INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten will get at least one team into the College Football Playoff. It might get two.
But it's very possible that whichever team wins Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis won't get a spot in the four-team field or an opportunity to compete for a national championship.
That's the debate raging across the college football world right now, as the conference's two best teams — Ohio State and Michigan — are both sitting at home while Wisconsin and Penn State duke it out for a conference title. How much should a conference championship matter when evaluating teams for a spot in the Playoff? Should a conference champion be automatically rated above a team without a league title to its name, even when tiebreakers and such make it impossible for the latter team to do anything about it?
In each of the past two seasons — the first two of the Playoff's existence — the Big Ten title game has turned out to be a de facto play-in game for the Playoff: Ohio State earned a spot after thumping Wisconsin back in 2014 and went on to the win the national championship, and Michigan State edged Iowa last year to punch its ticket to the final four.
But this season, the participants are ranked sixth and seventh, behind not just three teams from other Power Five conferences but behind two teams from their own conference who are guaranteed to not be hoisting a trophy Saturday night. There are tons of scenarios that could play out, but if the rankings stay the same, neither Wisconsin nor Penn State will be in the Playoff. And it's possible that the Nittany Lions could win their division and conference championships and see two teams who finished behind them in the Big Ten East go to the Playoff.
The coaches of the two teams competing this weekend in Indy aren't sweating those facts, of course. Paul Chryst and James Franklin want a conference championship and are ready to let the rest of it play out however it plays out. At least that's what they said Friday night.
"This is a big deal that we're here," Chryst said. "I think one quality of this team that I've appreciated a ton this year is their ability to make the most of the moment. They've done that. I don't spend any time trying to figure out or think about ... big picture. I know this is a big deal for us and our players. ... (The Playoff conversation is) not a big deal right now. It would be doing this game and our team a lot of disservice if we didn't put every bit of energy (into trying to win Saturday). And we needed to and we wanted to. And feel lucky to be able to do that."
"The only thing that exists for us is Wisconsin and the Big Ten Championship Game," Franklin said. "If we take care of our business and play the way we're capable of playing, we'll be happy with the result. After the game, whatever people tell us that we'll have an opportunity to do after that, we'll be excited about it, we'll be appreciative for that opportunity. Again, I'm not going to sit here and make a case for us. Our focus is going to be on Wisconsin and this tremendous opportunity, this tremendous opponent that we have in Wisconsin."
But even if the coaches won't make the case for their teams in regards to a spot in the Playoff, there are definitely cases to be made for both these squads.
Behind a transformed offense and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back Saquon Barkley, Penn State has posted a 10-2 regular-season record with a landmark win over Ohio State, a team that appears to be a lock for a Playoff spot. The Lions' only losses have come against a top-five Michigan team and a freshly ranked Pittsburgh team that also has a win over third-ranked Clemson. If Penn State added another top-10 win Saturday night, its resume would be pretty darn impressive.
Wisconsin doesn't have a signature win yet, though it could get one Saturday. The Badgers have a win over a ranked LSU team, though it's what they did in their only two losses that might be the most impressive thing about them. Wisconsin boasts one of the country's finest defenses and proved it in narrow defeats to Ohio State and Michigan, a pair of top-five teams, taking the Buckeyes to overtime in a seven-point loss and holding a prolific Wolverines offense in check in a seven-point loss in Ann Arbor.
So are these two teams Playoff caliber? Heck yes, and they're showing it. Penn State enters on an eight-game win streak in which points have been plentiful. Wisconsin comes in on a six-game win streak in which the defense has shut down every team its gone up against. These two teams weren't expected to be here in the preseason and might be no better than the third- and fourth-best teams in their own conference. But they are two of the best teams in the country playing their best football at the exact right time.
"What I admire about their team this year is I think it's a team that's continually gotten better," Chryst said of Penn State. "I think as a coach, one of the things you strive for and hope for and want is that your team is playing its best football at the end of the year. ... I think it's a team that plays really hard. Looks like they're playing with confidence. Looks like they like playing. So those are things that I admire about their team. I think that's players and coaching."
"They do a great job. They do a really, really good job," Franklin said of Wisconsin. "They're sound, well coached. They've been that way for a long time. They kind of have a formula at Wisconsin. It never changes. I think that kind of started with (Barry) Alvarez. Coach Chyrst obviously growing up around this, then went on, had his own career, was able to come back home. He fits the model and does a great job."
Perhaps these guys see the writing on the wall, that even a win Saturday night could mean no Playoff berth unless several things break the right way, maybe third-ranked Clemson and fourth-ranked Washington both losing their respective championship games.
But more likely is the fact that this is a goal reached, an opportunity to play for a league title. And to do it in a year when neither was supposed to be here makes it that much more special. The Badgers were dismissed in the preseason because of a brutal schedule. The Lions were dismissed because they played in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan.
But here we are on the first weekend in December, and it's Wisconsin vs. Penn State for the Big Ten championship, a pretty big accomplishment, Playoff spot or no Playoff spot.
"It would mean that we're Big Ten champions," Chryst said, asked what the conference title would mean without an accompanying Playoff berth. "That's huge. It would mean that we were able to find a way to score one more point than Penn State, one or more points, right? It's about competition. The work and preparation is to play the game. When you play the game, you want to win. I think I've been very fortunate to be a part of the Big Ten in a number of different ways. When you can say that you've earned the right to be called Big Ten champions, that's a heck of a statement, heck of an accomplishment by a team. It stands on its own. It's pretty cool."
"I don't care what level, I don't care where you're at, I don't care what sport, championships are hard to get," Franklin said. "I would make the argument right now, you could make a really good argument that the Big Ten, specifically the Big Ten East, may be the best conference in all of college football right now. That's no disrespect to any of the other conferences all over the country. They're great. But I think we got a pretty good thing going right now in our conference. To have the chance to play for the Big Ten championship is a tremendous honor on its own. To find a way to win this game, to be able to take this bad boy (the championship trophy) back to State College, it would be awesome."