LOS ANGELES — College football tradition made a team's path rather clear for decades: Win the Big Ten or Pac-12 Conference championships, play in the Rose Bowl Game.
With the introduction first of the BCS, and now the College Football Playoff, tradition's been turned on its head. Pac-12 champion Washington's played in Atlanta at the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, with USC filling in at Monday's Rose Bowl Game. Awaiting the Trojans is Penn State, a team which took the more traditional route to Pasadena by winning the Big Ten.
Going to Southern California meant being excluded from the College Football Playoff, however.
"It's a letdown for any team that doesn't get into the playoff, and is that close," Nittany Lion running back Saquon Barkley said. Penn State finished just outside the top four of the final rankings, at No. 5, after beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. "You're a competitor. Your goal at the beginning of the season is to play for a national championship, and nothing less than that."
In generations past, Big Ten and Pac-12 teams played Rose Bowls with national championship implications some seasons -- not always, but enough that it added to the game's drama.
The introduction of a playoff system to determine college football's national championship has created some controversy for critics contending that it's hurt bowl games' mystique.
Another source of considerable controversy, Ohio State became the first College Football Playoff participant invited despite not winning its conference. That's one strike against the Buckeyes. Second, Ohio State lost head-to-head against Big Ten champion Penn State.
That could understandably be a tough pill for the Nittany Lions to swallow. Defensive back Grant Haley views the situation from a much different perspective.
"The Rose Bowl is not any consolation prize. When we found out we got the Rose Bowl, we were like, 'OK, we're going to Cali,'" he said, excitement radiating in his voice.
The same is true for linebacker Brandon Bell.
"I've been watching college football forever," he said. "And seeing the Rose Bowl, to be here right now? It's kind of surreal."
Indeed, college football's first bowl game is one tradition standing tall and proud amid a climate of change. Monday marks the 103rd installment of the Granddaddy of 'Em All, and the matchup of Penn State against USC features two programs with rich histories befitting this game.
The Nittany Lions and Trojans both ride winning streaks of eight-plus games. Popular opinion around the nation suggests that outside of the four playoff participants, the Rose Bowl may feature the two next-best teams.
Considering Penn State (Ohio State) and USC (Washington) both boast wins over playoff participants, they each have strong cases to suggest they're playing at a national championship level. If that high quality of play brings home a Rose Bowl title instead of a national title, it's still a postseason well spent for a Penn State program restocking its trophy case.
"We're blessed to play in the Rose Bowl," Barkley said. "The Rose Bowl's not a bad second option whatsoever.”