimed one in 2002. Eight months ago, the SEC contributed to the Big Ten's New Year's Day disaster, as three SEC teams (Alabama, Mississippi State and Florida) beat three Big Ten teams (Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State) by a combined score of 138-45.
Alabama delivered the biggest blow, completely outclassing Big Ten co-champion Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. Even the Big Ten's lone bowl win against the SEC, Ohio State's Sugar Bowl triumph against Arkansas, was blighted by controversy.
The common belief is that the Big Ten, like every other league, has slipped behind the SEC. It will take much more than a Penn State win Saturday to change minds, but the Lions can start the process.
But this is more about Penn State than the Big Ten. Where's Penn State's place on the national radar? Are the Lions still a power or just a team capable of a great season once every 4-5 years? Recruiting has fluctuated during the past decade, and the number of NFL draft picks Penn State has produced has dipped a little since the boom from the late-80s to mid-90s. Still, the talent on the current squad matches up with the Big Ten's best.
The national discussion about Penn State still revolves around Paterno. People want to hear what Joe said, watch how Joe looks and speculate on when (or if) Joe will retire. Aside from the protracted quarterback race, there's not nearly as much attention on the team itself. Wisconsin and Ohio State are viewed as the class of the Leaders division, while Penn State seems to be largely overlooked.
The Lions can get everyone's attention by beating Alabama. A win against Nick Saban gets you national cred, period. Penn State would immediately be seen as a contender for the Big Ten title.
One of college football's greatest cheers will echo throughout one of the game's great venues Saturday afternoon in Happy Valley.
"We are! Penn State! We are! Penn State!"
But what will Penn State be in 2011?
A win against Bama would provide quite the answer.