Blue White Illustrated

January 2020

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 73 of 75

LAST WORD M A T T L I N G E R M A N | L I N G E R M A N M A T T H E W @ G M A I L . C O M t was no secret what news Penn State wanted to hear when the College Football Playoff selection committee announced its final rankings on Dec. 8. The quest for the program's first berth in the four-team playoff bracket was terminated when the Nittany Lions fell in Columbus, but in what some had dubbed a rebuilding year for James Franklin's team, the potential to play in the program's fifth Granddaddy of Them All seemed almost likely. Then the Rose Bowl committee met, and for one reason or another felt that it was Wisconsin that was the second- best team in the Big Ten. The feeling among Penn State fans and presumably players was one of deflation; even after a 10-win season that included a pair of victories over ranked opponents, the Nittany Lions weren't deemed impres- sive enough to compete in the bowl with the most cachet of any non-CFP game. That feeling only intensified when it was announced that Penn State had been selected to play in the Cotton Bowl, a well-regarded New Year's Six game, but one in which it would be matched with a Group of Five opponent. Regardless of the fact that No. 17 Memphis is a quality opponent, the Nittany Lions now have to deal with the difficulty of playing a team that fans will expect them to beat simply because the Tigers don't play in one of college football's top five leagues. It's the same notion Penn State unsuccessfully bat- tled last season when it came up against No. 14 Kentucky – in other words, "not a football school" – in the Citrus Bowl. With the disappointment of missing out on a trip to Pasadena and the Rose Bowl paired with the fact that the matchup is one without any sort of his- tory, it would be easy for Penn State to come out flat when it runs onto the field at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 28. But this Penn State team has plenty to play for, and being in the right frame of mind will be crucial against what is a really good Memphis squad. First off, there's the simple fact that playing in New Year's Six bowls isn't a given every year. Think about last sea- son, when the Nittany Lions were led by the program's all-time winningest quarterback and had multiple NFL Draft picks, and remember that not only were they unable to play in one of the top six bowls, but they didn't even win the one they played in. Yes, Penn State is in position to com- pete for a Big Ten title and be a top-15 team in the country for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean opportu- nities like this are guaranteed. Plus, it's easy to forget that in the first half of this decade, Penn State was in- vited to play in the Outback Bowl, Tick- etCity Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl and TaxSlayer Bowl. Different circum- stances during that time period, yes, but the chance to play in the major bowls shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, the Cotton Bowl will be Penn State's 23rd New Year's Six all time. Plus, a win over Memphis would give Penn State its 11th win of the year, a plateau that the program has reached in only 18 previous seasons. From a football standpoint, Penn State has a chance to see what it has in players who will be returning next year – of whom there are many – and although an offensive coordinator had yet to be named as of this writing, we could catch a glimpse of the future. Remember back to the Fiesta Bowl in December 2017, Ricky Rahne's first game at the helm of the offense, and how he used Tommy Stevens as "the Lion." It was a sign of things to come – even if they weren't necessarily good things. On the flip side of the same coin, even with plenty of Penn State's most valu- able contributors set to return next sea- son, the players who are set to leave have been important parts of one of the more successful eras of Penn State foot- ball. The team as it is constituted right now will never be reassembled, and winning the Cotton Bowl in order to send well-regarded players – names like Yetur Gross-Matos, Garrett Tay- lor, Cam Brown, Jan Johnson and John Reid come to mind – off without a bad taste in their mouths should be a pri- ority. And then there's the national recep- tion of winning a bowl. Like I said be- fore, the Lions are in a bit of a tricky spot because it's a game that they'll ei- ther win because they're expected to win or lose in upset fashion. But at the same time, a bowl win is a bowl win, and it would be a New Year's Six bowl win to boot. Should Penn State beat the Tigers, it will be the 30th bowl win in program history. Only three teams in the nation – Alabama, USC and Georgia – have won more. When showing that history to a potential recruit, he won't care that in 2019 Penn State won the Cotton Bowl rather than the Rose Bowl. The bottom line is this: Every player in Penn State's locker room would rather be facing No. 6 Oregon in Southern Cal- ifornia than Memphis in Dallas. But that disappointment can't persist into the Cotton Bowl. If you're going to play in a bowl game, you might as well win it. ■ In it to win it I

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