The most tried and true formula for reaching the BCS championship game is as follows:
1. Play an easy nonconference schedule.
2. Belong to the Big Ten.
Four times in Joe Paterno's career at Penn State he has coached undefeated teams and didn't win a national title. This year, at 9-0, ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings and facing the easiest road among contenders over the final six weeks, he's poised for a trip to Miami to win it all.
Don't say you can't teach an old Lion some new tricks.
Penn State needs a little help from one of the teams ahead of him, Texas and Alabama. They play in higher-caliber conferences and face multiple major tests away from home. If history is any measure, one, if not both, will lose.
Penn State faces Iowa, Indiana and Michigan State. Only the home game against the Spartans presents any meaningful challenge. The lack of a Big Ten conference championship game means Paterno can cozy up before Thanksgiving and watch everyone kill one another off.
This riveting system is what BCS apologists call a playoff, even if not everyone has to face playoff competition.
There is no logic to the illogical way college football crowns its champions, though. So this is what you get – a nation of fans already howling that Penn State is running an end around on the system.
Well, why wouldn't it? And why should the Nittany Lions feel bad about it?
It's not Paterno's fault. He favors a playoff. Line 'em up and play 'em, he says. What's wrong with the Division III model? In the late 1960s, Paterno put together back-to-back 11-0 seasons and was shut out from a title both times. He isn't a fan of pollsters. Don't get him started about computers.
Being pro-playoff means the 81-year-old is too modern of a thinker for his perpetually petrified Big Ten commissioner, Jim Delany.
Paterno has tried to lobby Delany, only to be brushed off. The commish knows when he has stacked the deck.
Penn State simply is following the plan Ohio State laid out.
Forget about scheduling only major opponents in the nonconference the way Southern California does. Sure it's a challenge for the players, rewards the fans with great games and generally is a lot of fun. But when did that start meaning anything? It just increases the likelihood of being worn out and having a silly lapse in league play.
Don't even consider a conference championship game that might result in a loss for a contender. It keeps shooting the Big 12 in the foot, doesn't it? Why play 13 games when the pollsters don't punish you for playing only 12?
Penn State's nonconference opponents are a combined 12-19 on the season. Just seven of those wins came against teams from what used to be called Division I-A.
The Big Ten teams on Penn State's schedule are a combined 34-32.
That's good for a 46-51 record (.474). By comparison, Texas' likely opponents are 63-40 (.612).
Penn State is an excellent team. And like you'd expect from an excellent team, they're running roughshod over those kinds of opponents.
The Nittany Lions' best nonconference win is over Oregon State. This doubles as the best nonconference win for the entire Big Ten. The only other contenders are Michigan State over Notre Dame and Wisconsin over Fresno State. That's it. For the entire league. The Big Ten failed to defeat a single currently ranked nonconference team.
Not that it matters. It was even worse last year. Ohio State beat exactly zero great teams and still made it despite a home November loss.
It's not just the Big Ten. You're almost assured of reaching the title game if you can go unbeaten in one of the six major conferences – which were determined by tradition, stadium size and political and financial strengths.
As long as the Big Ten has great fight songs, the assumption will be it plays great football. Delany can just send a copy of Michael Rosenberg's entertaining new Woody and Bo book to Harris Poll members. All those nostalgic stories are worth a couple of spots in the standings.
How difficult is it to win the modern Big Ten? Well, Minnesota still has a shot at the conference title by winding up 11-1. Last season, the Gophers were 1-11. Nice story, but any league where you can go from 1-11 to 11-1 in a single season is under serious suspicion. It just is.
The conference does have the best championship plan though. It's darn near foolproof. Quality nonconference opponents are worthless. League championship games don't matter. Anyone who plays either of these is foolishly assuming unnecessary risk.
This isn't to say Penn State can't win the BCS championship game. It's good enough to win any league.
Besides, it's intellectually bankrupt to suggest a great team can't come from a not-so great conference; even though that's what the powers that be say about the Mountain West.
Paterno shouldn't apologize for how the season has played out. He didn't make this system. He doesn't support this system. He's been jobbed through the years more than anyone.
Now he plays in the league that works the angles of it better than anyone else. Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer might have invented the BCS, but the Big Ten long ago perfected it.
Joe Pa's just following the blueprint.