Despite being one win away from meeting the requirements to play in a bowl game, Penn State will spend another postseason on the outside looking in due to the NCAA sanctions. This is the second consecutive year that the program won't have the opportunity to compete for a conference championship and play in a bowl game.
When the NCAA loosened its stranglehold on Penn State's scholarship reductions back in September, it didn't rule out the idea of lifting the postseason ban sooner than expected. It's not out of the question to think that this season might be Penn State's last of bowl ineligibility.
As for now, there's no harm in speculating where the Nittany Lions could have ended up. At 5-3 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten, there are a few locations that Penn State fans could have booked a nice winter getaway.
Here are three bowl games that the Nittany Lions would most likely play in if they were eligible.
Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl
Played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, this game has been around since 1989 but under different names—the Copper Bowl (1989-1996), the Insight.com Bowl (1997-2001) and the Insight Bowl (2002-2011). Penn State has never participated in any of them.
The Big Ten's representative in this game is usually the conference's fourth or fifth best team. Which seed is chosen depends on what team the Gator Bowl selection committee takes, as it gets to choose its participant before the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl committee does. The Big Ten would square off against a member from the Big 12.
With Ohio State and Michigan State unbeaten in conference play and both Nebraska and Wisconsin having only one loss, Penn State sits in a tie for third place with Minnesota and Michigan. The Nittany Lions play Minnesota this week and have already beaten Michigan, so it's possible that they end up as the conference's fifth best team.
If Penn State were to win three of its remaining four games, Tempe could have been a possible destination. The last time the Nittany Lions played a bowl game in the state of Arizona, they defeated Texas in the 1997 Fiesta Bowl.
The Big Ten's sixth best team is slated to play in the Texas Bowl, a destination that seems the most likely if Penn State were bowl eligible.
With Michigan fortunate enough to play both Nebraska and Ohio State at home before season's end, it's conceivable to think the Wolverines could knock of those opponents and be the conference's fifth best team.
Penn State still has tough games against Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. After how it played last weekend against Illinois, going through the season with only two conference losses seems unlikely.
If they were eligible, the Nittany Lions would currently be on track to head to Houston.
This game was re-branded after being played for seven years as the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Penn State has never participated in it, and the Big Ten as a whole is only 1-2 in the game's history.
Heart of Dallas Bowl
This would probably be the worst-case scenario for Penn State. Not only because it's a lower-tier game, but because of the wounds it would open up from the 2011 season.
The 2014 installment of the Heart of Dallas Bowl is slated to take the Big Ten's seventh best team, who will play an opponent from the C-USA. You may remember this game as the old TicketCity Bowl—yes, that TicketCity Bowl from 2011, when Houston's Case Keenum torched Penn State for 532 passing yards en route to a 30-14 win.
But the loss itself might not have been the most painful part. After the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal unfolded earlier that year, it seemed as though bowl committees were scared of the stigma attached to Penn State. The Nittany Lions finished fourth in the conference with a 9-3 record, yet were passed over by the committees of the bigger games—most notably the Gator Bowl, which opted instead to invite a 6-6 Ohio State team.
Penn State would probably play in this game only if it finished the year at 7-5. Iowa and Northwestern would most likely be battling for the eighth and final bowl spot—a berth in the Little Caesars Bowl—and with both teams' remaining schedules, they will struggle to surpass a .500 record, let alone jump Penn State in the standings.