[NOTE: this is a repost of a post from a few days ago that I somehow managed to delete. Sorry to the commenters, but I was able to recover everything else].
This is the game that casts a pall over the entire season. At about this time last year, IU announced that it had sold the 2010 home game against Penn State to the Washington Redskins, to be played at the Redskins' stadium in Landover, Maryand, which is 200 miles from State College, 130 miles from Philadelphia, and 628 miles from Bloomington. Given the difference in distance and intensity of the fan bases, IU essentially will be playing a road-neutral game in addition to three conference home games and four road games. Here's what I said last summer, and while I said that it was possible that my opinions on it would moderate, they really haven't. More than anything else, certainly more than an extra $3 million in the athletic budget (if it's even that much--it's never been entirely clear whether that $3 million is subject to revenue sharing and to what degree), IU's football program needs to win games. We have one bowl appearance and two winning seasons in the last 16 seasons. Moving a game from Bloomington to a neutral site where, by design, the crowd will be overwhelmingly in support of the "road" team diminishes IU's chances for a win. It also damages the quality of the season ticket package. IU has spent a ton of money marketing the football program, including the commercials that promote the gameday experience and making the trip to Bloomington (EDIT: not to mention the tens of millions of dollars spent on expanding and upgrading Memorial Stadium). With the sale of the Penn State game, IU is undercutting its own marketing strategy.
When this story struck last year, the reaction of Penn State fans was, "silly Hoosiers, you've never beat us and never will! You would have lost anyway!" Of course, I'm not arguing that IU was likely to beat Penn State if the game were played in Bloomington. Still, while IU is 0-13 against Penn State, three of Penn State's last four trips to Indiana (three games in Bloomington and a 2000 game in Indianapolis, a legitimate home-neutral game) were decided in the last minute. Only one of the games in Happy Valley, the 38-31 Penn State win in 1993, was close enough for IU to have had a shot at the end. Ultimately, to make progress as a program, IU is going to have to beat one of the big three. It's not likely in any given year, but selling games off like this makes it even less likely.
There will be plenty of time to complain about this game as the season transpires. How will the Nittany Lions be this year? Penn State is ranked #14 in the preseason coaches' poll. After a really tough stretch from 2000-2004, when Penn State went 26-33 and had three losing seasons, Joe Paterno and his staff have righted the ship. In the last five season, Penn State has won 51 games and has done no worse than 9-4. Like other Big Ten contenders Ohio State and Iowa, Penn State's strength in 2009 was its defense. The Nittany Lions ranked in the top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense. IU scored 20 points in last season's 31-20 loss at Penn State, and Iowa and Ohio State were the only other teams to break the 20 point barrier against The Nittany Lions. Penn State loses all of its starting linebackers plus lineman Jared Odrick, but for the most part the line and secondary remain intact. On offense, with the departure of quarterback Daryll Clark, the quarterback position remains in flux with the season close at hand. Either sophomore Kevin Newsome, who played sparingly last season, sophomore Matt McGloin, who played even less, or one of two true freshmen, Paul Jones or Robert Bolden will get the job. Evan Royster, a senior and one of the nation's top returning running backs, will take the pressure off the new quarterback. Last year, he ran for 1169 yards and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry. Penn State's top two receivers, Derek Moye and Graham Zug, also return.
As always, Penn State will be a formidable opponent, and the venue gives me even less optimism than I would have had otherwise. Still, that can't be changed, and by the time this game rolls around we will know much more about both teams and whether playing the game in Bloomington would have made any difference.