They both have one loss.
Because of knocks against their conferences, they both could not recover from those close defeats when it came to reaching the national championship. Both, however, probably believe they belong in that game as much as the next team.
But Penn State (11-1 overall, 7-1 Big Ten) and Southern Cal (11-1, 8-1 Pac-10) will not vie for a national title - at least as far as the Bowl Championship Series is concerned. The Nittany Lions and Trojans will meet in the 95th Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. And that's a not-too-shabby consolation prize. Oddsmakers have made the Trojans early 10-point favorites.
It could also mark the return of Penn State coach Joe Paterno to the sideline. The legendary coach, who turns 82 on Dec. 21, had hip-replacement surgery on Nov. 23. An arthritic right hip hobbled Paterno for much of the season and forced him to coach from the press box for the last seven games.
"I'm feeling good," Paterno said. "I'm walking around pretty good and I think I'm going to be able to be on the sideline. I hope to be. I'd hate to miss that experience."
The Rose Bowl, in fact, could rival the BCS championship game between No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 Florida.
"It should be a great game," USC coach Pete Carroll said last night. "Maybe this is the best game in the country."
Carroll had been outspoken about the BCS system before, once saying he did not understand its method. Recently, he argued that the Trojans' one loss - a 27-21 stunner to Oregon State on Sept. 25 - was no worse than Florida's last-second loss to Mississippi on Sept. 27. Last night, his "best game in the country" statement was about as close as he got to dissing the BCS.
Paterno, meanwhile, has never been a fan of any system other than a playoff, but the coach was not about to get into any conversation about whether the Rose Bowl winner could lay claim to a piece of the national title.
"I'm looking forward to playing Southern Cal," said Paterno, who will be coaching in his record 35th bowl game. "That's all I'm looking forward to."
As for his team's No. 8 ranking in the final BCS standings, Paterno probably understood that the Lions' 24-23 loss to Iowa on Nov. 8 had doomed their chances. It didn't help that the Big Ten was considered a lightweight compared to the Southeastern and Big Twelve conferences. The Pac-10 suffered the same assessment; USC finished No. 5 in the standings.
"I think we're in similar situations," Carroll said. "We played a game earlier in the year that we didn't get done and it weighed heavily on the voting."
Nevertheless, a Penn State-USC meeting should draw plenty of national attention. For the Lions, it marks their first trip to Pasadena in 14 years and just their third ever. The Trojans, meanwhile, will be staying home for the fourth straight season and fifth time in six years. It has led some to believe USC is less than enthusiastic about playing another Big Ten opponent.
"That's absolutely media-driven," Carroll said. "If you watch the interviews from our players and coaches, we're pumped about this opportunity."
In the four Rose Bowls in which USC has faced a Big Ten opponent, it has won easily by an average score of 37-17. If the Trojans want to sneak into any unofficial national title conversation, a marginal win over a Big Ten foe may not rouse the pundits.
Penn State, though, has more to gain in beating USC, especially considering that the Lions opened the season ranked just No. 22 in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls. They were No. 6 in both polls yesterday.
"I think we're going to play one of the two or three best football teams in the country," Paterno said.
The Lions are certainly playing one of the best defensive teams in the country. Southern Cal led the nation in total defense (206.0 yards per game) and scoring defense (7.75 points). Penn State was nearly as good, finishing fifth in total defense (263.9 yards) and fourth in scoring defense (12.4 points).
Both teams are almost as strong offensively.