Big Ten

Big Ten champ might miss College Football Playoff, but that's not bothering Penn State, Badgers

Big Ten champ might miss College Football Playoff, but that's not bothering Penn State, Badgers

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."

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.