— With a coaching milestone, a November battle of unbeaten teams, a strange weekend of television, more BCS drama and the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy hanging in the balance, Saturday's college football games are chock-full of interesting storylines. Here are five to digest:
1. Paterno's stamina
Four-hundred victories. It boggles the mind. It strains your imagination. It defies description.
And for Penn State coach Joe Paterno (399-132-3), it's going to happen, perhaps as early as Saturday, when the Nittany Lions (5-3) face the Northwestern Wildcats (6-2).
Paterno, of course, wants nothing to do with the hoopla. Getting Paterno to properly acknowledge his milestone is like trying to catch a buzzing mosquito with tweezers.
The consistent excellence, which includes two consensus national championships, is one thing. But the longevity of the 83-year-old Paterno is quite another.
He's in his 45th season as Penn State's head coach (after spending 16 seasons on the staff as assistant coach). In 1966, he took over for Rip Engle and registered victory No. 1 (beating Maryland 15-7 on Sept. 17.).
On that day, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was a senior quarterback at Florida, beginning to build his case for the Heisman Trophy.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was in middle school.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops was entering the first grade.
Florida coach Urban Meyer was a toddler.
Paterno's sideline opponent on Saturday — Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald — wouldn't be born for another eight years.
It is fruitless to suggest that anyone will match Paterno's pace. Just do the math. Four-hundred victories? Getting to 100 would require a decade's worth of 10-victory seasons. Then multiply that by four, making for a 40-year career, allowing for no dips in productivity.
Even if someone gets a head-coaching job at age 30 — probably earlier than you can realistically expect — and goes straight through to age 70, it's still very unlikely.
That doesn't account for today's often toxic "what have you done for me lately" atmosphere, the unrelenting 24-7 news cycle, the presence of agents, players leaving early for the NFL, the parity in today's game, the changing demands of recruiting and … um, yeah, still think the race to 400 victories can actually happen?
A much more realistic question: Who are the coaching lifers?
Forget about chasing Paterno. In an era when Urban Meyer nearly quit from incessant stress, when Michigan State's Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack hours after a dramatic victory against Notre Dame, when NFL riches can beckon the best and brightest, when the off-field pressures are mounting, can any college head coach survive and thrive long enough to reach retirement age?
Here are three possibilities:
Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Following the sudden death of Randy Walker in the summer of 2006, Fitzgerald, the linebackers coach, was thrust into the head-coaching position. He was 31. He had never been a head coach.
Sink or swim.
After some predictable obstacles early on, it has gone rather swimmingly.
For the first time in school history, the Wildcats will play in a bowl game for a third straight season. They might even win the school's first postseason game since the 1949 Rose Bowl.
Like Vanderbilt and Duke, Northwestern has long been regarded as an impossibly competitive situation for a BCS conference. Fitzgerald (34-25 in his career) doesn't buy it. He embraces the school's lofty academic reputation, constantly using it as a recruiting strength.
As an all-time Northwestern stalwart, a linebacker on the Wildcat team that qualified for the 1996 Rose Bowl, the school's long-term success obviously matters to Fitzgerald. He's not a quick-fix artist, looking to leap into a better job. Fitzgerald, 35, believes he has a great job. For him, it is probably the dream job. Now that Northwestern is showing some winning consistency, you could easily see that continuing for years to come.
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
The former Florida offensive coordinator made the rapid leap on Meyer's staff — from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida — and now he's starting to make a difference at Mississippi State. Mullen's Bulldogs are 7-2 and positioning themselves for a prime SEC bowl slot. Overall, Mullen is 12-9 in nearly two seasons.
Taking a cue from his old boss, Mullen, 38, is a driven, ambitious coach. It's difficult to imagine a long-term career at Mississippi State. Indeed, many people expect Mullen to get the first call when — or if — Meyer steps away at Florida.
Doug Marrone, Syracuse
The Orange are orchestrating one of this season's most impressive turnarounds. Before this season, the program had gone an unthinkable 14-45 since 2005. Marrone, a Syracuse alumnus, knew he was inheriting a losing culture, but even he was stunned at how far the once-proud program had slipped.
Now Syracuse (6-2 and bowl eligible for the first time since the 2004 season) has shown signs of a return to respectability. Most seasons, the Big East is there for the taking if a program can reach lower top-25 levels. The Orange aren't ready to claim a championship just yet, but their 3-1 conference record seems all the more impressive because the victories were claimed on the road (South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati).
Syracuse has the tradition and recruiting reach — along with a rocking on-campus facility — to win consistently. That's important for Marrone, 46, who will be hailed as a hero by restoring the team to its traditional level of productivity.
2. Do not adjust your set
It's a fascinating matchup in the Mountain West Conference, one that could have national-championship implications.
It's No. 4 TCU (9-0) at No. 6 Utah (8-0).
And it's on … the CBS College Sports Network.
If you're one of the 57-million homes that receive CBSCSN (if that's the correct acronym), consider yourself fortunate. That's less than half of the television-equipped homes in America.
Oh, we'll all see the highlights and eventually have a sense about how the game was decided. But it's not the same, particularly for the curiosity-seekers who would like to learn more about these teams. As for voters in the polls, people who might want to closely examine the Horned Frogs and Utes, well, they might be out of luck, too.
TCU-Utah can be found somewhere. If you don't have the network, odds are you know a friend or an establishment that has access. It's just incredibly annoying — and maybe unfair to the Mountain West – that such a marquee game is being staged in relative anonymity.
But that’s only part of what could be a weird TV weekend.
No. 1 Oregon (vs. Washington) will be upstaged by JoePa's quest for 400 in much of the nation. No. 3 Auburn (vs. Chattanooga). No. 2 Boise State (vs. Hawaii) is on ESPNU, another network that could be absent from the mainstream offerings of cable providers.
Is it strange that a typical fan in say, Florida, could be shut out from watching any of the top-four teams in a single weekend — or is it just me?
3. Hold those Tigers
The BCS theorists already are setting up a scenario where the Nov. 26 game between No. 2 Auburn (9-0) and No. 5 Alabama (7-1) will be a virtual play-in game for the BCS Championship Game (regardless of any potential unbeaten teams from non-BCS leagues, such as Boise State, TCU or Utah).
Yes, the potential of one of the greatest Iron Bowl games ever staged — Auburn at Alabama for a shot at all the marbles — is certainly enough to keep you away from the malls on Black Friday.
But aren't we getting ahead of ourselves?
Aren’t we forgetting something?
Alabama (7-1, 4-1) must first travel to No. 12 LSU (7-1, 4-1), one of the most difficult environments in college football. And lest we forget, LSU has won seven of the last 10 meetings against Alabama.
That statistic, though, is relative, because Alabama has won the last two games — 24-15 last season and 27-21 in 2008, an overtime thriller that marked the return of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban to his former home at Baton Rouge.
Looking too far ahead can be fatal. Alabama won't make that mistake. Remember, until Saban himself changed the tenor of the series when he coached at LSU, the trip to Baton Rouge was no sweat for the Crimson Tide. In fact, Alabama avoided losing to LSU at Tiger Stadium in every season from 1971-98.
Now LSU could turn this season on its ear by beating Alabama.
4. Military salute
The Commander-in-Chief's Trophy — an award given annually since 1972 to the winner of the football round-robin between Air Force, Army and Navy — finally has some intrigue again.
Navy has captured seven straight (2003-2009), the most lopsided run in the trophy's history.
But Air Force (5-4) can wrap it up by defeating Army (5-3).
On the other hand, Army can become bowl eligible with a victory. How significant is that? Well, the Black Knights have made just four bowl appearances in the program's history and none since 1996.
That was also Army's last non-losing season. And it was also the last time Army captured the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.
So far from the BCS standings, there is plenty at stake here. Army coach Rich Ellerson, in his second season, has turned around the Black Knights and this is exactly the kind of attention-getting victory that could put Army football back on the map.
There are odes and sonnets — justifiably so — being sent the way of the Oregon Ducks (8-0, 5-0), who continue to make things look ridiculously easy in the Pac-10.
The latest example was last week's 53-32 smashing of USC. The Ducks were facing some adversity on the road and things began to look interesting. Only for a moment, though. When Oregon shifted into overdrive, it was over, over, over.
Barring something crazy, Oregon looks like it's going to play for a national championship.
Which leads to the next-best question in the Pac-10: If Oregon is going all the way, who plays in the Rose Bowl? The answer could gain clarity on Saturday, when No. 13 Arizona (7-1, 4-1) travels to No. 10 Stanford (7-1, 4-1).
If it resembles last season's game in Tucson, Ariz. — Arizona 43, Stanford 38 — then watch out.
Arizona quarterback Nick Foles and his Stanford opponent Andrew Luck will have a rematch of last season's shootout. Foles was 40 of 51 for 415 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Luck was 21 of 35 for 423 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Arizona's defense has vastly improved, ranking No. 7 nationally in scoring defense. Stanford, meanwhile, has the nation's No. 5 scoring offense.
If the Wildcats prevail, it's worth mentioning another date, one that has gotten virtually no attention.
Nov. 26 — Arizona at Oregon.
Could the largely unheralded Wildcats steal the Pac-10 title after Oregon's season of domination?
First things first. Arizona must deal with Stanford. That's more than enough for one weekend.