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Fair or not, Penn State carries the Big Ten flag against USC

If Penn State played in any other league, the question would never be asked.

But Penn State joined the Big Ten Conference in 1993, so the question will hover over the Nittany Lions right up until kickoff for the Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi on Thursday afternoon (ABC, 4:30 ET).

The question will hang there in spite of what No. 8 Penn State accomplished this season as it earned the right to play No. 5 USC. The Nittany Lions moved the chains with ease on the ground and through the air. They are one of only 10 teams to gain more than 200 yards rushing and passing per game. They committed barely one turnover per game. They played as well against the pass as they did against the run. They finished fifth in the nation in kickoff returns.

All of which explains why Penn State came within one point of finishing the regular season undefeated. There is even evidence to suggest that the Nittany Lions can beat the Trojans: Three weeks before Oregon State defeated USC 27-21, the Beavers were humiliated by Penn State, 45-14.

But none of that has put the question to bed. That's what happens these days when you are the champion of the Big Ten Conference. So the question is asked: Is Penn State the next Big Ten BCS victim?

"Our guys are more worried about playing USC," Nittany Lions quarterback coach Jay Paterno said. "We've got enough to worry about without carrying the flag for anybody else."

"Victim" is a strong word. It suggests helplessness, a finality of outcome. But the word hasn't been slapped on the Big Ten champion like a peel-off luggage label. The league has earned its notoriety. In this decade, the Big Ten is 0-4 against the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl, and the scores give an indication of the chasm between winner and loser:

2008 Rose Bowl: USC 49, Illinois 17
2007 Rose Bowl: USC 32, Michigan 18
2004 Rose Bowl: USC 28, Michigan 14
2001 Rose Bowl: Washington 34, Purdue 24

The league's problems in the Rose Bowl date so far back that Washington, 0-12 this season, helped contribute to them.

The Big Ten is 4-9 in all BCS games in this decade. Seven of those nine losses came by at least 13 points. Only one of the four victories came by more than a touchdown. By contrast, two of the four came in overtime. (Here is where fans of Miami, who lost 31-24 in double overtime in the title game to Ohio State in the 2003 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, howl about That Pass Interference Penalty.) The other is Penn State's 26-23 triple-overtime victory over Florida State in the 2006 FedEx Orange Bowl.

Nevertheless, Penn State must answer for the sins of its Big Ten brethren. The Nittany Lions may be 9-2 in bowls since they joined the league. Head coach Joe Paterno may have won 23 bowl games, more than any other Big Ten school. But when it comes to representing the league in the BCS, no one cares.

"Perception is reality," Jay Paterno said. "When Ohio State lost to Florida two years ago, Wisconsin beat Auburn and we beat Tennessee. [The Big Ten] won two of three with the SEC. If we had gone 2-5 in the bowls and Ohio State had won, everything would be fine. If [Barack] Obama had won the election and the Democrats had lost the House and everything down the ticket, people would say, 'What a great year for the Democrats!'"

The good news for the Big Ten is that the perception of the league as damaged goods has not penetrated the marketplace. Scott Bailey, the general manager of Big Ten Sports Properties, oversees the league's brand as it makes corporate partners.

"The perception is out there that the conference isn't as strong as it used to be," Bailey said. "You hope you take care of your business in games. From a selling perspective, it hasn't affected us. As a league, our attendance is strong and our alumni base is strong."

Bailey said the league commissioned a third-party survey last summer, which it will release early next year, that will show "the conference is still the strongest" brand.

The bad news is that a Penn State victory over USC can do only so much for the perception of the league. It will be only one victory, as Jeff Sagarin, the godfather of computer polling, said.

"Suppose, hypothetically, that Penn State were to win 59-0 but the other Big Ten teams all lost soundly," Sagarin, whose poll runs in USA Today and is used in the BCS formula, wrote in an e-mail. "Or conversely, what if Penn State won 59-0 and the other Big Ten teams won their bowl games by large margins?

"People focus in on one game because it makes analysis simple, but one should look at all games played."

Sagarin said a Penn State victory over USC would do little to dislodge a database that extends to the beginnings of the sport in 1869. According to him and Bailey, the Big Ten's history and its standing in the marketplace carry a lot more weight than eight years of struggling in the biggest postseason games.

But if perception is reality, Penn State will have to try to upset USC while carrying a flag. In other words, the Nittany Lions have their hands full.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.