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My first thought was to poke a little fun at the Akron football team, UB's opponent Saturday night as the SUNY school officially launches its return to big-time college football.

Akron's nickname is the Zips. Were they named after a popular brand of street weapon or their record? Their mascot is Zippy the kangaroo. Who's the coach, Crocodile Dundee?

They play in a rundown stadium called the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, a town that new-age business and economic recovery have pretty much forgotten. Hey, when you get a chance to kick around a community that has to live with a dead rubber plant instead of a dead steel industry, who wouldn't play Boston columnist Dan Shaughnessy and take a few good-natured whacks?

Besides, the Zips were zippoed last week by Penn State, 70-24. Despite that their coach, Lee Owens, said afterward that there were plenty of bright spots. He even said the game bodes well for his team in the Mid-American Conference, which now lists UB as a football-playing member.

It all makes for a nearly irresistible urge to lampoon the Zips, but maybe this isn't all that funny.

Even really good teams (which the Zips are not) quite often get slaughtered in places like Happy Valley. A football powerhouse like Penn State is so far above and beyond what Akron and UB can ever hope to be.

Besides, most of the enormous universities stick a wannabe or two on their schedule every season. The idea is to pile up some points while slipping through a week or two with relatively little risk of injury and virtually no possibility of losing.

The cannon fodder usually gets something for its troubles as well. In this case, the Zips picked up about $275,000 (useful for a cash-strapped program that doesn't have its own national television contract). The university got itself on national television (a recruiting perk no matter what the score). Most important, the players, many of whom believe they could have played for a school like Penn State had they only been give a chance, got one game in which to live a dream. So what if the reality was a little harsh?

Owens knows all of that. He cut his coaching teeth at Ohio State as an assistant before moving to Akron five seasons ago. It's why his kids practiced and trained for that game like no other. It's why he sat in the film room until 4 a.m. looking for Penn State's flaws, weaknesses and tendencies ("My kids worked hard," he would say later. "I didn't want them to be embarrassed."). It's why after the bus driver got lost the day the team arrived in Happy Valley, Owens got up the next morning and ran the route from the team hotel to the stadium, just so he could later tell the driver how to get there and keep his team from one more distraction.

That's the way it goes for teams that aren't in the superpower leagues. The kids work just as hard, the coaches prepare just as well, and everyone dreams of winning just like the players and coaches at the big schools do. The difference is talent.

Owens never could tell his kids they had no chance to win at Penn State. The dream must always be onward and upward. His team, one of the first to move from Division I-AA to Division I-A, has struggled with the process. It has had some success with schools that have similar-sized programs. It has also taken a pounding from the bigger teams. The idea is that someday the school will benefit from playing against the elite. Someday isn't now.

The Zips get a break Saturday night. They went to Penn State to face a team Sports Illustrated said was No. 1 in the country. Now they are facing the Bulls, ranked 114th by SI, dead last in Division I-A.

It's a swing almost unheard of in college sports, but one Owens refused to take lightly.

"How we respond (to the Penn State loss) is critical," he said with utmost sincerity. "When Ohio State lost, 63-14, at Happy Valley in 1994, we reorganized and won three straight games, including a win over Michigan."

Nice, inspiring in a funny sort of way, but then Akron is not Ohio State, and UB, except for an accident of geography, is nowhere near Michigan.

The Zips aren't Penn State-beaters, but they aren't a joke either.

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