Penn State looked like the classic year-away team this season. Its 7-5 record bears that out.
The Lions displayed flashes of being better than average, but their flaws also showed up against ranked opponents. Penn State was a young team finding its identity, and the weeks leading up to the Outback Bowl could help the process of self discovery.
Some teams are what they are after the regular season and can do little to improve the product before a bowl. Penn State is the type of team that has a chance to make strides during bowl prep and show in the game what the future holds.
"You use the term springboard," quarterback Matt McGloin said. "What it can do is help us going into next year and get everybody’s mind-set going in the right direction. By beating a team like Florida, it really does put you on a different level going into the offseason and preparing for next year, so it would be a good win for us."
The sentiment is shared by coach Joe Paterno, who cited the team's youth and potential as primary reasons why he wants to return in 2011.
The Lions are planning start only seven seniors in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Although positions like offensive line and wide receiver lose several contributors to graduation, Penn State will return quite a few dynamic young players at the skill positions on both sides of the ball (Silas Redd, Devon Smith, Malcolm Willis).
"We've got about 60 kids here that are freshmen and sophomores," Paterno said last week. "Some of them are pretty good athletes that need some work. So I think in that sense, you're hoping that you can get some things developed that are going to carry over to next year."
To take the next step in the bowl game and beyond, Penn State must establish greater consistency.
"At times this year, we’ve played like we can beat anybody in the country," McGloin said. "But at times, we’ve been bad enough that we can be beat by anybody in the country. It's crucial for us to learn how to play a full football game and not take possessions off and quarters off."
McGloin cited Penn State's Nov. 13 loss to Ohio State as a good example. The Lions surged out to a 14-3 halftime lead before things unraveled in the second half as Ohio State scored 35 unanswered points.
"We came out firing, I think we got a little comfortable in the second half and before we knew it, we were down big and we couldn't come back," McGloin said.
Penn State seniors like guard Stefen Wisniewski recognize the potential on the team they'll leave behind after the bowl game. It creates even more incentive for Wisniewski to go out as a winner.
"It really helps build momentum for the next season," Wisniewski said, "so we really want to get this one on the national stage against a big-time program like Florida to leave our mark as seniors, leave on a positive note."