In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal the Nittany Lions, a longtime darling of college football, suddenly are avoid-at-all-costs for sponsor-driven bowls and TV networks.
That's Penn State, and Penn State football in particular, in the world of public perception. PSU is the mortgage crisis of college football.
So don't expect the Lions to get the calls from the officials the rest of the season. Don't expect PSU to make the Big Ten title game, or to win it if they somehow get there. Don't expect Penn State to be chosen by a bowl until it's the only eligible league school remaining and there's only one bowl still picking.
Just imagine what would happen if the Lions win the Big Ten Leaders Division and play in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title: That's a full week of promotions that will have to include Penn State football, and a full week of the league and television network (FOX) having to put the Penn State name out front, as a featured part of the Big Ten's grand, signature, inaugural championship game.
High-ranking executives are having night terrors at the thought.
If PSU takes an early lead against Wisconsin on Nov. 26 with the Leaders Division title at stake, those execs might start breaking out in hives like Chris Elliott's character in There's Something About Mary.
The Big Ten title game with PSU would have its own sideshow, a referendum on whether Penn State should even be playing, discussion about how Joe Paterno's name was removed from the trophy, more uncomfortable talk about child sex abuse and less about Big Ten football.
It would be another opportunity for sponsors to gutlessly boycott (instead of taking a meaningful stand and using their airtime to promote abuse awareness, etc.) and take shots at Penn State, as one major sponsor of ESPN college football has done. Another chance for the media and the public to make stinging comments and associate Penn State with the Big Ten. It would keep the scandal on the front page, affixed to the holy Big Ten name.
Even worse would be if PSU won the league title, earning the automatic BCS bowl berth.
How will the Rose Bowl like it with the Enron of college football coming to town? What will ESPN think if the Bernie Madoff of programs infects its cash cow BCS bowl game, the beloved "Grandaddy of Them All" Rose Bowl with a child sex abuse scandal and alleged cover-up?
What bowl game wants to get stuck with such a poisonous asset? None, of course.
In other words, PSU fans, you can soon book your tickets for Detroit and the Dec. 27 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl and that enticing matchup with Ohio, Northern Illinois or Toledo. Plenty of seats will be available. Scalping will be your best bet, less than face value should be available, all sections.
This is what PSU football has been reduced to by the Sandusky scandal.
An AP story Thursday quoted a Rose Bowl representative saying the game would "welcome with open arms" whoever is the Big Ten champion. Yeah, right.
New PSU president Rodney Erickson was non-committal about the Lions participating in a bowl when asked last week, though he seemed to be leaning toward letting the team play.
With two weeks to go, there still are a lot of permutations for bowl eligibility in the Big Ten. Of the 12 schools, only Indiana and Minnesota are bowl ineligible. Ten teams are jockeying for bowl position.
In order to leapfrog PSU in the eight-bowl Big Ten pecking order, a school must be within one game of the Lions.
(UPDATE: Oops, RFBS was relying on outdated information re: the aforementioned bowl scenarios. The rule about a team needing to be within one win of another eligible team in order to be selected for a given bowl only applies to the Capital One and Outback Bowls. The remaining Big Ten affiliated bowls - Insight, Gator, Meineke Care Care, Ticket City and Little Caesers Pizza Bowl - all can select any bowl-eligible Big Ten team. Which means that if Penn State doesn't reach the Big Ten title game, it very well could get shuffled well down the pecking order, below 7-5 and even 6-6 teams, despite a 9-3 record. Remember, it's not about who deserves what, it's about sponsors, revenue (ticket sales and TV ratings) and perception.)
So if PSU loses at Ohio State and at Wisconsin and finishes 8-4, then any 7-5 schools can be chosen ahead of PSU by the bowls.
Playing Nostradamus, projecting point spreads and picking the favored team to win each game, here's how this likely could play out:
- Wisconsin (11-2, Big Ten champion) - Rose Bowl (Pasedena)
- Michigan State (10-3, runner-up) - Capital One Bowl (Orlando)
- Michigan (10-2) - Outback Bowl (Tampa)
- Nebraska (9-3) - Insight Bowl (Tempe)
- Ohio State (7-5) - Gator Bowl (Jacksonville)
- Iowa (7-5) - Meineke Car Care Bowl (Houston)
- Illinois (7-5) - Ticket City Bowl (Dallas)
- Penn State (8-4) - Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (Detroit)
That's seven warm-weather destinations, and the Motor City. Yikes.
Also still in the bowl picture are Northwestern (5-5) and Purdue (5-5). And, it's possible the Big Ten could have two teams chosen to play in a BCS bowl, but it seems unlikely right now.
Regardless, PSU will get ignored by any bowl that can ignore it.
ESPN's experts are projecting PSU to the Meineke Car Care or Gator Bowl. But those bowls won't take PSU if they don't have to. And unless they win as a significant road underdog in one of their final two games, those bowls can skip PSU.
A little smarter is BCS expert Jerry Palm. He has PSU-Toledo pegged for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
That all might sound overly skeptical and hyper-cynical, but think about it: This is all about money and perception. And there's a LOT of money at stake, a lot of sponsorship dollars on the line and TV ratings in need of maximization, and PSU's public perception right now is as low as any college football program ever.
You can do the math from there.
Yes, the odds are PSU would not win the Leaders Division anyway. But the odds are a little better now that all of the biggest power brokers in the Big Ten, FOX and ABC/ESPN are pulling against the Lions.
This isn't to suggest foul play. But consider this: If you were told last week that there would be a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State of an astronomical, incalculable magnitude that would bring down Joe Paterno within days, or that surreptitious arrangements might be made to help ensure the outcome of a Big Ten football game, which would you think is more possible?
The Big Ten wants Penn State to lose; Indianapolis, which is hosting the Big Ten title game, wants Penn State to lose; the Rose Bowl and the other Big Ten bowls want Penn State to lose; America wants Penn State to lose; FOX and ESPN want Penn State to lose - this week at Ohio State, but especially next week at Wisconsin with the title game berth likely at stake.
Deal with it, Penn State faithful. That's your new paradigm.
In this new world, any team in the Big Ten with a winning record would be much more desirable for a bowl ahead of Penn State, except perhaps Northwestern due to its small alumni base and lack of football brand recognition. But this year, even the pipsqueak Wildcats would bump PSU, if the Lions have eight wins and Northwestern can win its last two games and get to 7-5 .
Bowls are based only partly on merit. They're also based on potential revenue and many other factors. In past years PSU was a winning bet for bowls, with its national appeal and huge fan base that traveled to the game, filled hotels and bought tickets.
Not anymore, not this season at least. As long as PSU doesn't shock the world and make the Rose Bowl, expect fewer Penn State fans to attend the bowl game than in perhaps 35-40 years. And any national PSU appeal - which was largely due to Paterno - has been turned inside-out, all negative.
Unless PSU overcomes all the anti-vibes the Big Ten (and everyone else) can hurl its way and somehow wins the conference title to grab the league's automatic BCS berth - and how interesting would it be to see the Lions hoist the trophy that bore Paterno's name until it was removed this week to avoid being "controversial" - it will plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten bowl line.
Big Ten champions, or bust.
Pizza! Pizza! anyone?