Based on the number of players who graduated within six years, Penn State ranked No. 1 with a score of 113 in New America's Academic Bowl formula. Petersen's Boise State was next at 107. The rest of the top five were TCU (101), Stanford (100), and Alabama (78.7).
"He's the kind of guy who interests them," said the source, who requested anonymity. "I don't know if they've talked with him yet, but I'd be shocked if they didn't look at him thoroughly."
Earlier this week, Linda Caldwell, Penn State's NCAA faculty representative and a search committee member, indicated that a program's academic performance would be a significant factor in finding a new coach.
Petersen, who is preparing his team for a Maaco Bowl date with Arizona State in Las Vegas, could not immediately be reached for comment.
News reports Tuesday also indicated that Boise State would be joining the Big East in 2013 as a football-only member.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Petersen, a California native, last week rejected a $4 million annual offer from UCLA to replace Rick Neuheisel as that school's next coach.
He could also be reluctant to join a Penn State program in the midst of a major child sexual abuse scandal and several investigations, including one by the NCAA.
A two-time winner of the Paul "Bear" Bryant Award as college football coach of the year, Petersen has compiled a 60-5 record in five seasons at the Idaho school. Boise State (11-1), of the non-BCS Mountain West Conference, finished No. 7 in the most recent BCS poll and has regularly been frustrated by the low regard it receives in those rankings.
"At this point," Petersen said this week, "I think everybody is tired of the BCS. . . . It doesn't make sense anymore."
Last year, Petersen signed a five-year deal at Boise State. The contract, which includes a buyout clause, will pay him a total of $8 million, including $1.65 million in 2012.
While there's no indication it is, it's possible Penn State might also be interested in two other coaches at schools high on that Academic Bowl list:
TCU's Gary Patterson has a master's degree and was the AFCA's coach of the year in 2009, when his team went 12-0 in the regular season and finished fourth nationally in the polls before losing to Petersen's Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Stanford's Dave Shaw, 39, is young and a Stanford graduate himself. In his first year as Jim Harbaugh's replacement, his team went 11-1 and was ranked No. 4. He also has NFL coaching experience and was the Eagles' quality-control assistant under Ray Rhodes in 1997.
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz