TEMPE, ARIZ N... — TEMPE, Ariz. -- Neither Penn State nor Tennessee will have a claim at the national championship by winning the Fiesta Bowl, but the game between the nation's sixth- and 10th-ranked team shapes up to as one of the better New Year's Day matchups.
The sixth-ranked Nittany Lions (10-2) will attempt to improve on their 4-0 Fiesta Bowl record against the 10th-ranked Volunteers (9-2), who have won five straight postseason games. When the teams take the field before a sellout crowd of 74,865 at Sun Devil Stadium this afternoon, the game probably will play second only to today's Rose Bowl pairing between Washington and Michigan, two teams with a shot at the national title.
"This could end up being the most exciting bowl in the country," said Tennessee coach Johnny Majors. "You never know what will happen when a game gets under way, and Penn State may blow us out. But, based on what I've seen on both teams, the Fiesta Bowl could produce an exciting game."
Exciting or not, Fiesta Bowl officials are just happy with the game that returns the bowl to among the top in the country. A year ago with the controversy over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday most of the top teams shunned the bowl, leaving a less-than thrilling matchup between Louisville and Alabama. But none of that negative publicity has carried over, and the issue hardly has been mentioned during the week.
That leaves just football, and a battle between a Penn State team that traditionally has produced some of the nation's best linebackers, against a Tennessee team that has had 11 receivers drafted by NFL teams under Majors' tenure -- including six in the first round. That soon will be seven with All-American wide receiver Carl Pickens (49 catches, 877 yards, five touchdowns), who is almost certain to to keep the Penn State secondary busy.
"He's so tall, and he has great hands with the ability to run very well after he makes a catch," said Penn State cornerback Derek Bochna, who'll spend a lot of time shadowing Pickens. "I like the challenge. I like going against the best, testing my skills. It's impossible to shut him down. You know he's going to catch some balls, you just have to hope to contain him."
There will be more for Penn State to stop than Pickens. The Tennessee offense averaged 467.7 yards per game, eighth in the nation and tops in the Southeastern Conference. Freshman running backs James Stewart (939 yards rushing) and Aaron Hayden (704 yards) sparked the running game, and senior quarterback Andy Kelly (15 touchdown and a school record 2,759 yards passing) quietly established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
"He's very, very clever, it's very difficult to control him," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He senses the pressure -- senses when you're not pressuring him. He reminds me a lot of [Brigham Young quarterback and 1990 Heismann winner] Ty Detmer."
Over the years the Penn State offense has been known for its methodical rushing style of play, and the Nittany Lions have established an impressive air attack, too. Behind the passing of quarterback Tony Sacca and the receiving of Terry Smith and O.J. McDuffie, Penn State gained more yards passing than rushing for the first time since 1982.
"[Sacca] is bigger than any quarterback I've ever seen," Majors said. "He makes good decisions, and he's very hard to bring down, if you rush him. I think they [Sacca and Kelly] are two of the best quarterbacks in the country."
Sacca's success may depend on the pressure of Tennessee's defense. The all out blitzing of Southern Cal and Miami contributed to both of Penn State's losses. Tennessee ended the season tops in the SEC with 39 sacks.
"Our defensive ends are as good as I've ever had, and our up-front people have a tremendous desire to get to the football," Majors said. "They play an aggressive style, and that's what I like. We've been much better [defensively] the last couple of years."
In the matchup on the sidelines, Paterno has been at Penn State for 26 years, and his 239 wins place him fourth on the all-time career list. In 24 years, four of them at Pittsburgh as a rival and close friend of Paterno, Majors has won 168 games.
"It's nice if you beat him, but if you lose then you're going to get a hard time," said Paterno, who has a 3-1 record against Majors. "Johnny has a fine football team. If it was Majors against Paterno, then I wouldn't have a chance. He's a lot quicker than I am."
Said Majors of going against Paterno: "It's very special for me. A lot of us have learned some hard knocks from Joe. I have a lot of respect for Joe and we'll still be friends when it's all over."