It's natural to wonder about Penn State's motivation.
We’re nearing the final month of the season in a physically demanding sport and the Nittany Lions' players have no possibility of a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.
There's no reason, however, to wonder about Penn State's motivation for this week.
If any player, however, needs a reason to get excited about going to play the No. 4 team in the country, on the road, under the lights and in front of 100,000 fans, then he should return his shoulder pads and scholarship check immediately. Playing at Ohio State at the Horseshoe on Saturday night is about as good as it gets.
"No offense to the bowl system," Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, " ... [but] I I don't know of too many bowl games that are better than that, other than the national championship game."
Penn State has no natural rivals in the Big Ten. At least until Maryland and Rutgers join the league next year, Ohio State remains the nearest school geographically, and of course, the Buckeyes have often presented the biggest road block for a conference or division title. While the two programs might not exactly fit the mold as rivals, this is about as close as it gets for Penn State.
"It's definitely a game that we're a little bit more into and that we're definitely excited to play," linebacker Glenn Carson said. "Ohio State is probably one of our biggest games that we look forward to every year and talk about every year."
It's not quite true to say Penn State has nothing to play for. The Nittany Lions can technically win the Leaders Division title and trophy, as Ohio State did last year while on probation. While they trail the Buckeyes by one game in the standings, a win in Columbus would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker going forward.
Penn State can also play the role of spoiler this season. It can ruin Ohio State's streak of perfection by finding a way to win at the 'Shoe a la 2011 and 2008. The Lions can also have a say in the Big Ten race later this season when they host Nebraska on Nov. 23, or potentially mess up a BCS at-large bid for Wisconsin in the finale at Madison.
But the players say they don't think too much about those things. In fact, the big picture rarely enters their mind since their picture is limited in scope, anyway.
"We go in expecting to win every game, but we also go in embracing the underdog role," offensive lineman Adam Gress said. "Every game is a big game with nothing to lose, in our opinion. It's no secret that we're not going to bowl games and things like that. So every game's a big one."
O'Brien stresses that Penn State plays a dozen one-game series. Yes, it's cliché coachspeak to some degree, but O'Brien has to come up with ways to keep the team excited. While on probation last year, Ohio State could push for an unbeaten season, a carrot that's already out of reach for the Nittany Lions. And since the current bowl ban is unusually long -- Penn State is not eligible for a bowl until 2016, unless the NCAA decides to shorten that sanction -- there's no reward on the immediate horizon.
So the only choice is to look at each game as its own opportunity.
"Everyone on the team just loves to win and loves to play hard each week," Carson said. "We just come in really determined to get that win. That's really all the motivation that we need."
No one questioned Penn State's motivation last week when it beat Michigan in an emotional four-overtime game a week after a dispiriting loss at Indiana. Maybe you can wonder what the Nittany Lions are playing for next month, when they face Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue in three straight games.
But definitely not this week.
"I think our kids are very, very motivated for the challenge of playing in this conference," O'Brien said.