TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Storied programs, iconic coaches and the kind of rich history normally reserved for longer-running rivalries.
If only No. 1 Alabama and No. 18 Penn State — Joe Paterno vs. Nick Saban — could toss a Heisman Trophy winner into this tasty football stew on Saturday night. But Crimson Tide tailback Mark Ingram seemed less likely to return for the game from a knee injury as the week went along.
Nevermind that, though. It's the first meeting in two decades between onetime rivals who forged a tradition of classic games in the late 1970s and '80s.
It's also the first chance for Alabama to offer hard evidence it's worthy of top billing. And for JoePa and Penn State to make their own statement.
"I think these are the kinds of games that players who are great competitors certainly look forward to playing in," the Tide's Saban said. "I think Penn State probably has as fine a team as anybody in the country, I really do believe that.
"It's the kind of games that define who you are."
Or at least who you are until Ingram is healthy and defensive end Marcell Dareus finishes serving his two-game NCAA suspension for accepting improper benefits. Ingram is less than two weeks removed from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, and Saban has indicated he probably won't play against the Nittany Lions.
Trent Richardson has proved a more than capable backup. He and receiver Julio Jones both came up with big plays in the opener against San Jose State, including Jones' diving one-handed touchdown grab that made highlight reels everywhere.
Paterno remembers Richardson's 100-yard performance in the national title game.
"He played a heck of a football game against Texas," the coach said. "If you don't play one aspect of it, you're going to be in trouble, because their running backs are tough. Even though they may not have the Heisman Trophy winner, the other kid — I mean, he can go. He might be faster than (Ingram). They're tough kids. It's tough to bring him down."
Dareus returns next week, and Alabama's most feared pass rusher doesn't have the same kind of proven sub behind him.
"He was the best player on their defensive line, and certainly a dominant player," Penn State guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "But having said that, watching film on them, they're pretty deep on the defensive line. They play eight guys on the defensive line, keep them fresh. They're real tough kids, come off the ball low, play strong, play with good hands. Certainly losing him hurts their D-line, but they're still a tough group."
Saban & Co. will have to find someone else to try to harass Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden, if the nearly 102,000 fans can't do it. Saban's defenses are known for bringing a dizzying array of blitzes and roughed up more seasoned passers like Ryan Mallett, Tyrod Taylor and Colt McCoy last season.
Bolden will try to attack a much younger version of that 2009 Tide defense. He's the first freshman quarterback to start for Penn State in 18 years, and he's making a big leap from the opener against Youngstown State.
"Bolden isn't going to beat Alabama by himself," Paterno said. "Bolden's got to go down there and do the job that he can do — be careful with the football, don't do stupid things. Understand we're going to have a lot of adversity. And go from when we play them next week and see what we can get done play after play. I mean, it's a football game, not the Crusades."
Penn State-Alabama has produced some doozies, though.
Penn State was No. 1, Alabama No. 2 in that one. Now, the Nittany Lions are the ones trying to topple the top-ranked team and score one for the Big Ten vs. the Southeastern Conference in what would qualify as a sizable upset.
Penn State's hard to intimidate — the Nittany Lions have gone 8-1 on the road the past two seasons. The Tide's hard to beat at Bryant-Denny Stadium, which gets its first national showcase since expanding capacity to 101,821. Alabama has won 15 in a row at Bryant-Denny, and could move into a three way tie for fourth-longest home streak in school history.
They've been looking forward to the challenge in State College, Pa.
"It's a lot of excitement," Penn State wide receiver Chaz Powell said. "You're going to get one time, even if you get that, to play the defending national champs. We're going to come down and showcase (ourselves) and give (Alabama) a run for their money."