Stephen Mally/Icon SMI
Say goodnight, JoePa. After a stunning 24-23 defeat at Iowa, No. 3 Penn State's national title hopes are officially cooked.
Yes, the Nittany Lions can still win the Big Ten title and end up with an 11-1 record. And yes, it's extremely possible that no BCS-conference team will finish the regular season undefeated. But due to the Big Ten's perceived inferiority this season, Penn State's lone blemish has far more significance than a single notch in the loss column. That lone defeat serves as a knockout blow.
In this kooky championship system that we call the BCS, there are two forms of administration -- human and computer -- and both will view Penn State's slipup in Iowa City as an unforgivable loss.
Among us humans, there's a general understanding that the two best conferences in college football this year are the Big 12 and the SEC. So naturally, voters in the Coaches and Harris polls would like to see the champions of these two leagues face off in Miami. Entering today, Penn State's perfect record was the fly in the ointment. (How can an undefeated Nittany Lions team be completely blackballed from the title game? Who cares if the Big Ten is down? It's Penn State, one of the proudest traditions in college football!) But now that the Nittany Lions have a loss -- toodeloo, PSU.
Usually, the artificial intelligence is a bit more unpredictable. But the computer polls gave us a sign in last week's BCS rankings. Penn State was ranked fourth in computer average, behind fellow undefeateds Alabama and Texas Tech and one-loss Texas. Therefore, in the computers' eyes, the unblemished Big Ten team was inferior to the unblemished SEC team, the unblemished Big 12 team and a one-loss Big 12 team. No longer perfect, the Nittany Lions will tumble below all other one-loss, BCS-conference teams in the computer world.
Although it seems like an unlikely scenario to consider at this point, there are strong indications the BCS would even favor a two-loss champion from the Big 12 or SEC over a one-loss Penn State team.
So that's it. Joe Paterno's dreams of a third national title have been shattered. Even if the 81-year-old returns next season -- remember, he still hasn't worked out an extension beyond '08 -- the Nittany Lions won't have the horses to contend for a BCS championship. Penn State's proud senior class, headlined by Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, A.Q. Shipley, Anthony Scirrotto, Mark Rubin and Tyrell Sales, will have to settle for a potential trip to the Rose Bowl.
In the aftermath of the one-point loss, Nittany Lions fans will undoubtedly recall a number of egregious errors, especially Daryll Clark's interception with four minutes remaining. Holding a 23-21 lead on 3rd-and-24 at the Iowa 37, Clark lofted an errant pass into a strong wind, resulting in an easy pick by Iowa safety Tyler Sash. The Hawkeyes proceeded to march down the field and Daniel Murray booted the game-winning field goal. Penn State's national title hopes -- literally gone with the wind. (Sorry, I had to do it.)
It's a sad, sad night in State College.
For most of the country, though, Penn State's undoing set off a grand celebration. After two straight Ohio State debacles, America is ready for a national title game that doesn't include the Big Ten.
As it looks right now, we're headed for a desirable Big 12-SEC showdown for all the marbles. But what happens if the Big 12 North shocks the world in the Big 12 title game?
USC fans' ears just perked up ...