Big Ten notebook: Penn State, Michigan host huge non-conference games


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The first few weeks of a college-football season generally don’t mean much.

More often than not, the country’s best teams schedule games against — and subsequently feast upon — weak, overmatched opponents. Squads from the nation’s best conferences pick up easy wins against smaller leagues, and even the Football Championship Subdivision, to make themselves look more impressive in the polls.

Not so for Penn State and Michigan.

Although the Nittany Lions and Wolverines opened last week against a couple of lightweights (Indiana State and Western Michigan, respectively), the squads will buck the national trend this weekend. Penn State will host No. 3 Alabama, and Michigan will welcome a Notre Dame team that entered the year ranked No. 16.

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno’s team lost to the Crimson Tide, 24-3, last year in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He addressed the brief, two-year home-and-away series in a Tuesday teleconference.

“It’s fun to play in,” he said. “If I were a kid, I’d really look forward to playing a team such as an Alabama with the great tradition it has … and to get the kind of attention this game will create around the country. All those things are pluses.”

Actually beating the Crimson Tide will be a stiff challenge, though. Alabama boasts NFL-caliber talent across the board, and it pounded Michigan State, 49-7, the last time it played a Big Ten team (in the 2011 Capital One Bowl).

“They know how to win, and they’re extremely well-coached,” Paterno said. “[Alabama head coach] Nick Saban and his staff have done a great job with them … as a coach, it’s a lot of fun to watch them play. Not so much fun to play against them.”

Paterno is 3-3 against Saban in his career, but ESPN.com blogger Adam Rittenberg pointed out that the longtime Penn State coach hasn’t beaten a top-five team in 12 years.

Equally difficult will be Michigan’s showdown with Notre Dame. Although the Fighting Irish have already damaged their chances for a BCS bowl after losing to South Florida, Wolverine head coach Brady Hoke said he was cautioning his players about complacency.

“This is a great rivalry … it’s one you get excited about,” he said. “Since 1978, we’re 13-13-1, so it’s been a pretty even series. It’s exciting, and you hope guys play with great poise and composure, and they understand doing their job and they don’t get distracted.”

The matchup will be the first in Michigan Stadium history to take place at night, and the gravity of the event wasn’t lost on Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly.

“[Hoke and I] have had similar paths of success, and now we’re in that dream matchup between Michigan and Notre Dame,” Kelly said in a Tuesday press conference posted to the team’s website.

“Saturday can’t come quick enough for this football team.”

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