INDIANAPOLIS - Yes, James Franklin admitted, his Penn State players would have loved the chance to compete for a national championship, and he noted that a handful of guys "showed a little bit of frustration and body language" when the Nittany Lions learned they had fallen agonizingly short of a bid for the College Football Playoff.
But, he added Sunday, 99 percent of his players are excited and happy for the chance to play Southern California in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.
A little more than 12 hours after coming back from a 21-point second-quarter deficit Saturday night to defeat Wisconsin, 38-31, and win the Big Ten championship at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Nittany Lions (11-2) landed in the No. 5 spot - the first team out of the four-team field - in the final College Football Playoff ranking.
Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Washington received the four bids from the selection committee and will compete in the national semifinals in the Peach Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31.
The Lions instead will take on Southern California (9-3) of the Pac-12, a matchup that pits two of college football's most historic programs, and two of the sport's hottest teams. Penn State won its ninth straight game on Saturday night, while the Trojans are on an eight-game winning streak.
It will be the first meeting of the two teams since the 2009 Rose Bowl, the last appearance for each team in the game. Franklin called it special.
"You come together as a family," he said, "and play the game and put guys in position to be successful and have the opportunity to play in one of the more storied bowl games ever and play one of the more historic programs like USC. It's a great combination - keep getting better each week during the season and cap off a pretty good year."
In an interview with ESPN, Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, the chairman of the selection committee, said members of the panel discussed Washington and Penn State for hours before deciding to put the Huskies into the playoff ahead of the Lions.
He said Washington's only loss was to a top-10 team in USC, while of Penn State's two losses, one was a "not competitive" 49-10 drubbing by Michigan, the other coming to 8-4 Pittsburgh. He said strength of schedule favored Penn State over the Huskies, who defeated Colorado on Friday night for the Pac-12 title.
However, he added that the examination of "key statistical categories, which translates to performance on the field every week," gave Washington the advantage. He said performance over the entire 13-week season favored the Huskies as well.
"So . . . coming out this morning, Washington deserved that No. 4 spot, and the selection committee believes they're a better football team when compared to Penn State," Hocutt said.
The Nittany Lions got a chance to at least be a significant part of the playoff conversation thanks to a stirring comeback in the second half Saturday night that was led by quarterback Trace McSorley, who completed 22 of 31 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns and was named the game's MVP.
Wisconsin led 28-7 with about five minutes to play in the first half before Penn State generated some momentum with a 40-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to Saeed Blacknall. The Lions, who were outplayed on the line of scrimmage by the offensive and defensive lines of the Badgers for much of the first half, came into the locker room excited and confident.
For a team that had outscored its opponents 280-105 through the season in the second half, a 14-point deficit was virtually nothing to them.
"We knew we'd come out in the second half and make some adjustment and make a lot of plays the way we did in the second half," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "There was no heads down. There was no doubt."
Penn State hit a 70-yard touchdown pass, McSorley to Blacknall, on the first play of the third quarter to touch off its surge. Saquon Barkley rushed one yard for a TD and caught an 18-yard pass from McSorley for another, and the Lions defense held Wisconsin without a touchdown for the final 30 minutes.
After Tyler Davis' 24-yard field goal made it a seven-point game with 5 minutes, 14 seconds to play, the defense clinched it with a big stop on fourth and 1 from the Penn State 24 at the 1:01 mark. Wisconsin's Corey Clement was stopped short of the sticks by Grant Haley and Marcus Allen, the two defensive backs who came up with the season's signature play - the blocked punt that led to the Oct. 22 upset of Ohio State.