November 16, 2009
The BCS narrative is eerily calm for this time of year -- maybe a little too calm, if you ask me -- to the extent that we can pretty much lock in nine of the ten BCS slots right now: Aside from the six automatic bids for the champions of the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC, it would take a major, unforeseen cataclysm to keep TCU, Boise State and the SEC runner-up out of at-large bids. That leaves the fourth and final at-large opening to be lunged at and fought over like a table scrap between a trio of team just outside the latest BCS top 10, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Penn State, and possibly Cincinnati if Pittsburgh takes the Big East's automatic slot in the winner-take-all showdown on Dec. 5. Barring a seismic upset, all the drama falls to that single position.
Wait: Penn State? Owner of marquee wins over Northwestern and Temple, double-digit home loser to the only two ranked teams on its schedule and likely third-place finisher in the Big Ten? That Penn State? Believe it:
Don't look now, but the fragile Bowl Championship Series hopes of Penn State have taken on a renewed life.
The Nittany Lions, who rallied for a 31-20 victory Saturday over Indiana, rose to No. 14 [Sunday] in the BCS standings. They passed five teams that lost Saturday.
A BCS bowl could decide it wants a Big Ten team because schools from that conference traditionally bring lots of fans. But which Big Ten team would the bowls want - Penn State or Iowa?
The list of teams plummeting below the Lions over the weekend did not include Iowa, thankfully, a miracle of modern technology after both the Coaches and Harris polls (along with the typically more alert writers in the Associated Press poll) inexplicably ranked Penn State at least two spots ahead of the Hawkeyes for no discernible reason aside from some warm feelings of Paterno nostalgia and decades of conditioning that, on average, Penn State > Iowa. Obviously that hasn't been the case this year: Besides beating the Nittany Lions by 11 points on their own field and putting up an admirable overtime fight at Ohio State just a week after the Buckeyes trounced the Lions in a make-or-break game in Happy Valley, Iowa submits the better resumé across the board:
Which team would you rather have massacred by amped-up TCU in a game that draws relatively disastrous ratings?
If it comes down to choosing between the Hawkeyes and Lions, though, Iowa's head-to-head win -- or even its rankings, which for now is a hair better than the Lions' in the poll that counts in these matters and should remain so if the Hawkeyes beat Minnesota -- may matter less than the simple economics: Penn State will not necessarily travel better than Iowa off a disappointing season, but PSU does have a larger fan base and a better name brand for television ratings. (Casual viewers, having probably never been presented with the above chart, are also more likely to assume Penn State > Iowa regardless of the specifics on the field this year.)
And the debate about a second Big Ten team may be moot altogether if Oklahoma State wins its last to finish 10-2, in which case the Fiesta Bowl would probably be more interested in the higher-ranked Cowboys, who would at least bring a crowd for their first big-money appearance. That requires OSU winning at Oklahoma, though, where the Sooners haven't lost to anyone since September 2005, when the most grizzled veterans on this year's OU roster were just redshirts. If the Cowboys can't pull that off, and Penn State does wind up sneaking into the last at-large slot ahead of the Hawkeyes, it could get very 'Children of the Corn' around BCS headquarters. Not that I'm encouraging anything, of course. Just an observation.