Big Ten

Penn State has overcome still-present effects of scandal, crowded division to play for Big Ten title

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USA TODAY

Penn State has overcome still-present effects of scandal, crowded division to play for Big Ten title

Penn State is playing for a Big Ten championship.

If it hasn’t sunk in yet, it will by the time kickoff rolls around Saturday night in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten title game doesn’t feature Ohio State or Michigan or Michigan State. It instead features a program that has come back from the dead to somehow edge the college football behemoths around it and have a chance to crash the College Football Playoff.

Now, this all isn’t to pretend that Penn State is Indiana or Maryland. The Nittany Lions spent decades at the top of the college football heap.

But think about how kind of amazing it is that Penn State has made it this far this fast under James Franklin, the head coach who still rattles off his limited scholarship counts and complained about negative recruiting during the preseason. Whether his complaints are valid is for others to worry about, but there’s no doubt that the climb in Happy Valley has been steeper than almost anywhere else.

Yet here his team is a win away from a conference title.

“We have the academics, we have the history and traditions, we have the facilities,” Franklin said Sunday. “And now we have recent success that allows people to talk now — instead of talking about what Penn State was, people are now starting to talk about what Penn State is. And that’s exciting.”

What people were talking about was the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which completely derailed the program. Aside from connotations that still accompany any mention of Penn State football on social media or in barroom conversations, there were severe scholarship limitations and a multi-season bowl ban. All that made seven-win seasons and trips to low-level Big Ten bowl games legitimate accomplishments in a place where winning and winning big was the norm for so many years.

Fans there have always been reluctant to give up their connection to the so-called glory days under Joe Paterno, a figure that still elicits such an emotional reaction that a former Wisconsin player recently said the best thing he did during his college career was accidentally break Paterno’s leg.

That has nothing to do with these Lions being in the Big Ten title game, of course, but it shows how much Franklin has been fighting against, both internally and externally.

His oft-repeated talk of scholarship limits has plenty of merit. Penn State hasn’t been able to achieve the kind of depth Urban Meyer stacks up year after year at Ohio State or Mark Dantonio has built at Michigan State. During the preseason, Franklin pointed to costly decisions from his first two seasons with the Lions, when he and his staff opted to redshirt guys when they could have helped the team win. He said those decisions would start to pay dividends during this season, the first in which Penn State has been returned to a full 85 scholarships.

Looks like he was right.

“People make light of this, but we had 65 scholarships two years ago, we had 75 scholarships last year. We’re one of the youngest teams in the country (during our) first year at 85 scholarships,” Franklin said. “I think these guys always believed in them, but we had dips and valleys the last two years in the program in terms of depth at some positions, things like that.

“Now we’re in a position where we’re more competitive at every position in terms of a two-deep and sometimes a three-deep. We’re able to challenge one another in practice, and I think the more success you have in practice going against good people, it builds competition, it builds confidence. And then you’re able to translate that onto the field.”

Not many bought Penn State as a legitimate preseason threat. After all, even with a full allotment of scholarships, would Franklin have been able to compete with the likes of Meyer, Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh? The Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines have established themselves among college football’s finest programs in recent seasons, and that didn’t look like it was going to change anytime soon, especially in favor of the Lions, who hadn’t won more than nine games in a season since 2009, before the scandal. Franklin went 7-6 in each of his first two seasons.

Franklin's limited success in wins and losses even had some of the Penn State faithful clamoring for instant change. Athletics director Sandy Barbour needed to provide a statement of confidence to a reporter earlier this season.

But make no mistake, this trip to Indy isn’t only because of some flukey win over Ohio State. Penn State has earned this spot with an explosive offense and a great defense. The former has been the most eye-catching change, with that unit transformed from an ineffective mess under quarterback Christian Hackenberg in Franklin’s first two seasons to a big-play machine behind quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and — most importantly — offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Lions won 10 of their 12 games this season and scored 33 or more points in nine of their 12 games this season, scoring 29 in one of those other three.

Certainly no one would’ve predicted that in the preseason.

And there can’t be many who expected Franklin to be in this position in just his third season. Even the most optimistic of Penn State fans had to scratch their heads when trying to figure out their team would get past Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

But with another win over a top-10 team Saturday night, the Nittany Lions could not only win a conference championship but also punch a ticket to the Playoff.

Coaches and players always say “one game at a time,” but maybe there were some folks in the Penn State locker room who thought all this was possible.

“I was comfortable this year starting to talk about those things, but I think we may have talked about it once at the beginning of the year and then we never have talked about it again,” Franklin said. “I was comfortable saying, ‘This is a goal of ours, there’s nothing wrong with having this goal, this is something that’s important to you. But I’m going to go back to this: These goals are wonderful to have, and I think they’re realistic and attainable, but on the same hand, all those things are wonderful but you better have a plan and better have an approach of how you’re going to get there. And this is our plan, and this is our approach about maximizing each day, maximizing each meeting, believing in each other and using our four core values of positive attitude, great work ethic, compete in everything you do and sacrifice.’

“And our guys have done a really good job of those things. I think it was good that we had that conversation. I was glad that the guys brought it up and thought it was important to them. And I think guys have done a good job of saying, ‘This is great. This is how we’re going to get there.’”

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Northwestern set to play Wisconsin at Wrigley Field in 2020

Weeks will separate a perfect 10-year anniversary where Northwestern will play at Wrigley Field for one of its regular season games in the upcoming years.

Back on Nov. 20, 2010, the Wildcats battled it out with Illinois, known as the “Wrigleyville Classic,” which saw the Illini take a 48-27 win.

Even though it’s still two years out, Northwestern still planned ahead and announced its opponent for its game at Wrigley Field on Nov. 7, 2020, against Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

“Obviously an exciting opportunity for our football program to come back to Wrigley Field, one of the Cathedrals of sporting venues in the world,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I announced it to our team, they were absolutely ecstatic.”

“The opportunity to play at Wrigley field is unique to us, being Chicago’s Big Ten team, and to have the chance to come down and play in an atmosphere like we did a few years back was a bowl game type atmosphere, and I look forward to this special opportunity.”

This game though will be a little different than it was back in 2010. Both the Wildcats and Illini played toward the west end zone due to a tight squeeze near the right field wall due to box seats that were added down the third base line.

Now, Northwestern and Wisconsin do not have to worry about that problem because the bullpens have since moved to the outfield.

Cubs president of business operations Crane Kenney spoke at a news conference earlier on Tuesday at Wrigley.

“So excited to welcome back Northwestern to Wrigley Field to talk about football again,” Kenney said. “We had an incredible experience with them back in 2010."

Kenney also mentioned new seating is on a temporary platform that can all be removed and the dugout tops can be removed as well, and the field will expand west, to allow for a longer field.

With a sellout crowd in the last go around for the Wildcats, don’t be surprised for another sellout at the Friendly Confines.

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?