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Enjoy it while you can, Penn State

December 21, 2008|KURT STREETER

Since the Penn State Nittany Lions football team is due in town this weekend, let me be the first to offer it a warm welcome -- and some advice.

At last check, the weather back in the land of the endless coal mine wasn't looking too great -- unless freezing temperatures, biting wind and relentless snow are your bag. So, Penn Staters, in case you've forgotten, that mass of blue above you is known as the sky. And, yes, that golden orb is called the sun.

(Note: There may also be a touch of gray gunk mixed into this picture, and though some may call this smog, I suggest using a more hopeful term: Southern California Fog.)

Anyway, because this is surely the first time out west for many of you, it won't take long to see that Los Angeles isn't a city the way you might think of a city. You could fit Pittsburgh inside some Hollywood backyards. Borders are hard to find in this mega-town, but you'll actually be able to spot a very natural one when you walk from your swanky rooms at the Santa Monica Loews Hotel. There you will find our westward boundary: the sandy beach, dotted with swaying palms.

Hardy sons of JoePa: Because the Rose Bowl is Jan. 1, you've got roughly two weeks to suffer through this torture. Drink it in. Enjoy every last minute, because the way things are going, memorable times like these -- weeks of L.A. bliss capped by a mind-blowing college football game that tops all comers for pageantry -- will soon be but a memory.

As we all know, there's a heavy clamor for change in college football. "Playoffs or bust!" shout the naysayers. Even Mr. Change himself, Barack Obama, wants it, and when the soon-to-be leader of the free world starts harping as he has, you can bet that big-time college football will indeed have a playoff within the next decade.

How sad. Sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone, and the glorious time your football team is about to have is one of the prime reasons why.

Imagine, Nittany Lions, what it would be like if the playoffs were already a reality.

For starters, the way things work, a Division I playoff would probably begin as a tidy tournament with, say, four teams -- and within a few years grow into a behemoth. Trust me, with all the cash involved, it would not be long until a Division I playoff looked exactly like the one played in what used to be called Division I-AA: a 16-team slog to the Promised Land.

If this happens, the glorious, granddaddy Rose Bowl would quite possibly be a quarterfinal game. That's right, the final eight . . . wow . . . exciting.

Because it would be just another step on the way to a title game -- and a monumentally expensive trip for such a step -- tens of thousands of your fans would stay home. With far fewer of your fans, with less prestige and with the possibility that one day USC and its rabid fan base will not be the Pac-10 representative, it's not hard to imagine the Rose Bowl played before a slew of empty seats. Imagine Penn State versus Arizona. Pomp and circumstance? Dulled and diminished.

Just as bad, because the Penn State athletic department would need to save cash for a game the following week, you'd probably prep as you have for all road games. The new itinerary: Dec. 30, fly to L.A., check into a less-than-stellar hotel near Pasadena. Dec. 31, light practice, head back to said hotel. Sleep. Jan. 1, play game, back to hotel. Jan. 2, fly home to the ice storms.

Not exactly the stuff of memories.

And speaking of memories, if you lost that Rose Bowl/Quarterfinal Playoff game, it would be a tough loss, something akin to losing to Ohio State. But, seriously, it wouldn't be that big a deal, just a defeat in the final eight. Does any normal human being remember any quarterfinal game from last year's NCAA college basketball tournament?

Yet the average college football fan will long recall a boatload of big games from the 2008 regular season.

Playoffs? The entire season has been one massive playoff. Penn State, even after your single loss, there were slim chances that you could crawl back in the BCS mix. So after the heartbreaker at Iowa you kept fighting, kept playing as if every down was your last. That kind of effort created a season of unforgettable memories.

Add "plan Obama" to the mix, and soon enough everything changes. One loss? Big deal. Two? Ho-hum. A trio of losses still gives you a good shot at the big dance. Among the top 16 teams in the latest BCS poll, three teams had three losses and four teams had two. In short: With a playoff, college football seasons where every week is hot and highly charged will cool considerably.

Nittany Lions, if there had been a playoff this year, yes, you would still have a sliver of a chance at a national title -- if you could first beat the Trojans and then, say, Texas and Florida, every game on the road. But as happens with March Madness, if you'd failed to win the big crown, nobody one mile south of Delaware and a hundred miles west of the Alleghenies would ever remember you existed.

So be glad for what you have. Enjoy our weather, enjoy our marvels -- after practice, go to Pink's for a bacon/chili/cheese dog, hit the Malibu beaches, flirt with the Pepperdine coeds. Drink up every part of the coming two weeks and then play like everything depends on it in the Rose Bowl. Nittany Lions teams of the soon-to-come future, pawns in an effort to take all uniqueness from college football, are probably not going to have it so good.

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kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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