STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Big Ten brawn vs. SEC speed.
About the only way that Penn State coach Joe Paterno thinks his Nittany Lions can keep up with the Florida Gators' speed in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day is if Mother Nature intervenes.
A bowl game between two of college football's high-profile programs may again test whether the relatively plodding Big Ten can keep up with 40 yard-dash champs from the South.
"The one thing that comes at you is their speed. I don't think we can match their speed," Paterno said Monday on a conference call. "Obviously we have to be in good position, we can't miss tackles ... We've got to play a good, solid football game."
Now, if by chance rain were to bog down the Raymond James Stadium field before the game, that may even things out somewhat in Paterno's mind. Rain was a huge factor in Penn State's bowl game last season, when torrential morning downpours turned the Capital One Bowl field in Orlando into muddy mosh pit.
The Nittany Lions emerged from the muck with an exciting 19-17 victory over another SEC team, LSU, for Paterno's record 24th bowl win.
"The same thing worried me in the football game, and the good Lord took care of us. It rained like the dickens," Paterno said. "Now can I get it to rain (this year), and the field will be nice and sloppy? Maybe that speed won't be quite as prominent a factor."
Weather worries aside, the trip to Tampa for a Jan. 1 bowl game is a nice landing spot for a 7-5 Penn State team that lost its four marquee matchups of the regular season – to Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State – plus a disappointing homecoming weekend defeat to Illinois.
Penn State, Illinois and Iowa each finished with identical 4-4 conference records. The Outback Bowl, which gets the next pick of Big Ten non-BCS teams after the Capital One, went with the Nittany Lions and set up a marquee coaching matchup against Florida's Urban Meyer.
Each coach has won two national titles at their respective schools.
"Coach Paterno is college football. He does it the right way," Meyer said. "It's an honor to be able to coach against him."
Much like Penn State, Florida, too, has lost some big games this season, finishing with the same record at 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. They lost 31-6 in October to Alabama – the same team that handily defeated Penn State, 24-3 in September. When asked which opponent this season most resembles Florida, Paterno without hesitation cited Alabama.
In the past, Penn State has done well against the SEC come the post season.
Besides last year's bowl win over LSU, the Nittany Lions are 3-0 in three previous appearances at the Outback with victories over Tennessee (2007), Kentucky (1999) and Auburn (1996). They lost to Florida in the 1998 Citrus Bowl.
Paterno said Matt McGloin will likely remain the starter after the quarterback helped revive the offense and lead Penn State to a 4-2 mark in the season's second half. Top linebacker Michael Mauti, hampered by an injured right shoulder in recent weeks, has been practicing and should be OK for Florida.
The extra bowl practices will be beneficial for a team that starts just eight seniors and has had to deal with a slew of injuries. So there will be little free time once Paterno lands in Florida, a place where the 83-year-old coach said he once "chased the girls" in his carefree single days while vacationing with friends.
As usual, JoePa plans to bring his whole extended family, which includes 17 grandchildren, down for a vaction – though he'll be holed up in a hotel room watching film while they're splashing around in the water.
"You don't have time to go the beach, no," Paterno said. "We're going down there, and we've got some work to do."