STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State players and coaches rolled hopefully back into Happy Valley on Sunday, greeted as Big Ten champions by cheers and honking car horns.
They got off the team bus, filed into a meeting room and huddled around a giant projector screen as the College Football Playoff selection committee made its picks.
As the contenders were announced, it became clear — this unexpectedly triumphant season was going to fall frustratingly short of college football’s biggest stage.
The fifth-ranked Nittany Lions — winners of nine straight, including a huge comeback against No. 8 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game — won’t be part of the four-team playoff. Despite a head-to-head win against No. 2 Ohio State, the Big Ten title and a run fueled by one of the country’s most explosive offenses, Penn State was ranked fifth by the selection committee.
Instead of playing for a national title, Penn State (11-2) will face No. 9 Southern California (9-3) in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2.
“I would say there were a handful of guys that obviously showed a little bit of frustration and body language and things like that,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “But 99 percent of the guys in there are just excited about staying together as a family and being able to play in such a historic bowl game.”
News about the bowl destination quelled a bit of that disappointment, and some, including quarterback Trace McSorley , tweeted their excitement with rose emojis Sunday.
Franklin didn’t sleep much on the flight back from Indianapolis and is about to start a six-day recruiting trip, but he was still clearly amped for the Rose Bowl during a phone call with reporters — even though he believed his team had done enough to go to the playoff by winning what he called “the toughest conference in football.”
“Obviously, our guys would’ve loved to have the opportunity to go to the playoffs and compete for a national championship,” Franklin said. “But like I said during the week, I thought our guys would be appreciative of the opportunity to be able to stay together as a family for another week and play the great game of football.”
They’ll do so against a team that’s on a similar trajectory.
The Nittany Lions and Trojans have combined to win 17-straight games and are among the hottest teams in college football. Both have mounted striking turnarounds after ho-hum starts, energizing historically strong programs that had struggled with the weight of NCAA penalties in recent years.
Franklin arrived at Penn State in 2014 and took over a program heavily sanctioned by the NCAA for the university’s role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Although the Nittany Lions have a full scholarship load this season, they’re still feeling the impact from reduced scholarship numbers and start just five seniors, with only 17 on the roster.
USC, meanwhile, incurred NCAA penalties, including the loss of 30 scholarships, in the wake of a scandal involving former football player Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo, who the NCAA determined accepted gifts in the mid-2000s.
This will be the third time the programs match up in the Rose Bowl — the first was in 1923 and the other in 2009.
“I think it makes for fabulous TV, that’s for sure,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “And it makes for a great bowl experience and that’s what this time is all about.”