The bowl selection process added insult to injury for Penn State's players, some of whom expressed shock and disappointment Sunday upon learning they had slipped all the way to the TicketCity Bowl.
The game against Houston and record-setting quarterback Case Keenum is Jan. 2 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
"Someone please tell me that the rumors swirling about the Ticket City Bowl are a sick joke," backup linebacker Mike Yancich tweeted shortly after the news broke.
Defensive end Jack Crawford called it the "worst case scenario" in a tweet.
Several bowls apparently were more concerned with fallout from the ongoing Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal than the 9-3 record of the Nittany Lions, who were picked:
After 7-5 Iowa.
When: Jan. 2 at noon
Where: Cotton Bowl in Dallas
Teams: Penn State (9-3, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. Houston (12-1, 8-1 Conference USA)
Head coach: Kevin Sumlin (35-17 in four seasons)
Season breakdown: UCLA (W 38-34); at North Texas (W 48-23); at Louisiana Tech (35-34); Georgia State (W 56-0); at UTEP (W 49-42); East Carolina (W 56-3); Marshall (W 63-28); Rice (73-34); at UAB (56-13); at Tulane (W 73-17); SMU (W 37-7); at Tulsa (W 48-16); Southern Miss (L 49-28)
Tough pill to swallow: PSU's players are upset about landing in this bowl, but Houston plummeted even further. The Cougars went 12-0 and played Saturday for the Conference USA title and a berth in a BCS bowl game. The BCS dreams ended when they got blown out by Southern Miss, and now they find themselves in this lower-tier bowl.
The name to know: QB Case Keenum holds NCAA career records in every major category, including passing yardage (18,685), TD passes (152), total offense (19,572) and 300-yard passing games (38); first player to throw for more than 5,000 yards in three different seasons; he is 36-14 as a starter during his career; completing 71.7 percent of his passes for 5,099 yards (392 per game) with 45 TDs and 5 INTs this season.
Other names to know: WR Patrick Edwards (79 catches, 1,524 yards, 18 TDs); WR Justin Johnson (75 catches, 1,081 yards, 11 TDs); WR Tyron Carrier (87 catches, 914 yards, 5 TDs); RB Charles Sims (782 yards, 9 TDs); RB Michael Hayes (707 yards, 11 TDs)
After 6-6 Ohio State.
Even after 6-6 Northwestern.
Those teams not only had worse records than PSU, they also all lost to the Lions.
"I think we feel a little disappointed that we got passed up by some teams that we beat in the Big Ten," safety Drew Astorino said in an interview on the Big Ten Network.
From a matchup standpoint, the TicketCity Bowl actually hit a home run pitting Penn State against Houston. The Cougars are No. 19 in the BCS standings, while the Nittany Lions are 22nd, giving the lower-tier bowl a marquee matchup it could only dream of under normal circumstances.
But these are not normal circumstances. If they were, Penn State likely would be heading to the Insight Bowl, which had the third pick among bowls with Big Ten tie-ins.
The Insight Bowl passed on PSU, however, presumably to avoid controversy in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. That bowl settled on Iowa for a matchup against Oklahoma.
Ohio State finished 6-6 and also lost to the Lions, but the Buckeyes were picked ahead of Penn State. That move was expected as the Gator Bowl wanted a matchup between Ohio State and Florida, pitting Urban Meyer's new team against his former one.
Many felt the Lions would fall no further than the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, but they did as that bowl selected Northwestern to play Texas A&M.
One possible reason could be that the bowl wanted Texas A&M for proximity reasons but did not want Penn State because it could have brought about talk of the 1999 Alamo Bowl, where PSU beat the Aggies in Sandusky's final game. Video of that bowl game has been shown repeatedly on TV since the scandal broke.
The TicketCity Bowl, in just its second year of existence, picked next, and all along its officials had said they would be happy to invite Penn State.
"Any discussion of the nation's top handful of great, perennial college football powerhouses always includes Penn State University," TicketCity Bowl President and CEO Tom Starr said in a statement. "Even more importantly, Penn State also is one of the top academic institutions in the country, and because of those two reasons, it is an honor and quite humbling to have the Nittany Lions participate in our young game.
"We believe our Penn State-Houston matchup is one of the best of this year's bowl lineup."
A teleconference with Penn State interim coach Tom Bradley was set up for Sunday night but was canceled because of technical difficulties. Bradley did appear on ESPN late in the evening to discuss the bowl game.
"I think [the players are] excited to go play Houston," he said. "Houston's got a great football team. They know that, they've been watching them all year, they've been following. [The Cougars] stumbled a little bit at the end there, but obviously they can put a lot of points up and will be a real challenge for our defense."
The TicketCity Bowl not only gets a 9-3 Penn State squad, it also landed a Houston team that until Saturday was in position for a BCS bowl bid. The Cougars were undefeated and needed only to beat Southern Miss in the Conference USA title game, but they got routed, 49-28, and dropped even further down in the bowl selection process than Penn State.
"Where we are in the pecking order as a non-[automatic qualifying] school ... you win 12 games, we don't get the opportunity to go out and select who we play," Houston coach Kevin Sumlin said on a teleconference. "So we're fortunate for the opportunity to play."
As for the disappointment of missing out on a chance to play in a BCS bowl and dropping to this game, Sumlin said, "You wake up the next day, the sun comes up." He later added, "Time heals all wounds."
This game should be a major challenge for Penn State because of Keenum, who holds every major career passing record in college football. The Cougars average 51 points per game, and Keenum has thrown for 5,099 yards and 45 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
Keenum threw nine touchdown passes in a 73-34 win over Rice this year. By comparison, Penn State quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden combined to throw only nine TD passes all season.
"They're lethal to any defense," Bradley said of Houston's offense.
Bradley also mentioned one way to stop the Cougars is "trying to hold the ball a little bit and not give them the ball."
Keenum put up all of his statistics this year against defenses that are inferior to Penn State's, so he should get a bigger test against the Lions.
"For us it will be a real challenge, a different style of football, and that's what bowl games are all about," Sumlin said.
Bradley said this game is about his players having a chance to end a tough season on a high note.
"Any time you have a chance to play somebody that's ranked higher than you and you get a chance to compete, they'll be excited to go play," he said.
"We have a bunch of competitors on our team, and they'll be excited to be a part of a great bowl game. And all that they ask is they play somebody that has a great ranking ahead of them and [to] go out and prove what we're worth."