PASADENA, Calif. -- When is an unbeaten and untied season not enough for a national championship?
When a 17-point underdog shreds your defense for 456 passing yards in the "Granddaddy of Them All," also known this year as the "Avis Runner-up Bowl."
When you finish your season without having played one team ranked in the Top 10. (And your competition for No. 1 finishes the season beating Miami in Miami, the toughest trick in college football.)
Is it fair that 12-0 Penn State will be voted No. 2 behind 13-0 Nebraska today even though both teams were perfect. Of course not. No team with such a record deserves anything less than a national championship.
"We deserve it as much as they do," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said yesterday after the Nittany Lions' 38-20 victory. "My football team is as good as Tom Osborne's."
He is right.
But a college football poll isn't a pizza, or a Nobel Prize, or an atom.
You can't split it.
Someone has to be anointed.
As long as we are going to decide championships this way, we have to dissect the contenders and find some way to rank them.
Nebraska is more deserving than Penn State.
Miami and Washington were indistinguishable 12-0 teams three years ago and wound up splitting the two major polls. Miami won the Associated Press media poll. Washington won the coaches' poll. Everyone was satisfied.
This year, Nebraska is going to win both polls and Penn State isn't going to be satisfied. It's a shame, particularly for the players. But the truth is that the choice is a little clearer than it was three years ago.
Nebraska beat two other Top 5 teams, Colorado and Miami. (Colorado's thrashing of Notre Dame yesterday certainly didn't
hurt Nebraska's No. 1 claim.) Penn State's highest-ranked opponent (according to the penultimate AP poll) was 12th-ranked Oregon, which now has four losses.
If we have to distinguish between two unbeaten teams, there's one difference.
Nebraska's stirring rally in Sunday night's Orange Bowl was nothing if not a championship performance. Strong defense, clutch offense, fabulous resolve. Penn State just wasn't as formidable yesterday, particularly on defense. Oregon quarterback Danny O'Neil passed over, around and through the Nittany Lions' defense, setting Rose Bowl records
for attempts, completions and yards.
Even though several injuries in the secondary contributed to the sieve defense, Penn State simply didn't have a championship-caliber defense yesterday. Oregon moved up and down the field all game. Only some charity -- three missed field-goal attempts and poor clock management at the end of the first half -- kept the Ducks from making a serious run at an upset. As it was, the score was 14-14 with 19 minutes to play.
If we have to distinguish between two unbeaten teams, there's another difference.
Sure, the Nittany Lions have evidence on their side, too. Their offense, though sluggish yesterday, is superior to Nebraska's. Of course, their offense might be superior to every other offense in college football history. It's that good.
And the Lions certainly have a right to complain about the way they were jobbed out of the No. 1 ranking in both polls late in the regular season. They slipped to No. 2 in the coaches' poll despite putting a 63-14 pounding on Ohio State on Oct 29. (Because Nebraska beat Colorado.) Then they slipped to No. 2 in the AP poll the next week because they beat mediocre Indiana by only six points, even though the margin was under 30 only because Indiana scored a couple of garbage-time touchdowns and Penn State had a couple of scores called back.
In other words, Nebraska assumed the No. 1 ranking on some extremely shaky circumstances, which, in retrospect, don't hold up.
Not that that matters now.
As expected, Paterno wasn't nearly as upset about the frustrating circumstances as his players, even though he now has had five teams with perfect records but only two national champions.
"I have mixed emotions," Paterno said. "Tom Osborne is a close friend of mine and I always wanted to see him win a national title, although not at my squad's expense."
The Penn State players were far less polite. "We can't control what a bunch of couch potatoes sitting in their La-Z-Boys think," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I don't really care what the vote says. We accomplished everything we set out to do this season."
Twelve games, 12 victories.
An 18-point win in the Rose Bowl.
They can do no more. They didn't lose. Yet they lost to Nebraska in the polls because the system demands that a choice be made, and their fine print doesn't shine quite as brightly as Nebraska's.
But what is?