Nittany Lions could be left out of national championship picture
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The 37th president of the United States first snubbed an undefeated Penn State team. Twenty-five years later, some sentimental pollsters did it again. Now, a compilation of computer rankings and pollsters could make 2008 another season of frustration for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State is three victories away from a sixth undefeated season under Joe Paterno, but the Lions are staring at another disappointment if the two undefeated teams in front of them in the Bowl Championship Series rankings keep winning as well.
In 1969, Penn State finished 11-0, but President Richard Nixon declared Texas, also unbeaten, the national champions before pollsters had cast their final ballots. In 1994, voters in the polls gave the nod to a perfect Nebraska squad and its title-less coach, Tom Osborne. Those disappointments came before the BCS was devised to match the top two teams in a national title game. But even the best-laid plans of the suits that run college football sometimes go awry. The BCS' worst nightmare happened four years ago, and it could recur in December.
The BCS has been deciding which two teams play for college football's national championship since 1998. In the first 10 years of the BCS, only once did three teams finish the regular season with unbeaten records.
That was 2004 when Southern California, Oklahoma and Auburn were 12-0. Southern California and Oklahoma played for the national championship, while Auburn was relegated to a consolation game against Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl.
It is easy to argue that the BCS got it wrong. Southern California beat Oklahoma, 55-19, in one of the most-lopsided national title games in the history of college football, while Auburn beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to go 13-0.
"It's tough," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said this week. "There's not a lot you can do about it. It was around this time of the year that we started wondering how we were going to catch them. I think we beat two teams in the top 10 in the final weeks, and we still couldn't catch them. The only thing you can do is keep playing and keep hoping."
Penn State's situation this season is slightly different than Auburn's in 2004. In '04, Southern California and Oklahoma began the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the polls while Auburn started the season at No. 17. There just wasn't enough time for Auburn to make up enough ground in the eyes of the pollsters.
- No. 1 Texas: @ No. 7 Texas Tech, vs. Baylor, @ Kansas, vs. Texas A&M, Big 12 championship
- No. 2 Alabama: vs. Arkansas State, @ No. 19 LSU, vs. Mississippi State, vs. Auburn, SEC championship
- No. 3 PSU: @ Iowa, vs. Indiana, vs. No. 21 Michgan State
Texas started this season at No. 11, Penn State No. 20 and Alabama No. 23 in the coaches' poll, which is a third of the BCS calculation. Texas has remained ahead of Penn State throughout the season, with the big bump to No. 1 coming after beating then-No. 1 Oklahoma Oct. 11. Alabama passed the Lions after its impressive road victory Sept. 27 at Georgia.
Penn State made up some ground in the latest BCS standings after winning at Ohio State last week, but not enough to overtake Texas or Alabama for one of the top two spots.
And with no games remaining against highly regarded teams, Penn State probably won't be able to beat out the Longhorns or Crimson Tide if they also remain undefeated.
When asked this week about the possibility of the Lions getting left out again, Paterno reiterated his long-standing outlook on the college football postseason.
"I'm for a playoff," Paterno said. "Let's decide it on the field."
In the spring, there was a push by the Southeastern Conference to institute a mini-playoff with four teams. But four of the six BCS conference commissioners, including Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, voted it down.
The commissioners announced that the current format will remain until at least 2014. Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford cited an "unprecedented state of health" of the BCS as the major reason for not implementing a new format.
In a few weeks, the BCS could be very sick again, along with those legions of Penn State fans that are itching for another shot at a national championship.
When Penn State defeated Ohio State, it was widely perceived that the Lions had cleared the final major hurdle en route to the title game. The national pundits had been saying for weeks that Penn State has the inside track on the championship game because of the difficult schedules that Texas and Alabama were to face.
But as October turns to November and the season dwindles to a final few games, Texas and Alabama do not appear willing to cooperate. And those schedules that once looked so daunting are looking easily negotiable.
Penn State, which is idle this week for the only time this season, will be rooting hard for Texas Tech to upset top-ranked Texas, which has beaten Oklahoma, Missouri and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks. The Texas Tech game appears to be the final major test for the Longhorns.
After that, the Longhorns play Baylor, Kansas and Texas A&M. Baylor and Texas A&M each have one victory in Big 12 play and Kansas just lost to Texas Tech by 42 points on its home field.
Texas would then face Kansas or Missouri in the Big 12 title game.
Alabama plays in the SEC, which has been regarded as Division I-A's finest conference for years. But the SEC is not as strong this season, and the Crimson Tide's path to the title game does not have any major roadblocks.
Alabama plays Arkansas State tomorrow, then LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn in the final weeks. The most difficult game appears to be at LSU, but the Tigers have lost two of their past three while giving up 51 and 52 points in those two losses.
In the SEC title game, Alabama would face Georgia or Florida. The Tide walloped Georgia, 45-35, in the final week of September.
The Big Ten does not have a conference championship game, so Penn State's regular season ends Nov. 22 with a home game against Michigan State.
If things remain status quo, Penn State's only hope is for a new batch of sentimental pollsters who want to create a storybook ending for Paterno. Other than that, as Tuberville noted, all the Lions can do is keep playing and keep hoping for Texas or Alabama to lose.
First Published October 31, 2008 12:00 am