ORLANDO, Fla. - Bowl games are meant to be a reward for college football teams that have good seasons, but they also can serve as a springboard to the season that follows.
If that indeed is the case, then whatever No. 11 Penn State (10-2) does against No. 13 LSU (9-3) in tomorrow's Capital One Bowl might not provide much of a glimpse into the future. Win or lose, the Nittany Lions who'll take the field on Sept. 4 against Youngstown State in Beaver Stadium will have a decidedly different look, so much so that any resemblance to this season's squad might be purely coincidental.
"We are really not looking for answers about next year down here," Penn State offensive coordinator Galen Hall said when asked if the team's substitution patterns will be geared toward getting more extensive looks at returning players. "[Beating] LSU is our priority right now."
Criticized for playing a soft nonconference schedule in 2009, the Lions follow the Youngstown State game with a road date against Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The top-ranked Crimson Tide (13-0), who take on No. 2 Texas (13-0) in the BCS national championship game on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, Calif., again will be loaded and could put a beatdown on a young Penn State team that will be woefully inexperienced at several key positions.
There is no game-tested backup behind departing quarterback Daryll Clark, the co-Most Valuable Player of the Big Ten Conference and holder of numerous school passing and total offense records. The likely starter is Kevin Newsome, a true freshman who completed eight of 11 passes in mopup duty this season. Or it could be one of two incoming freshmen, Paul Jones or Robert Bolden, a pair of four-star recruits who have verbally committed to Penn State but can't affix their signatures to national letters-of-intent until February. A lot can happen in the weeks leading up to national signing day.
Starting tailback Evan Royster has rushed for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons, but he could bypass his senior season and come out for the NFL draft. That would leave the primary ball-carrying duties to his backup, Stephfon Green, who broke his right ankle in the Rose Bowl last season and was hampered this year with another ankle injury, which contributed to his dropoff from 578 yards rushing in 2008 to 284 yards. Green has breakaway speed, but his ability to get those tough, between-the-tackle yards like Royster remains to be seen.
Third-team tailback Brandon Beachum will be redshirted after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in November, and Brent Carries, who tore his ACL in the Rose Bowl, was limited to 13 carries this season.
All-America outside linebacker Navorro Bowman, like Royster, is a candidate to leave early for the NFL, and as a projected first-round selection he almost certainly won't be back. His absence might not be as keenly felt, though; not for nothing is Penn State known as Linebacker U, and the depth chart is clogged with talented players awaiting their chance to shine.
"There is a chance [of coming back]," Bowman said, unconvincingly. "I can always get better. Why rush it? There's nothing negative that could happen, other than getting injured."
That's a pretty sizable negative, though. Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford came back for his senior season, hurt his passing shoulder twice and cost himself millions of dollars. The same can be said of Penn State linebacker Sean Lee, who decided against an early jump to the NFL after the 2007 season, tore up his right knee and, after sitting out 2008, sprained his left knee and was held out of several games.
Does Lee have any regrets about his decision to remain in school an extra season?
"Not at all," Lee said. "I always wanted to have a senior year to cherish, like I had in high school. I wanted to run out of the tunnel [at Beaver Stadium] for Senior Day. It's not just about the money."
Maybe, because tomorrow's game in not necessarily a preview of coming attractions, Penn State players saying farewell to the program as well as the returnees want to put an exclamation point to a very good season. Next season, well, it will take care of itself.