UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State used to play and beat the best teams in the country on a regular basis.
If that feels like it was so long ago, well, it was.
The Nittany Lions haven't beaten a team ranked in the top five since the 1999 season opener against Arizona. They've dropped eight in a row against top-five competition, the longest such skid of Joe Paterno's career.
Mirror file photo
PSU’s Chima Okoli (92) and Daryll Clark walk off the field after losing to No. 5 USC in the 2009 Rose Bowl.
Other statistics paint an equally bleak picture.
The Lions have gone 3-11 against top-10 teams since 2000. They're only 9-27 against teams ranked higher than them during that span, along with 3-16 on the road against ranked teams.
The pro-Joe crowd will point to his Division I record 402 victories, two national titles, 59-19 record since 2005, strong seasons in '05 and '08 and, of course, his iconic status and off-the-field contributions to defend his decision to keep coaching.
PSU changes parking areas
From Mirror reports
Many fans attending Penn State's game against Alabama on Saturday will have to park in different areas than they are accustomed to because of heavy rains affecting the grass lots near Beaver Stadium.
About 2,500 vehicles will be redirected to offsite parking lots, and free shuttles will be provided to fans parking in those areas. Beaver Stadium parking lots that are available will open Saturday at 8 a.m.
The school is asking fans to leave extra time for parking or to carpool, and those who can walk to the stadium are encouraged to do so.
Parking lot capacity will be diminished on the west side of campus. Fans are strongly encouraged to approach the stadium from the east, using Interstate 99/U.S. Route 322, where parking will be more plentiful.
The affected lots for all stadium traffic are: Yellow lots 9, 12 and the Family Friendly Lot, as well as the Brown Lot, all of which are located west of Beaver Stadium off Park Avenue.
Those in the Brown Lot will be directed to park in the Orange Lot off Park Avenue and should approach the stadium from the east. Those who normally park in Yellow Lot 12 also should approach from the east and will be directed to available Yellow Lot parking.
Patrons who have a Family Friendly Lot parking permit should approach from the west and will be directed to the paved area in front of the Housing and Food Services Building.
Patrons who utilize ADA grass parking in Lot 9 should approach from the west and will be redirected to the East Parking Deck on Bigler Road. This parking deck will be open only to those with ADA parking permits, and it will be serviced by a shuttle to and from the stadium.
Patrons who normally park in reserved spaces on paved lots will not be affected. All others who normally bring an RV to the game are asked to consider bringing an alternative vehicle.
Patrons who have a reserved grass RV parking space (Green and Purple lots) will not be permitted to park RVs and are encouraged to bring cars. Those who bring an RV will be relocated to a suitable parking area. Game day Yellow Lot RV parking will not be permitted. Those patrons will be redirected offsite.
Overnight RV parking in Yellow Lot 19 will be available, though part of the lot likely will be closed.
Those in the "it's time for Joe to go" crowd, however, point to the past decade's struggles against premium competition to argue that the Nittany Lions aren't an elite program any longer because they don't win anywhere near their share of big games.
Big games like Saturday against No. 3 Alabama at Beaver Stadium.
"If I were a kid playing, I know I would be looking forward to it," Paterno said of the showdown.
Players always say these are the kind of games that led them to choosing Penn State, and they're fired up about the opportunity they have to make a national statement.
"As a football team, you always dream about playing in games of this magnitude," PSU defensive tackle Devon Still said.
For Paterno, winning these kind of games used to be a common occurrence.
During the Lions' heyday in the 1980s, they went a stellar 8-8 against teams ranked in the top five and 13-11 against the top 10. They stood toe to toe with the best teams in the country - and showed they were the better team more often than not.
That era produced the three most memorable wins in program history, all against No. 1 teams. There was the 48-14 thrashing of Pitt in 1981 that still ranks as most PSU fans' favorite memory of that rivalry; the 27-23 win over Georgia for the 1982 national title; and the 14-10 stunner over Miami for the 1986 title.
Penn State and Paterno were the kings of college football back then, but that throne has long been vacated. To be the best, you've got to beat the best, and the Lions haven't been able to do that in a long time.
The two signature wins of the past decade both came against Ohio State, which was ranked No. 6 when it lost at Beaver Stadium in 2005 and No. 9 when PSU pulled off an upset at Columbus in 2008.
The only other top-10 win since the turn of the century was against No. 8 Nebraska in 2002.
Saturday brings an opportunity for the Nits to not only change the landscape of this college football season with an upset of Alabama, it also gives them a great chance to re-enter national conversations about elite programs.
Penn State couldn't do that early last season when it visited No. 1 Alabama and lost, 24-3.
"We were pretty embarrassed last year," cornerback D'Anton Lynn said. "That's why we emphasized to be tougher in the offseason."
The players say things are different this time around and insist they're better prepared for the Crimson Tide.
"I think we're a lot better prepared, actually," receiver Derek Moye said. "We have a lot more experience in some key positions, and with them coming up here, it's not really anything new for us. We know what the atmosphere is going to be like, we know what to expect, so we've just got to go out there and play our game.
"All the pressure is pretty much on them. They're the ones coming in with all the ratings."
And national championship hopes.
The Lions can put a big dent in those hopes by pulling off an upset, plus they would thrust themselves into the national debate with a manageable schedule until the final three games against Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
For Penn State to have any shot, its defense will have to come up big and shut down Alabama's talented running back Trent Richardson, who had 144 yards in the 2010 matchup.
"I watched last year's game so many times, and I can speak for a lot of guys on the defense, our performance was kind of embarrassing," linebacker Michael Mauti said.
Paterno has nothing to prove to anyone after a lifetime of success at Penn State. Still, he can't be happy about the outcomes and how his teams have played against the best competition over the past decade.
He's also never really been able to figure out Alabama, going 0-4 against legendary coach Bear Bryant and 4-9 overall against the Crimson Tide.
Clearly, this is a huge game for Penn State and Paterno, but the coach hasn't wanted to focus on that too much with his players.
"We certainly have got to understand how good Alabama is, and I think we do," Paterno said. "I tried to emphasize that. And we want to play as well as we can play at this stage of the season.
"But I don't think we've gone overboard with, 'Hey, this is a game we've got to win or else,' kind of attitude."
Cory Giger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @CoryGiger on Twitter.