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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / The No. 1 Debate : WHY PENN STATE SHOULD BE NO. 1 : This Team Is Too Good to Be No. 2

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite an occasional farm belt letter that began something like, “Dear Husker Hater, my brother Orville and me would love to see you trip in front of the just-sharpened blades of an oncoming wheat thresher . . . " I honestly have the utmost respect for Nebraska football.

If I’ve made fun of the Cornhusker yahoos in the past or criticized the great Tom Osborne, it was because they deserved it or, more likely, it was a slow news day.

If I’ve mocked the love affair Nebraskans have with the Big Red, it was because I had yet to understand that there isn’t a damn thing to do in the state, other than check the daily crop report or follow the beloved ‘Huskers.

So it is with a straight face, an extended hand and a spirit of friendship that I offer congratulations to my new Nebraska friends on a national championship well deserved.

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And by the way, Penn State got jobbed.

Admit it, ‘Huskers, if it were you who finished a perfect 12-0, glided through a Big Ten Conference schedule and then beat a better-than-anyone-will-ever-give-them-credit-for Oregon team by 18 points, you’d be crying in your mug of Iron City too. You’d be accusing the voters in the AP poll and the USA Today/CNN coaches’ poll of favoritism, ignorance and balloting injustice. And you’d be right.

Nebraska’s name belongs atop the two polls and engraved on the two national championship trophies, but so does Penn State’s. Just because the knucklehead voters thought otherwise, doesn’t make it any less true.

This isn’t like the old days, when the Nittany Lions played a schedule as soft as baby’s breath, finished 11-0 and then wondered why everyone laughed. This was the Big Ten, rated the toughest league in the nation this year. This was Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois, all teams that played in bowl games. This was USC, one of Penn State’s nonconference opponents that most recently left Texas Tech and the Cotton Bowl in ruin.

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Back in September, Penn State disposed of the Trojans like a pair of old socks.

Did it matter to the voters? Nope. They were blinded by red.

Rather than acknowledge the best collection of offensive talent perhaps in the last 10, 20 . . . 50 years, the coaches and reporters decided that Nebraska was the better of the two teams.

Fair enough. You take the Cornhuskers, I’ll take my chances with a team that averaged 47.8 points during the regular season, that beat three ranked opponents by an average of 26.7 points, whose supposedly suspect defense finished plus-12 in the telltale turnover margin. I’ll take Joe Pa and his staff, but I won’t take a check when it comes time for every Nebraska honk to pay off his bet.

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If there were a football god--or better yet, no nearsighted college presidents who think a one-game playoff would compromise an already compromised college athletics system--Nebraska and Penn State would meet on a neutral field a week from now. But it isn’t going to happen. Not today. Not next year. Not ever if the pencil-necks have their way.

Which leaves us with the bowl and poll system. Antiquated. Quirky. Unfair.

For instance, I’m still trying to figure out how the Nittany Lions, who absolutely blasted Indiana--but gave up two meaningless (or so they thought) touchdowns at game’s end to make the score look closer than it was--dropped from No. 1 that week.

And why is it when Nebraska overcomes a string of injuries to its quarterbacks, a nation applauds? When Penn State wins despite injuries to several key defensive players, nobody cares, least of all the poll voters.

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There is another possible reason Nebraska won a national championship and Penn State didn’t. It’s the “One for Osborne” theory, which is similar to the “One for Bobby Bowden” theory of a season ago.

The thinking: Since the Cornhuskers are 13-0 . . . and Osborne has gone 22 years without a national title . . . and Nebraska has come s ooooo close . . . and Paterno already has won two of these things, why not give it to Nebraska?

If it happened, if one coach or AP voter picked Nebraska first out of sympathy rather than sincerity, then the Cornhuskers’ No. 1 ranking is worthless. I don’t think anybody is that stupid, but then again, I once knew a Heisman Trophy voter who refused to cast his ballot for any African American finalist.

The Nittany Lions say that they’re no worse than Nebraska’s equal. They played where they were sent, beat whatever team was set in front of them, put up offensive numbers that won’t soon be duplicated.

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What they don’t get to do is raise a national championship trophy above their heads. Or stop by the White House for a congratulatory chat with Bill and Hill. Or receive the proper reward for perfection.

Here’s an idea: ‘Husker fans can quit wasting their ink on me and start writing a few letters to Joe Pa and the fellas. Tell the Nittany Lions that they’re welcome to come to Lincoln and admire those shiny new trophies any time they want. Tell them it’s only right.

After all, half of the hardware belongs to Penn State anyway.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Undefeated, Untied, Uncrowned

This was the fourth time under Joe Paterno that Penn State has failed to win the national championship after finishing the season undefeated. The list:

Year Record Bowl (Opponent) Final Rank Natl. Champ. 1968 11-0-0 Orange (Kansas) 2nd Ohio St. 1969 11-0-0 Orange (Missouri) 2nd Texas 1973 12-0-0 Orange (LSU) 5th Notre Dame 1994 12-0-0 Rose (Oregon) 2nd Nebraska

The Nittany Lions have won two national championships: 1982, when they finished 11-1-0, and 1986, when they finished 12-0-0.

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