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They're forgetting the Alamo

Future of players and Paterno, not bowl game, becomes the media's focus.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State held its Alamo Bowl media event yesterday, and the least-broached subject was the Alamo Bowl.

Issues aside from the game took precedence, most notably the status of two juniors entertaining the idea of entering the NFL draft, and the contract situation of coach Joe Paterno.

That's what happens when the Nittany Lions' bowl game takes place before New Year's Day - on Dec. 29 - against a third-tier, 7-5 Big Twelve opponent in Texas A&M and more than a month after a devastating loss to Michigan State in the regular-season finale.

"It left a bad taste in the mouth," linebacker Dan Connor said of the Spartans' 35-31 comeback victory.

It was a flavor so sour that even the outcome of the "Almost Bowl" - as in "almost good enough" - will do little to prevent people from gazing ahead to next year's news.

It has already started.

Cornerback Justin King confirmed yesterday that he sent in his paperwork to the NFL Advisory Committee two weeks ago to explore the possibility of forgoing his final season of eligibility and becoming available for the draft.

"It's just to explore my options," King said.

Still, the 6-foot, 186-pounder said the chances were 50-50. He wouldn't comment on the odds if the committee comes back with a first-round projection.

Even after what has been dubbed a subpar season, King is still high on most draft boards because of the weakness of the senior class. He also graduates next week, a full year ahead of schedule.

King, though, said there were plenty of reasons to come back for his senior season.

"For my teammates," said King, who has until Jan. 15 to decide. "I feel like we can have something special here next year."

Linebacker Sean Lee cited the optimism for next season - the Lions will potentially return 19 starters - as a primary cause for staying. The 6-2, 232-pounder also filed paperwork but said he would come back even if projected as a first-rounder.

"It's guaranteed," Lee said. "I'm coming back."

Lee said he was using the process as an evaluation tool, even though he thought the system was flawed.

"If they say you're going in the second round, I say fifth round," Lee said. "I think a lot of them are exaggerated."

Connor was told he was somewhere between a third- and fourth-round pick last winter and opted to return as a senior captain.

"The only advice I'd give to them is, you can send in your papers to see where you're at, but you have to talk to your family, your coaches, and see what's right for you," Connor said.

While an 8-4 regular season has been a disappointment, Connor has had a banner last few weeks, winning the Bednarik Award - given to the nation's top defensive player - and being named a first-team all-American by several outlets. The 6-3, 237-pound native of Wallingford is being pegged as a first-round choice in April's draft.

Connor, who also graduates next week, said he would travel to work out for NFL teams after the bowl game, depending upon which agent he picks.

Paterno, meanwhile, is still focused on the Alamo Bowl, his 34th bowl and 500th game as a head coach. However, with the recent coaching carousel in college football and one noteworthy contract extension, the 80-year-old icon is still being peppered with questions about his future.

Florida State coach Bobby Bowden recently signed a one-year extension that will roll over after each season until he decides to retire. And upon his retirement, offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will be handed the reins.

"I ought to call Bobby and see when he's going to roll over," quipped Paterno, whose 371 wins rank him two behind the 78-year-old Bowden, the leader on the all-time list for Football Bowl Subdivision coaches.

The four-year extension Paterno signed in 2004 is up after next season.

"I haven't even thought about it," said Paterno, who reiterated that he'd like to coach for two to five more years.

"I suppose it's up to" the administration, he said. "Hopefully, I'm not going to be a crotchety old man when it's time to go."