It is one of those things college football fans have come to accept as gospel after so many recitations of the same chapter and verse.

Big Ten Conference teams supposedly are big and strong, but slow and plodding. Southeastern Conference teams, on the other hand, aren't as huge, but they more than make up for it with speed, speed and more speed.

After Penn State edged LSU, 19-17, in the Capital One Bowl last Jan. 1, several of the Nittany Lions said their victory was proof that oft-maligned Big Ten mules could indeed run with SEC thoroughbreds.

But that game was played in ankle-deep mud, a gift from the meterological gods that Penn State coach Joe Paterno can't count on again when the Lions (7-5) take on another blindingly swift SEC team, Florida (7-5), this New Year's Day in the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

"The one thing that jumps at you is the speed," JoePa said of Florida's skill-position burners, when questioned yesterday during a teleconference with Gators coach Urban Meyer and Outback Bowl president and CEO Jim McVay. "I don't think we can match their speed.

"Always in the back of our head is the kind of speed that they have. When we played LSU last year, same thing. The speed worried me. But the good Lord took care of us. It rained like the dickens. [The field] was soft and slow. It gave us a shot at it."

No state produces as many prospects with jaw-dropping stopwatch times as Florida, and the Gators - under Steve Spurrier and, for these past six seasons, Meyer - have landed more than their fair share of them. But not even exceptional team speed can offset injuries, mental mistakes, poor execution and inexperience at key positions, which is why Florida, which won BCS National Championships under Meyer in 2006 and 2008, struggled through the least productive of his six seasons in Gainesville.

After jumping off to a 4-0 start and being ranked as high as No. 7 in both the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches' polls, the Gators' flaws were exposed. They lost their next three games, and capped a disappointing regular season with a 31-7 loss at Florida State, snapping a six-game winning streak against the Seminoles.

"We were struggling on offense, obviously," Meyer said of a transition that only partly can be attributed to the departure of All-America quarterback Tim Tebow, the 2008 Heisman Trophy winner and a run/pass threat who was a perfect fit for the Gators' spread attack.

"This has been a very down year for us. We started off with the intent of going more traditional, under center [with junior quarterback John Brantley, who is more of a pocket passer]. But we lost our fullback and then our tight end. We had to go five or six games with our starting tailback [Jeffrey Demps].

"Oh-seven was probably a similar year, where we had too many young players that needed to be developed. But it doesn't matter what offense you run if you lay the ball on the ground or throw a pick."

With more than a month for dinged players to heal and to work on putting his offense in good repair, Meyer is promising subtle and not-so-subtle changes that he hopes will have the Gators looking like the annual powerhouse they usually are.

"We're going to do the best we can to move the ball against traditionally one of the best defenses in America," he said of the Lions.

Paterno's squad has injury issues of its own, most notably in a patchwork secondary that, even when completely healthy, probably wouldn't win many footraces against Gators running backs and wide receivers like Demps, who, if he isn't the fastest player in college football, at least is on the short list of those to be considered as such.

"We can't miss tackles," Paterno cautioned. "If we miss one or two tackles and they get out there in the open, it's gone. You're looking at a 40-, 45-point game."

Of course, Paterno has sung this gloom-and-doom tune before. His 1986 team was given virtually no chance of upsetting top-ranked Miami in the Jan. 2, 1987, Fiesta Bowl, but Penn State intercepted Heisman Trophy runner-up Vinnie Testaverde five times en route to a 14-10 victory and JoePa's second national championship.

Sometimes slow and steady really does win the prize.

Nit-picking

Although Florida could divide playing time between quarterbacks John Brantley and redshirt freshman Jordan Reed, a 6-3, 240-pounder who is much more of a running threat than Brantley, PSU coach Joe Paterno expects to stick with redshirt sophomore QB Matt McGloin from start to finish. "Matt's our quarterback," he said. "Matt's done a good job for us" . . . Redshirt soph linebacker Michael Mauti, who missed the last couple of regular-season games with a dislocated shoulder, is back at full speed and should start.