Up in State College a day early, I didn't spot any bandwagons. I parked outside Beaver Stadium, walked all around a day ahead of Temple-Penn State. Nothing in sight. People, sure. Just no big buzz, and no visiting Owls bandwagon. This was back in September. Nobody was even volunteering for wagon driver. That week, I wrote how Penn State coach James Franklin needed to beat Temple or else. And the Owls weren't yet over a lackluster opening home loss to Army.
Even as that Temple-Penn State game played out, as Saquon Barkley did his thing to put it away for the Nittany Lions, there were no big future thoughts. Penn State would be playing for a Big Ten title and still be thinking of the national playoff? . . . As of Friday, the Cotton Bowl would still be in play for Temple, the Owls about to play for the American Athletic Conference title?
. . . And here we are.
Let's call this what it is: The biggest December football Saturday around here in a generation.
Temple at Navy at noon for the AAC championship, then Penn State against Wisconsin on Saturday night in Indianapolis for the Big Ten title. Twelve hours that will define those seasons far more than everything that happened in September.
A Big Ten title for Penn State would be an extraordinary deal, ahead of any post-sanctions timetable, the first for the Nittany Lions since the league instituted a title game in 2011.
And if Temple slows down Navy's triple option just enough to win the AAC? That would be right up there with that day last season when the Owls knocked off Penn State. Maybe not quite the same but close. The last Temple league title came when LBJ was president and the league was called the Middle Atlantic, the key wins being over Bucknell and Gettysburg.
In there somewhere, let's not forget, retiring Villanova legend Andy Talley either pulls off one of the great upsets of his career Saturday in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs at South Dakota State, or his three-decade career is officially over. Wholly appropriate somehow and unfortunate that it's happening a long way away, with the FBS schools playing even bigger games.
This isn't some massive Cinderella ride for Temple. It was always possible. The Owls were picked second in the AAC East and got to host the East favorites, South Florida. They took care of big business that day, 46-30, and have run off six straight to earn their spot in Annapolis.
Going into Friday, the Cotton Bowl was still in play, because undefeated Western Michigan still had to win the Mid-American title Friday night. One New Year's Bowl was reserved for a non-Power 5 league champion, so the pecking order was clear: (1) Western Michigan. (2) Navy. (3) Temple. Western Michigan got past Ohio, 29-23, Friday night so that scenario for Temple ended.
The season's bigger feat belongs to Penn State. Temple wasn't a must-win for Franklin as much as a can't-lose-again. Bigger knives were out for Franklin after the following week, which is what happens when you lose to Michigan by 49-10. The athletic director had to issue various forms of "No hot seat."
Franklin knew the deal when he signed up. At some point, Penn State faithful expect some wins over the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, and that's what they got on Oct. 2, when the Buckeyes visited State College, and left amid a party. Penn State's 24-21 upset only grows more impressive when you consider Ohio State is still ranked No. 2 nationally.
Now if the Nits pull off a mild three-point upset Saturday night against Wisconsin and another domino falls, hitting Clemson or Washington, there will be hot debate within the playoff selection committee room. Does the four-team playoff for the national title include the Big Ten champion, or two Big Ten schools that didn't even make the championship game?
Ohio State is in. The question is about Michigan. My belief is that the committee, while wanting to respect the league champions, won't be able to get past 49-10. Michigan dropped games at Iowa and Ohio State. Penn State's early loss at Pittsburgh still counts on this ledger. If the Nits had lost in Ann Arbor by 35-28 or something like that, it would be simple to say the title and the Big Ten standings decide it, period.
That said, a reasonable case, a smart case, a true case, can be made that Penn State is hardly the same team it was back in September. The Nits didn't just beat Ohio State. They blew out that Iowa team that upset Michigan. They blew out a Michigan State team that stayed closer to Michigan. It's hard to use comparative scores in college football, especially since home field is so important.
So here we are, network television double-checking its equipment, ready to beam out a couple of Pennsylvania schools. A reminder that you don't need a bandwagon to strike up a band. The games Saturday might not be local, but a big football day around here is all the bigger since we didn't see it coming.