Penn State, whose coach, Joe Paterno, had said on Friday, "The obvious will be more obvious tomorrow," last night officially accepted a bid for the third-ranked Nittany Lions to play top-ranked Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day in New Orleans.
With second-ranked SMU playing to a 17-17 tie with Arkansas yesterday, giving the Mustangs the Southwest Conference championship and a Cotton Bowl berth, the Penn State-Georgia game could decide the national championship if Penn State beats Pittsburgh Saturday.
"You like to be excited," said Paterno of the bowl pairing, "but in the back of my mind, we have to practice tomorrow (for Pitt). We had final exams last week and have to catch up."
In other New Year's day and night bowls, Pitt accepted a bid to the Cotton, and the Orange took Louisiana State, a 55-21 winner over Florida State last night, sending the loser to the Gator Bowl against West Virginia Dec. 30. But the Pacific-10 representative to play Michigan in the Rose Bowl and both teams in the Fiesta Bowl will not be determined until games this Friday and Saturday.
UCLA, which was expected to play Maryland in the Aloha Bowl unless it represented the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl, still had that possibility last night following its 20-19 victory over Southern Cal and Washington State's 24-20 upset of Washington. The Huskies would have gone to the Rose Bowl had they won. Washington, the Aloha Bowl announced last night, would be Maryland's opponent if UCLA goes to the Rose Bowl.
But Arizona State (9-1 overall, 5-1 in the Pac-10) can earn the Rose Bowl berth by tying Arizona Saturday. If Arizona wins, then UCLA (9-1-1, 5-1-1 in the Pac-10) goes to the Rose Bowl because Arizona State and Washington would have two losses each.
The Fiesta Bowl last night announced that either Arizona State or Washington would play either Oklahoma or Nebraska. The latter two play for the Big Eight Conference championship Friday. Apparently UCLA made a $550,000 mistake when it unofficially committed itself to the Aloha Bowl, at a time that it seemed likely that Washington would go to the Rose Bowl and Arizona State to the Fiesta. That represents the difference between the Fiesta's $875,000 per team payoff and the Aloha's $325,000 per team.
Earlier in the day, a bowl source said it was unlikely UCLA could get out of the Aloha commitment unless it played in the Rose Bowl. A UCLA spokesman said last night that UCLA had made no decision and that Athletic Director Bob Fischer told him there would be no announcement until today. But Bruce Skinner, executive director of the Fiesta Bowl, said UCLA had "tentatively agreed" to play in the Aloha Bowl, the Associated Press reported.
Arizona State would earn the Rose Bowl berth over UCLA if the two teams tied in the conference because they did not play each other this season and UCLA has gone to Pasadena more recently (1976). Arizona State has never played there.
Paterno said that he discussed bowl options with his team at a meeting last Sunday night and the team decided in less than 10 minutes to take the Sugar Bowl.
"We try to stick to a policy that we would play the highest-ranked team we could play," Paterno said.
Bids could not be extended officially until yesterday's games were complete or until 6 p.m. local time, if a team was idle or playing at night. It had been reported most of last week that Penn State would opt for the Sugar Bowl. Penn State and Georgia were idle yesterday.
It was the middle of the fourth quarter of the nationally televised SMU-Arkansas game when Paterno spoke in a conference telephone call from University Park, Pa.
"If SMU doesn't make it today, and we beat Pitt, I certainly think the winner (of the Sugar Bowl) is the national champion. But beating Pitt, that's a big if."