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Penn State Football: Ranking Lions in Top 25? Doesn’t Hurt for One AP Voter

by on October 10, 2012 6:00 AM

Cecil Hurt was wrestling over whether to slot Ohio at No. 25 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll or Penn State. He understands the Bobcats defeated the Nittany Lions on the opening weekend of the college football season but settled on PSU, despite the 24-14 loss Sept. 1, because, simply, it’s playing like a top-25 team.

There will be room in his poll for Ohio next week if it can knock off 1-5 Akron at home on Saturday. Sitting just outside the top 25 this week, Ohio is a near certainty to be ranked because No. 22 Texas A&M travels to No. 23 Louisiana Tech, and the loser will drop out.

But with the Lions (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) off this week, Hurt, who covers the University of Alabama for the Tuscaloosa News, saw enough after their 39-28 come-from-behind victory against Northwestern to warrant a seat at the table with 24 of the best teams in college football.

“It’s not a sympathy vote,” Hurt said. “I voted them 25 because I think they’re the 25th-best team. I think there were a lot of mitigating circumstances going on in the first two weeks and a period of adjustment.”

Indeed.

The aforementioned Ohio game was a swirling storm of emotion for a university that endured a shattered image in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal on top of crippling NCAA sanctions that took away the sniff of any postseason long before the opening kickoff left the tee.

Chalk up the second loss to a bad day at the office and a specialist having to endure the worst performance of his young career, four missed field goals and a blocked extra point in a 17-16 loss at Virginia.

But the Penn State team Hurt has watched overcome an 0-2 start to win four straight is vastly different than the one from as recent as early September. More to the point, this Penn State team is vastly different than the one he watched play in person in 2010-11 when Alabama and Penn State scheduled a home-and-home series. The discrepancy between the two programs was evident. One is sirloin, the other filet mignon.

Hurt doesn’t need a live look to know what’s different about this 2012 group, however. Matt McGloin’s improved decision making, and, by extension, play, can be clearly seen from afar, even 900 miles southwest of State College.

“McGloin’s improvement probably stands out to me,” Hurt said. “The combination of coaching and maturity. They obviously are well-coached offensively. [Bill] O’Brien does a great job.”

Hence, another connection. Both O’Brien and Tide coach Nick Saban are disciples of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Both are being discussed for national coach of the year honors at the midway point of the season, though for entirely different reasons. Saban has his eyes set on a third national championship in four years. O’Brien helped salvage Penn State football from becoming irrelevant.

Hurt has a vote for AP Coach of the Year, but just as O’Brien downplayed the talk Tuesday, there’s too much football to be played yet to have any serious discussion on the merits of O’Brien winning. Florida’s Will Muschamp, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Oregon State’s Mike Riley were immediate names to come to Hurt’s mind as also being worthy of the honor.

O'Brien's campaign can really gain traction with a couple more wins, starting Oct. 20 at Iowa and then following up a week later at Beaver Stadium with what could be a chance to knock off a top 10 foe in Ohio State.

"We have murderer’s row coming up here," O'Brien said.

Get through October unblemished, though, and more voters are certain to side with Hurt on just how good this Penn State team can be.



Nate Mink covers Penn State football and news for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @MinkNate.
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