TaxSlayer Bowl eyes Penn State

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader

Penn State lost its final three games of the regular season. It hasn’t seemed to hurt the program’s profile with bowl games.

As it turns out, the Nittany Lions could very well be playing on New Year’s weekend in Florida against a marquee SEC school despite a 7-5 record.

The TaxSlayer Bowl — known to most by its former name, the Gator Bowl — is targeting Penn State to play at noon on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville.

“We’re down to a couple of groups of teams,” TaxSlayer Bowl president and CEO Rick Catlett said Wednesday. “On the SEC side, it looks like LSU or Georgia. On the ACC side, we have an option if Florida State’s available to go there. And if it’s not Florida State and we go Big Ten, then it’s probably Penn State.”

Catlett spoke in a video released by the bowl that the official announcement would come 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. The game’s selection committee met to discuss its options on Wednesday.

As he alluded to, Penn State is not the bowl’s first choice. That would be Florida State from across the panhandle in Tallahassee. But at 10-2, the Seminoles are likely to earn an at-large bid into the New Year’s Six bowls.

A North Carolina upset of Clemson in Saturday’s ACC championship could conceivably push the Seminoles down a rung to either the Russell Athletic Bowl or the TaxSlayer.

The Big Ten and ACC have a joint agreement with the TaxSlayer and Music City Bowl to split the affiliation over six years. Last season the Music City got to pick first and went with Notre Dame, which shares bowl tie-ins with the ACC.

This year it’s the TaxSlayer that gets to choose. And Penn State is likely to be the highest profile team available to pick from those two leagues.

On the Big Ten side, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State are all expected to end up in a New Year’s Six bowl, with the winner of Saturday’s game between the Hawkeyes and Spartans landing in the College Football Playoff.

That would leave Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin as the candidates to land in the next tier of Big Ten bowls — the Citrus, Outback and Holiday. The TaxSlayer/Music City split is in the next grouping along with the Foster Farms Bowl and Pinstripe Bowl.

The Big Ten ultimately has final say over which team goes where, though league officials have stressed that their main concern is making sure schools don’t repeatedly end up at the same venues.

Long time between visits: Not a problem for Penn State in this case. The Lions haven’t played in the game in nearly 40 years, when Pittston Area’s Jimmy Cefalo led them against Notre Dame in 1976.

Penn State hasn’t faced Georgia since the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1982 season, when the Lions captured their first national title.

But bowls can occasionally be wary of selecting a team with an outgoing coach — the Bulldogs have fired Mark Richt, who just accepted the open job at Miami on Wednesday night.

LSU, which lost to Penn State in the 2009 Capital One Bowl, had an 11th-hour change of heart to keep its coach, Les Miles, after weeks of discussion about ousting him.

Trying to stay positive: As for the Lions, things fell apart in the finale against Michigan State in which the Spartans pulled away for a 55-16 win. Lions coach James Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan the next day.

Despite the humbling end to the regular season, Franklin has sought to remain positive.

“Next year, starting with the bowl game, we’re gonna have an opportunity to get some things cleaned up,” the Lions coach said. “Get healthy. Get our full roster back with some time off. And then build on it in the future.

“Next year will be our first opportunity to be back at full scholarships. We obviously have a lot of work to do. All of us. But good things are coming. I feel very, very confident in that.”