With one week left in the college football regular season there are innumerable stories that have been told and are still unfolding.
There will be, naturally, a good deal of focus on Notre Dame’s undefeated season and the fact that the Irish will play for the national championship for the first time since the 1988 season. There also is a good deal of discussion about who will win the Heisman Trophy. It will almost certainly be Texas A&M’s (redshirt) freshman sensation Johnny Manziel or Manti Te’o, the heart and soul of Notre Dame’s remarkable defense.
There also will be debate about whether voters in the Associated Press poll should pick Ohio State, which is banned from the postseason, if No. 1 Notre Dame loses (to either Alabama or Georgia) in the national title game and the Buckeyes are left as the only undefeated team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Let us also not forget the continuing humiliation of the ACC. On Saturday, three ACC schools — including the league’s two best teams — got shots to play archrivals, two of them playing at home. Here were the outcomes: Georgia 42, Georgia Tech 10; Florida 37, Florida State 26 (in Tallahassee, the Seminoles scoring a meaningless touchdown on the last play to make it that close); South Carolina 27, Clemson 17 (at Clemson, with the Gamecocks playing a second-string quarterback and a third-string — freshman — running back most of the night).
There are only three conferences that deserve to have teams play in the five-game Bowl Championship Series: The Southeastern Conference should get six bids: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. The Pacific-12 should get two: Stanford and Oregon. The Big 12 should get one: Kansas State. And Notre Dame should get one.
But because money rules the college world (as fans of new Big Ten member Maryland can certainly tell you), this is how the bids will break down: Notre Dame will get one bid; the SEC will get two bids (the Alabama-Georgia winner and either Florida or the loser; remember, Georgia beat Florida); the Pac-12 will get two: Stanford and Oregon; the Big 12 will get two: Kansas State and Oklahoma.
Then there are three conferences whose teams barely deserve to play in any bowl games at all that might each get one bid: the Florida State-Georgia Tech winner out of the ACC; the Nebraska-Wisconsin Big Ten championship game winner will go to the Rose Bowl (you can bet the Pasadena folks are praying Nebraska wins so they aren’t faced with a five-loss Wisconsin team showing up out there New Year’s Day) and, finally, someone from the Big East — either Rutgers, Louisville or Syracuse — will get a bid. Seriously, if there were any justice at all the winner of the Mid-American Conference title game between Kent State and Northern Illinois would get a bid over the Big East winner. Both those teams would have won the Big East in a walk this season.
But college football isn’t about justice — which brings us to the best story of this season: Pennsylvania State University.
Unlike at Notre Dame, where those responsible for the death of Declan Sullivan two years ago were allowed to continue in their jobs with no punishment at all, the guilty parties in the Penn State nightmare are gone. Jerry Sandusky is in jail. Joe Paterno was fired last November and died in January. The school’s president, athletic director and vice president for security have all been fired and are awaiting trial.
Many people (including the person writing this column) believed this past summer that Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s blowhard president, made a mistake when he didn’t shut the football program down for a year. Emmert kept huffing and puffing and threatening to blow Penn State’s house down but backed off in the end.
Mostly by accident, he did the right thing. Not because he was brilliant in any way but because Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff and his players produced one of the most memorable seasons in college football history. That is not said to diminish in any way the tragedies that were allowed to occur by the school’s since-departed and humiliated leaders.
Penn State lost nine key players in August — including its best offensive weapon — which would decimate any football team. Did Penn State benefit from a down Big Ten? Yes. But the Lions began the season with a home loss to a (solid) Ohio team and then went to 0-2 because place kicker Sam Ficken, forced into action because starter Anthony Fera transferred to Texas, couldn’t make a couple of chip shot field goals (he was 1 of 5) at Virginia.
Sitting at 0-2 you probably could have gotten pretty good odds on 0-12 and great odds on a losing season. Penn State went 8-2 in its final 10 games. The losses were to unbeaten Ohio State and at Nebraska, the only other Big Ten team with 10 wins.
It finished the season Saturday with a dramatic, 24-21 overtime victory over Wisconsin when Ficken became a hero by squeezing a 37-yarder inside the left upright in overtime. You can say anything you want about the need to change the culture at Penn State — and in college athletics — but it isn’t the athletes who are the problem; it is the administrators.
Penn State lost its soul to the culture of football and paid a well-deserved heavy price for doing so. But those who stayed to play at Penn State this fall began what will be a lengthy rescue project with their grit and their devotion to one another and to their school.
It’s easy to play for championships and for glory. It is what most athletes do. It’s hard to play when nothing you do can completely erase a horrible stain and when you know there’s no championship and very little glory at stake.
Penn State’s players did that. As we mourn what those who came before them allowed to happen, we should cheer what they accomplished in the wake of tragedy.