MAYBE IT'S true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

For Penn State, headed to the Jan. 1 Rose Bowl game for the first time since the 1994 Nittany Lions went 12-0 and defeated Oregon, 38-20, in the "granddaddy of them all," a trip to Pasadena, Calif., to ring in the New Year is nearly as good as a berth in the BCS national championship game a week later.

The Big Ten Conference co-champion and sixth-ranked Lions (11-1) will be paired with No. 5 Southern California (11-1), the Pacific-10 Conference titlist.

"Playing in the Rose Bowl will be a wonderful experience for our team," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno, who turns 82 on Dec. 21. "They have worked hard all season and have been a great group. It will be a terrific challenge to play Southern Cal, which I think is one of the three best teams in the nation."

Added Penn State athletic director Tim Curley: "We are thrilled to be returning to the Rose Bowl. Everyone from Penn State had a tremendous experience during our last trip to Pasadena."

For the USC Trojans, the trip to the Rose Bowl - their fourth straight appearance in college football's longest-standing postseason classic - will be their first since, uh, Saturday, when they beat UCLA, 28-7, on the Bruins' home field to officially wrap up the Pac-10 title.

Apart from the fact that USC is only going crosstown from its downtown Los Angeles campus, some Trojans are less than pleased that everything is coming up roses - again.

Like Penn State, which had aspirations of gaining a berth in the BCS title game in Miami until the Lions lost, 24-23, at Iowa on Nov. 8, USC had its national championship hopes quashed when the Trojans were upset, 27-21, by Oregon State on Sept. 25. Since then, coach Pete Carroll's juggernaut has reeled off nine straight victories, many by lopsided scores. None of that served to move USC up in the BCS computer rankings, though, the last of which placed the Trojans fifth and the Lions eighth.

USC defensive tackle Kyle Moore was almost seething in anticipation of the BCS snub after he and his teammates perfunctorily dismissed an overmatched UCLA team that finished 4-8 and lost to the Trojans.

"They did us wrong," Moore complained. "They did us dirty. We were No. 5 [in the BCS poll], we win 56-0 [against Washington], then they moved us down to No. 7. We've been trying to move back to that spot since then. I don't know how this BCS works."

Well, the BCS computers apparently don't put much stock in a 56-0 rout when it comes against a team that finishes 0-12. The Trojans, much like the Lions, were penalized by the fact that their respective leagues aren't as well-regarded as the ones that produced the BCS championship game finalists, No. 1 Florida (12-1, Southeastern Conference champions) and No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1, Big 12 champs).

Apparently convinced that nothing they did against UCLA would elevate them into the BCS title contest, the Trojans did not go for the jugular against the Bruins. After falling behind early, 7-0, USC methodically went about its business in gaining 484 yards to 157 for UCLA.

"The game could have been in the 40s," Carroll said, when asked if his team could have run up the score had it been so inclined. "We didn't have to do anything more [than we did]."

For weeks, several Trojans - mostly seniors - had been saying they'd rather play a higher-rated team like, say, No. 3 Texas or No. 4 Alabama, elsewhere than to beat up on another Big Ten representative. And then there's that little matter about playing in a game that's only a few miles away.

"It really feels like another home game," USC wide receiver Patrick Turner said. "We've been going to Rose Bowls for a while now. It's like a home game."

But if Carroll and quarterback Mark Sanchez were disappointed to be doing the same-old, same-old on Jan. 1, they hid it well.

"I love being in the Rose Bowl," Carroll said. "Whoever says on the outside that we don't is making stuff up."

Sanchez said he is looking forward to the matchup with the Lions and Paterno, the winningest major-college coach of all time with a 383-126-3 record, which does not include his 23-10-1 mark in bowl games.

"That's fine," Sanchez said of another short hop to Pasadena. "I'll play in the Rose Bowl any day. It will be an energized crowd, JoePa, Penn State and the Nittany Lions. That's sweet."

Penn State and USC are 4-4 in their all-time series, the last meeting coming in the 2000 Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, N.J., when the Trojans won, 29-5. *