Penn State has nine straight wins, the Big Ten Championship and a win over Ohio State. Is it worthy of the College Football Playoff?
That’s what the College Football Playoff committee has to figure out after the No. 7 Nittany Lions’ comeback against No. 6 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Big Ten Championship Game. Penn State won 38-31 after trailing 28-7 in the second quarter.
A big part of the comeback was the passing offense and quarterback Trace McSorley’s ability to break the stingy Wisconsin defense deep. As Wisconsin did a good job of containing Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, McSorley went long on the Badgers and it paid dividends. He set a Big Ten Championship Game record with 384 yards passing.
After Wisconsin took a 31-28 lead in the third quarter on a field, goal, Penn State had its first lead of the game in the fourth quarter. And it fittingly came on a touchdown pass from McSorley. He threw a gorgeous pass to Barkley, who ran a wheel route out of the backfield and beat his defender to the end zone.
Wide receiver Saeed Blacknall was McSorley’s big target in the second-half air raid. He had six catches for 155 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown catch that cut the 28-14 halftime deficit to 28-21.
Following a Penn State field goal to go up seven with 5:14 left, Wisconsin had a chance to tie the game. And the Badgers got stopped on 4th and 1. Defensive back Grant Haley busted a run by Wisconsin running back Corey Clement on the right side of the line and stopped Clement for no gain.
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Wisconsin took the lead in the first half thanks to some Penn State mistakes and an efficient run game. Trailing 21-7, Penn State went down three scores thanks to a bad snap in the second quarter. McSorley couldn’t recover the shotgun snap that went over his head and Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly recovered the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
Ohio State entered championship weekend at No. 2 (and in the four-team bracket) in the College Football Playoff standings despite not playing in Saturday’s game. Had Wisconsin won, the Buckeyes’ argument for the Playoff held firm. Ohio State won in overtime at Wisconsin earlier this season and Wisconsin’s other Big Ten loss came to a Michigan team that the Buckeyes beat last week.
But a Penn State win makes Ohio State’s playoff hopes a bit more complicated even if Penn State’s lone conference loss came in a blowout to Michigan. The task of deciding between Penn State and Ohio State wasn’t lost on Penn State coach James Franklin, who said after the game during the trophy presentation that “It’s on you, committee.”
Penn State handed Ohio State its only conference loss of the season, which is why it was in the Big Ten title game at the expense of the Buckeyes. Yes, Penn State lost in September to a Pitt team that finished 8-4. But how much does a conference championship outweigh the additional loss over a team it beat?
The Buckeyes know all-too-well the benefit of a conference championship game win. Ohio State went from out of the playoff to in (and the eventual national title) on the season’s final week in 2014 with a demolition of the Badgers. But it was just that; a demolition. Penn State was thoroughly outplayed for the first 30 minutes of Saturday night’s game.
It’s safe to say Ohio State is still the favorite to get into the playoff because of its No. 2 ranking and 11-1 record. But it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Penn State get in at the expense of the Buckeyes. Or heck, even at the expense of Washington or Clemson, two one-loss conference champions.
While the Huskies beat Colorado by 31 in Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship Game, Clemson beat Virginia Tech 42-35 on Saturday. And the Big Ten is widely considered to be the best conference in college football this season.
If Penn State got into the playoff over Ohio State while Washington and Clemson got in, it would be a statement by the committee that an loss can be overcome with a head-to-head win and a conference title. Because of Ohio State two years ago, we know that the committee values conference titles heavily.
We don’t think that value is heavy enough to move Penn State ahead of Ohio State, but the committee’s weekly rankings resets have shown that criteria can change from week-to-week, let alone from year to year. The Buckeyes are one of the four best teams in the country. And heck, maybe Michigan is too. But two teams from the same conference haven’t made the playoff and that’s a trend that doesn’t look to change this season.
Just in case, prepare for the unexpected as the rankings are revealed on Sunday. Just in case. And if Penn State doesn’t get in, like we think will happen, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., against Colorado or USC isn’t a terrible consolation prize in lieu of possibly playing Alabama in Atlanta.
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