In a BCS system where there is rarely a concensus of determining where the teams fall, there seems to be a unified agreement that the Penn State Nittany Lions will be the odd team out at the end of the season. Despite an undefeated record and a landmark win at Ohio State in their last game, the Lions are at the 3 spot in the BCS. Even if they win out, Penn State could be looking at another perfect season with no title. Unfair? Of course, but this is the BCS. Come January, if Penn State is left out of a title shot, it will be the latest in a long list of BCS tragedies.
In taking a closer look at these Lions, it is not a question of substance as many believe. PSU's first game was against Coastal Carolina who is an FCS opponent but this practice is not uncommon to big BCS conference teams. Coastal has ties to Penn State as their Athletic Director, Moose Koegel, played football at Penn State under Joe Paterno. And perhaps Michigan taught us last year that sometimes guarentee games are not so guarenteed. Their next game was at home against Oregon State. The same Beaver team that knocked off then number 1 USC and who currently controls their own fate in the Pac-10. PSU hammered them 45-14. The non-conference schedule in truth is not that daunting when you see Temple and Syracuse on there, but the Lions dismantled these opponents just as they should. Just as a comparison, Texas Tech's pre-conference schedule was Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU, and UMass. PSU's average margin of victory this season is 30.67 and that includes a 14 point win against a game Illinois team and a 48-7 blowout win at Camp Randall at night over Wisconsin. The strength of the opponents have not been the top caliber but Penn State bhas shut the door on weaker opponents and more importantly they have looked very good doing it. Anyone who has watched this team has to be impressed with the way the team is playing in all phases. As far as the eyeball test, they pass with flying colors. Joe-Pa maybe something of a figure-head at coach but his mere presence inspires the atheltes. He is a living legend and as he proved from his latest injury demonstrating an onside kick coverage, he is still not afraid to put everything into his job. That being said, he has given a lot more latitude to his assistant coaches who have put together great gameplans and a new offense which has produced results.
The win that Penn State can point to as their lynchpin game is against the Buckeyes. Immediately after the game I heard the talking heads of sports discuss how awful the game was to watch and how paltry the level of play was. Excuse me but did they actually watch the game or just look at the score? The game was close throughout and it was the strong play of both defenses which stood out. Both teams were able to move the ball, accumulating 592 yards of total offense, but when the game came to its critical point, the Penn State defense forced the only turnover of the game on Terrelle Pryor's fumble. PSU even had their back-up QB come in and score the winning touchdown. In the biggest game of their regular season, the Lions commited no turnovers and zero penalties on the road, at night at the Horseshoe. The margin may not have been great, but it was Penn State's first victory as a member of the Big Ten at Ohio Stadium. Ask any team in the country if they would want to go play a night game at Ohio State and I doubt anyone would be enthusiastic about it. The Lions also beat the Buckeyes after they incorporated Pryor as the full-time starter and had Beanie Wells back in the line-up; USC cannot say that they accomplished that.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle that Penn State has to clear when the final BCS rankings are being tabulated is perception. The Big Ten has not had a good showing in the last two BCS title games. The conferences reputation also took a hit when USC handled Ohio State out west. Also the putrid season Michigan put together and victories in the conference that were upsets or lopsided has not helped bolster PSU's cause.
In the end, the national perception is that the Big XII is by far and away the best conference and it may very well be. Texas Tech, who has leaped over Penn State for the second spot in the current BCS, will have a difficult road to remaining unbeaten but if they do it means they will have beaten 3 top ten opponents and therefore it would be blasphemous to deny them a shot in the Orange Bowl. If the Red Raiders go umblemished I do not think anyone can deny them a spot in the title game, but I think if they don't fall this weekend to Oklahoma State, they will lose to the Sooners in Norman in 3 weeks. Alabama is currently sitting on the top spot and presuming they don't stumble to LSU this Saturday they will enter the SEC Championship more than likely undefeated against a one loss Florida team which according to news clippings are the hottest team in the country. This leads to the theory that whoever wins the Big XII and SEC should meet for the championship as long as those teams only have one loss, even if that means denying a possibly undefeated Penn State. The injustice in that would not only be that once again a Penn State team that has not lost will have to sit on the sidelines and watch another championship go by the wayside, but also there would be a group of other teams that would also be prevented from rightful claim to be crowned champion. A one loss Texas, Oklahoma, or even Texas Tech team in Big XII would certainly deserve a shot. USC has only had one minor hiccup and everyone knows how they can play when they are right and we now all know what Pete Carroll thinks of the system. Utah also will possibly go undefeated and they are not even in the discussion because they don't play in a BCS conference.
Penn State has to ignore all these distractions and win their next three games. Despite the Big XII, USC, and SEC teams getting a pass for their losses, the Lions have no room for error. Florida and USC's losses came to Ole Miss and Oregon state, not high ranking teams but decent opponents; why would a loss to a capable Michigan State team automatically dismiss Penn State?
Whatever happens one thing is certain, at least two teams are going to be shutout of the title game for no valid reason and unless a lot of teams wipe each other out, Penn State will almost certinaly be one of them when winter comes around.