Penn State and Tennessee have their chance to crack the door

 By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

If you’re one of college football’s door-knockers, the kind of program that goes into every season with a fan base that hopes – rather than expects – this is everything that springs to mind during those summer months of wondering.

Those types of fans become masters over time at creating mental lists, sizing up and stacking together the collection of items that need to go right and get crossed off, just for that initial sliver of a chance at glory not to be squashed.

Outside the bluest of bluebloods it is the same kind of thought, for young and old, the same level of guarded optimism. The same feelings of “maybe.” If maybe this could be the year. If maybe a sprinkling of stardust might fall gently, not just in the right way but also at the right time, onto the right shoulders, bringing some good fortune with it, too.

Here’s what gets wished for.

It’s what is happening this week in State College, where Penn State finds itself at 5-0 and with destiny an arm’s reach away, albeit accompanied by the giant caveat that the hardest bit is overwhelmingly ahead of them.

James Franklin’s Nittany Lions are Michigan-bound on Saturday (noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), a trek to the Big House that comes loaded with delicious potential, in a matchup where many observers feel the visitors might have a structural make-up ideally designed to victimize the shortcomings of Jim Harbaugh’s group.

“It is a difficult one for Michigan,” FOX college football analyst Joel Klatt said on “The Herd.” “Penn State has transformed. They are far different than they were a year ago. Their strengths are actually right where you need to be strong to face MIchigan. From a matchup standpoint? This is a difficult matchup from the Michigan standpoint.”

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This is what getting into position looks like, averting early season landmines and earning the right to attempt an upset, not for an upset’s sake, but with grander fantasies like a Big Ten title and even a College Football Playoff spot intact.

Penn State has an outstanding run defense, which simply must perform well enough to stifle Michigan rushing star Blake Corum and force inexperienced Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy to make pressurized throws. On the offensive side of the ball, QB Sean Clifford, running back Nick Singleton and tight end Brenton Strange all have strong attributes, but the best chance of success appears to be in a low-scoring scuffle where spirit and desire will have an impact.

“I know our guys are looking forward to it and preparing for it,” Franklin told reporters. “This is why you come to a place like Penn State, to play in these types of games.”

Exactly right. These games, just like this, are where preseason pipe dreams either get fulfilled or dashed. They’re the same dreams that remain whole and secure – for now – in Knoxville, where No. 6 Tennessee is poised to do battle with Alabama on Saturday, coming face-to-face with its tormentor over a stretch of 15 consecutive games that have often shown Nick Saban’s full mercilessness.

Yet with Tennessee boasting in-form QB Hendon Hooker and Alabama signal caller Bryce Young’s health in doubt, the Vols are clinging to a couple of pieces of scuttlebutt; that Bama are most susceptible where they’re on the road, and when they are facing a dynamic quarterback.

True or not, motivation should be in plentiful supply.

“One thing I always tell the guys, there’s three things that don’t lie,” Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner told reporters, in a summary that’s about as quintessentially SEC as you’re likely to find. “That’s the film, that’s the mirror and that’s the Bible. When they sit there and look at that film, no matter what they tell me or what they tell their parents, the film don’t lie, alright?”

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Here is where college football is a minefield of incomparable brutality for those wanting to force their way into the elite circle. A win for Penn State in Ann Arbor would be cherished and transformative, but as for any ensuing respite, well, there is none. Just two weeks later and a golden season would truly be on the line, with the small matter of Ohio State to overcome.

As for Tennessee, same deal. Beating Bama – a result that would almost certainly elevate it into the top four – would need to be backed up a few weeks later, against Georgia, in Athens. It would be, assuming no mishaps in between, the Vols’ biggest game in recent memory.

But that’s for down the road and it would take a lot to get there. Penn State is a 7-point underdog this weekend (according to FOXBet), even though they like their chances more than that. Tennessee is rated the same, a one-touchdown outsider.

That’s the nature of being one of the door-knockers. Always another point to prove. Always another hurdle to overcome.

All the summer dreaming isn’t an illusion, but it’s some sort of a tease. Because if the big dream comes true, the prize it confers is … another dream.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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