As Penn State prepares to tackle Florida in the 25th Outback Bowl in Tampa Saturday, there has been no shortage of storylines on both sides.
The game is being played at Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and will be televised by ABC with a 1 p.m. kickoff.
The Outback Bowl has been good to the Nittany Lions over the years, as they are unbeaten in their three previous trips there.
There has been rampant speculation that this could be Joe Paterno's last game as Penn State coach, but Paterno, who turned 84 years old on Dec. 21, dismissed those rumors, calling them "ridiculous" and stating that he intends to return for his 46th season at the helm in 2011. That would also be the third and final year of his current contract.
Paterno's wife Sue, as well as his daughter and daughter-in-law, have also denied that this would be JoePa's final game, as did PSU Athletic Director Tim Curley, who stressed this week that he expects Paterno to return to the Beaver Stadium sidelines.
The media can't seem to wait to break the scoop on Paterno's retirement, but when it happens, it is doubtful that it'll be a big secret. Anytime JoePa sneezes these days, the retirement whispers crop up.
With all the attention on Paterno's supposed departure, it is ironic that it is his Florida counterpart, Urban Meyer, who is leaving his job after resigning on Dec. 8.
This will be Meyer's final game with the Gators, who he has guided to a 64-15 record and two national titles (206 and 2008) in his six years in charge.
Florida has already named Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp as Meyer's successor.
Both the Lions and Gators are in the top 10 nationally in winning percentage since 2005, with the Gators' ranked fourth (.810) and the Lions' 58-18 mark good for 10th (.763).
That said, both teams carry 7-5 records into battle, and each went 4-4 in their respective conferences. Both have been idle since Nov. 27. The Lions come into the game having won four of their last six, while the Gators have dropped five of their last eight after a 4-0 start.
The Southeastern Conference is noted for the speed of its teams, and Paterno is well aware of that. Paterno has an 8-4 record versus SEC teams in the postseason, including a win over LSU in the Capital One Bowl back in January.
"I've watched them play for a lot of years," said Paterno during the Outback Bowl Media Day press conference on Dec. 10. "The Southeastern Conference plays a very aggressive, fast game of football."
Offensively, Florida averages 356.8 yards and 29.2 points per game, compared to PSU's 374.1 yards of total offense and 24.6 per game average.
Redshirt junior John Brantley leads the Gators in passing with 194 completions in 316 attempts for 2,020 yards. He has as many TD passes (9) as he does interceptions.
With Meyer leaving, Brantley is reportedly considering transferring. The Gators have true freshman Trey Burton and reshirt freshman Jordan Reed in reserve, and it has been mentioned all three could see action vs. PSU. Burton is a multiple threat who leads the Gators in scoring with 12 TDs. Florida also has a QB recruit in Jeff Driskell coming for next season.
The Gators' rushing leaders include Jeff Demps (531 yards, 3 TDs) and Burton (347 yards, 11 TDs), with sophomore Mike Gillislee also contributing.
The Florida receiving corps is led by Deonte Thompson (36 catches, 548 yards, 1 TD) as well as Burton (30 receptions), Carl Moore (27), Chris Rainey (22) and Frankie Hammond, Jr. (20).
For the Lions, West Scranton product Matt McGloin took over behind center at midseason and has completed 101 of 174 passes for 1,337 yards, with 13 TDs against only four pick-offs. True freshman Rob Bolden began the year as the starter and had passed for 1,360 yards with 5 TDs and seven interceptions before McGloin stepped in.
With McGloin in his sophomore year of eligibility and Bolden and Paul Jones both freshmen, sophomore Kevin Newsome is apparently the odd man out and is reportedly going to transfer from Happy Valley.
Evan Royster, who became PSU's all-time rushing leader this season after carrying for 916 yards and 6 TDs, leads the Lion ground game that also includes emerging freshman Silas Redd (424 yards, 2 TDs).
The Lions' leading receivers include Derek Moye (48-806, 7 TDs) and Brett Brackett (37-497, 5 TDs), as well as Graham Zug, Justin Brown and Devon Smith. Freshman Kevin Haplea was pressed into starting at tight end due to injuries.
Defensively, the Gators allow 302.9 yards and 21.1 points per game, while Penn State gives up 352.5 yards (including 164.6 yards rushing) and 22.6 points per outing.
The Gators' leading tacklers include All-SEC strong safety Ahmad Black (102), linebacker Jelani Jenkins (73) and defensive end Justin Trattou (56). Trattou, Duke Lemmens and Jaye Howard are the top pass rushers.
The Lions' tackle leaders have been linebackers Chris Colasanti (102) and Nate Stupar (72) and cornerback D'Anton Lynn (71). The PSU defense was decimated by injuries at midseason and has been inconsistent by recent standards, and the Lion defenders are hoping for improvement for next year, starting with this Outback Bowl match-up.
The Gators are having their own injury issues and will be without four starters: cornerback Janoris Jenkins, right tackle Maurice Hurt and defensive tackles Lawrence Marsh and Terron Sanders. All had season-ending surgery.
Paterno sees plenty of similarities between PSU and the Gators.
"Florida reminds me so much of us this particular year in that at times they look as good as anybody you can find, and then other times they get a little bit inconsistent and they make some mistakes.
"We've got a tough job on our hands, and I think with Urban leaving, that's going to lead to the whole business of those kids going to want to win the football game not only for the reasons you would expect. but because I think they want to send Urban off on the right foot."
Florida has won both previous meetings against the Lions, both in bowl games. The Gators beat PSU in the 1962 Gator Bowl 17-7 and won the 1998 Florida Citrus Bowl 21-6.
NITTANY LINES - Penn State has practiced at the Philadelphia Phillies spring training facility in Clearwater in preparation for the Outback Bowl ... Paterno is the all-time leader in bowl appearances (this is his 37th) and wins (he is 24-11-1) ... this will be Florida's 20th consecutive bowl game ... with Temple coach Al Golden, a PSU alumnus, taking over as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, the Owls have tapped Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio as their next mentor. Reportedly, PSU defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was also considered for the Temple job and expressed interest in the opening at Pitt now that Dave Wannstedt won't be back as head coach of the Panthers. Bradley said this week he would return for his 33rd year as a PSU assistant in 2011 ... Galen Hall, who oversees the PSU offense, was head coach at Florida from 1984-89, compiling a 40-18-1 record ... PSU landed a recruit out of West Branch, Michigan in Anthony Zettel, who at 6-4, 254 will play either defensive end or offensive guard, depending on which recruiting service one believes ... Zettel is the ninth commitment for the Lions' current recruiting class ... this is PSU's fifth New Year's Day bowl in the past six years and the Lions are 10-3 in bowl games since joining the Big Ten in 1993 ... seven of PSU's opponents landed bowl bids and Temple, at 8-4, was bowl eligible ... in the Lions' previous Outback Bowl appearances, they defeated Tennessee 20-10 in 2007, Kentucky 26-14 in 1999 and Auburn 43-14 in 1996 ... PSU is 12-9-1 all-time vs. Florida schools and 2-3-1 in bowl games ... 19 of PSU's 42 all-time bowl appearances have been in the Sunshine State with the Lions sporting a 10-8-1 mark (9-7-1 under Paterno) ... the Gators are 18-19 all-time in bowl games but are 4-1 under Meyer.