Penn State went to Iowa City, stared down defeat and didn’t blink. Teams that end up playing for the championships often have to go through one or more defining games like Saturday’s to reach the ultimate pinnacle, and the Nittany Lions got through the fire with the biggest of goals still alive.
I don’t know if Saturday’s instant classic in Iowa City is going to mean a more than a hill of beans to Penn State when it’s all said and done, but there’s a good chance it will. You can point to almost any team that goes through a championship run, and there’s more than likely at least one game in which adversity strikes, putting dreams and goals in serious jeopardy.
NC State put a scare in Clemson last year. In 2015, Alabama dodged a checkerboard bullet in a close one with Tennessee. Ditto for Ohio State who lost to Virginia Tech in 2014 and also needed double OT to beat Penn State on the road.
Ah, Penn State. That’s where we pick up this little story.
Make no mistake about it, Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and company dominated the game in Iowa City, but here we were late in the fourth quarter, and thanks to an Iowa team that fought like crazy to hang around, the game was in doubt. When Iowa running back Akrum Wadley found a seam through the left side of the line and down the sideline to pay dirt with just 1:42 left, Iowa finally wrangled away the lead, and potentially the game. The score stood at 19-15.
It all happened despite the human highlight, Saquon Barkley coming out of a telephone booth to make no less than five sick plays that cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner.
A loss on the road wouldn’t have completely dashed the hopes of a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance for Penn State, but it would have made the margin for error razor thin with many big tests against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and potentially the Big Ten West champion in Indy still to go.
But it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because Penn State did what championship ball clubs do. It took possession with the sands of the hourglass running out and everything on the line, and moved the ball efficiently down the field. It did it against a defense that had given up yards but stiffened when it really mattered.
Then, somehow, someway, with just :04 left when everything mattered the most, Trace McSorley delivered a throw off the back foot on fourth and goal from the seven, through a mass of arms and bodies, and into the hands of wide receiver Juwan Johnson for a walk-off game winner. The game will likely be replayed on BTN, ESPN Classic and many DVRs in and around Penn State fan households for years to come.
And say what you will about breaks, bounces of the ball, luck or whatever else you want to call it. Teams cut out of championship cloth are the ones that always seem to be on the right side of the inches game, and make their own breaks and bounces.
And it happened Saturday night for the team wearing the Plane Jane uniforms that are as timeless as the game itself.
So off we go, onto the next chapter in this season that could prove to be a very special one for Penn State. After all, it’s got superhuman running back Saquon Barkley and a supporting cast that can move the ball on anyone. It’s also got a defense that looks to be much more improved over the version from last year.
This is a complete team, or so it appears four games into the season.
More importantly though, because of what we saw in Iowa City, it appears to have the hear of a champion that believes it can win with the chips down and the stakes all in. This team is good enough to win it all, and thanks to the clutch 65 yard drive that sent Hawkeye fans home in despair, there’s still plenty to play for.
They are … Penn State.
Phil Harrison is a contributor to Talking10 and the featured Big Ten writer for Collegefootballnews.com. You can get his analysis and opinion all year long on Talking10.com. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB
Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s 20-16
It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.
Top 25 List: No’s 25-21 |
After unveiling the first five players for the 2017 season, we continue our annual countdown of the best the Big Ten has to offer according to our staff.
No. 20 — Michael Deiter, OC/G (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: Started all fourteen games in 2016 (ten at center and four at left guard). He was a consensus all-Big Ten honorable mention for the second year in a row, and anchored a line that saw the Badgers rush for 203.1 yards per game.
Best Game: vs. Illinois (led the O-line in a team effort of 363 yards rushing, 6TDs and no INTs)
Deiter is the arguably the most valuable and versatile player on the offensive line. He returns for his third year, so there’s also tons of experience to draw from. Wisconsin will always be a run first team, but we can’t forget about the passing game. To that end, he has been worked at left tackle some in the spring, so there’s a good shot he’ll at least be seeing some time against edge rushers that will be hell-bent on getting to the quarterback.
He’s played the interior of the line, has had to call out blocking assignments, and is a two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten performer. He’ll be counted on again to be the leader of Wisconsin’s vaunted offensive line tradition in 2017.
No. 19 — David Blough, QB (Purdue)
2016 Season Stats: 3,352 passing yards, 295 for 517 (57.1%), 25 TDs, 21 INTs, 4 TDs rushing
Best Game: vs. Iowa (458 yards passing on 30 for 59 (50.8%), 5 TDS, 1 INT
There’s no questioning the talent No. 11 possesses. But up until last year, it had just been potential with a lot of inconsistent play. While the decision making still needs to get better, Blough can make all the throws in the book. He is accurate deep, has a big arm, and when hot, can give even the best of secondaries fits.
Purdue has long been known as the cradle of quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and if Blough can cut down on the interceptions and learn the new system head coach Jeff Brohm, we might be looking at a first team All-Big Ten type talent. He’ll get the volume, he just needs to grow as a decision maker and be more consistent — especially against the better defenses in the league.
No. 18 — D’Cota Dixon, S (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: 60 total tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 4 INTs, 4 PBs, 1 FF, and 1 recovered fumble
Best Game: vs. Ohio State (9 total tackles, 1 INT)
Dixon is the steady safety that never misses an assignment and seems to have a knack for the big play. His interception late in the game sealed the win over LSU on September 3, and another INT in the end zone in overtime ended Nebraska’s bid for an upset in Camp Randall on October 29.
He earned third team All-Big Ten as well as Academic All-Big Ten last year. He is a great leader on and off the field and is very involved in the community, but it’s his play on the field that gets him the recognition in our Top 25. As the game has progressed to more and more spread attacks — with the Big Ten being no exception — having a safety as a leader and big-play guy who can read things is paramount to the success of the defense. Dixon fits that bill.
He’s already been named to the Bronko Nagurski Trophy watchlist this preseason. The award is given annually to the player judged to be the best defensive player in the country, and is handed out by the Football Writers Association of America. The Badger D is counting on his steady play in the back-end of the defense to keep up the high level they’ve been playing at over the last few years.
No. 17 — Jack Cichy, LB (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: 60 total tackles, 7 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 2 passes defended
Best Game: vs. Ohio State (15 tackles, 3.5 TFLs)
Cichy probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. Part of that is likely because of his size, and another part is largely due to an injury that cut his season short last year. Still, No. 48 is another hard-nosed, 100% effort Wisconsin inside linebacker who is not afraid to throw his body into the fray.
In 2016, he was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy quarter-finalist, and All Big Ten honorable mention. And that was in just seven games of duty.
He’ll once again be looking to anchor a defense that has set the template for being stingy and aggressive. If he can stay healthy in 2017, he will be a force once again, and get further notoriety than what he already has.
As far as the preseason awards go, he is on the Bednarik, Nagurski, and Lott IMPACT Trophy watch-lists, and for good reason.
No. 16 — Marcus Allen, S (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 110 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes defended
Best Game: vs. Minnesota (22 tackles)
Allen led the Nittany Lions in tackles last year — as a safety. Yes, a player out of the secondary led the entire defense in tackles. Let that sink in for a moment, because it’s the first time a safety has done that in Happy Valley since James Boyd did it in 2000.
Allen is very good at diagnosing plays on the back-end, but even better at coming up in run support, and off his initial read to make stops closer to the line of scrimmage. He’s not afraid to stick his head in on bigger players, and has great break and explosion after recognition.
In 2016, he was named All-Big Ten third team by the Coaches, and so far in 2017 he is on the Nagurski, Lott IMPACT, and Bednarik watch-lists. He is another talented defender on the back end that should play a huge part in the continuation of the Penn State resurgence.
OSU vs. PSU, the Rematch: A Case Against Divisions
When Penn State and Wisconsin take the field in Indianapolis this Saturday, it will mark the end of the most interesting and top-heavy Big Ten football season in at least a decade. With four teams in the top 7 of the CFP rankings, the Big Ten has become a grinder where survival should likely be rewarded.
However, both of these teams will come into the game with two losses, guaranteeing a two-loss conference champion. Meanwhile, another two-loss Big Ten team (Michigan) defeated both of these squads in the regular season, and yet another (Ohio State) has a better record at 11-1! Both of those latter teams sit at home this weekend.
Sorting this mess out is indeed a difficult task.
Unfortunately, that sorting was largely predetermined by geography. While Wisconsin could afford to lose to both of the East Division powers it faced thanks to being able to sweep through the West Division, the other three competitors had to duke it out via tiebreakers after a 1-1 split for all three teams. The deciding factor for Penn State? Michigan’s November loss to Iowa, a team which Wisconsin and a few others took care of this season. Michigan vs. Iowa decided the East Division representative in Indianapolis.
Does that sound fair? Does it make sense to leave out Ohio State at 8-1 after beating both of the 7-2 teams Wisconsin and Michigan, just because geography puts them in the same division with the one team the Buckeyes lost to?
No, it does not.
Put simply, Ohio State and Penn State have earned the right to play for a conference title by being 8-1 and better than everyone else in the Big Ten this season. After that weird and somewhat fluky finish to their game in October, who wouldn’t want to see if a much-improved Penn State team could do the job again against the Buckeyes? The loser would take on a second loss and make it unquestioned who should be in the College Football Playoff.
It’s not just because this is Ohio State. If Michigan held that lead last weekend or won in overtime, then it would be better to see if Penn State at 8-1 could avenge that decisive September loss to the Wolverines (who would also be 8-1) to prove it belongs in the playoff. Yet had Michigan won, it would be UM against UW, and Penn State would be left out in the cold.
Instead, we will be treated to a battle between two teams who may not actually be competing for a playoff spot at all. And it’s all thanks to having divisions and splitting them based on geography.
Some years it works out, like in 2015 when Iowa was 8-0 and the two 7-1 teams (MSU and OSU) settled it on the field two week before the championship game with a Spartans win. Other years like 2016 are not as fortuitous.
The Big Ten is not alone in this conundrum. The College Football Playoff committee cherishes conference championships, but these are often decided between the best team in a league and the third, fourth, or fifth best team rather than the second best team thanks to uneven division splits.
Take a look at this upcoming weekend alone:
- ACC Championship is Clemson (7-1) against Virginia Tech (6-2), while Louisville and Heisman frontrunner Lamar Jackson (7-1) stays at home thanks to being in the same division as the Tigers. The best game of the ACC season cannot be repeated as a result.
- SEC Championship is Alabama (8-0) against Florida (6-2), and while the West Division has no other teams better than 5-3, it’s beyond doubt that the SEC East is terrible across the board and has boosted the Gators to this position while LSU or Auburn might actually be better. If the Florida-LSU game had gone the other way, LSU would still not have a chance to replay that 10-0 showdown despite having a better record than the Gators.
The two teams which played for the national championship in 2015 should receive the best tests possible to earn the conference titles and playoff berths, yet that will not happen this weekend. So the Big Ten is not alone, and the problem all comes back to divisions.
And while I like to see the committee tested with tough questions like 2016 presents, some of them would be avoided entirely if divisions were scrapped and the proper Big Ten Championship were played between PSU and OSU this weekend. How much easier would the committee’s job be if one of OSU or PSU eliminated itself this weekend?
The Big 12 has it (recently) figured out thanks to being defective enough to not be able to hold onto 12 good teams. The NCAA is allowing the Big 12 a conference championship without divisions! This arrangement guarantees there will be two data points between the best teams in the Big 12 conference to decide the title.
That setup without divisions also works better for these ever-growing mega conferences. Old school Big Ten fans have watched the games between the original 10 teams dwindle down as the league expands and divides half the league into a separate division. Nine conference games helps that problem, but it would be more fair to scrap divisions altogether and play everyone (outside protected rivals) on a full rotating basis.
Not only would teams not go five or six year stretches without playing, which is inconceivable when being in the same conference, but the conference race would end with the best two teams playing one another based on being compared with everyone else in the conference. If the conference championship games are to be valid final tests of playoff competitors, this alignment with no divisions would assure that the best matchup actually happens in each conference between top competitors for playoff spots.
The road to conference championships should be fair and equal for everyone. For now, with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in one division, that is simply not the case. It is no fluke that Wisconsin will be making its fourth championship game appearance in six years. The Badgers are far and away the best program in the Big Ten West, and it’s unclear if that will change.
Which is great if you cheer for the Badgers and maybe if you are a West Division hopeful having a rare great season (Iowa, 2015), but not at all for the “blue bloods” all sitting together in the East Division.
PSU and Wisconsin will complete a round robin between these top four Big Ten teams, but here’s where the standings sit in that round robin:
- Ohio State is 2-1
- Michigan is 2-1
- Penn State is 1-1
- Wisconsin is 0-2
No offense to Wisconsin and the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but the Badgers had their chance already against the other top teams and lost. Even with a UW win, the round robin for the Big Ten season would end with OSU and Michigan better off than the teams playing in Lucas Oil Stadium. A Wisconsin loss simply sets us back to the original conclusion that the three Big Ten East teams are the best in the conference, and evenly matched.
It’s time for divisions to be scrapped. We can’t save the 2016 Big Ten Championship, but that event and college football at large would be much better off in the future if divisions and arbitrary groupings based on geography or the like are removed from the equation. Earn it on the field, not in the gerrymandering of a conference alignment room.
Only then will there be an unquestioned “one true champion” of each conference, which would further legitimize the current CFP rules strongly favoring such conference champions over all others.
College Football Playoff: Individual team odds of being selected
The second edition of the 2016 college football playoffs were released on Tuesday as the rest of the nation was looking in on presidential election results.
With only four weeks of the season left, it is officially time to begin hypothesizing about each team and their chances of making the playoff. We know that the playoff participants will be teams from the College Football Playoff Top 25, but we also know that plenty of teams are already eliminated from consideration within that top 25.
Florida State is ranked No. 18, but the Seminoles already have three losses and are three games back of Clemson in the ACC Atlantic Division. They will not be selected for the playoff this season.
Western Michigan may very well run the table and go 12-0, but they are sitting at No. 21 in the rankings and have zero top 25 teams on their schedule, which ranks 103 out of 128 FBS teams in the nation.
Western Michigan will not be selected for the playoff due to a lack of good wins. Playing in the MAC hurt them greatly.
Boise State sits at No. 22 in the new rankings but will also not be selected for the playoff due to a lack of good competition and a head-scratching loss to Wyoming.
LSU, which dropped from No. 13 to No. 24 in this week’s rankings, will not be selected for the playoffs after the loss against Alabama guaranteed that LSU will not win the SEC West, let alone the conference title this season. With three losses, the only way the Tigers would be considered is if they won the conference and that simply isn’t happening.
Arkansas, which sits at No. 25 in the rankings, will also not be selected for the playoff since Alabama will win the SEC West division, meaning that Arkansas will not win the SEC conference this season.
The other 20 teams in the rankings all have a statistical chance to make the playoffs if they win out and things fall their way. Obviously, some teams have much greater odds than others. I will be examining each teams’ chance of making the playoffs as we move from power conference to power conference.
Let’s start with the Big Ten. The Big Ten has five playoff contenders at the moment. In the Big Ten East division, Michigan controls its destiny for both the Big Ten championship and the playoffs.
Michigan – currently No. 3 in the CFP rankings. Chance to make playoff: 50%
Analysis: Michigan has very good odds at making the playoff. If they can survive a sneaky tough road game at Iowa and win The Game in Columbus Ohio against the Buckeyes, then they will be extremely difficult to leave out of the playoff, even if they lose the Big Ten Championship game to Wisconsin, Nebraska, or Minnesota.
Ohio State also controls its destiny for the playoff, the Buckeyes need to win out, including wins over Michigan and whoever they would ultimately face in the Big Ten Championship game.
Ohio State – currently No. 5 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 40%
Penn State needs Ohio State to beat Michigan in The Game to win the Big Ten East by tiebreaker. Penn State would need the extra boost of winning the Big Ten to be a reasonable candidate for the playoff.
Penn State – currently No. 10 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 5%
In the Big Ten West, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota all control their own destiny inside the Big Ten West division, but only Wisconsin controls their destiny for the playoff. Wisconsin would need to win out and defeat whoever they face in the Big Ten Championship game to guarantee a playoff bid.
Wisconsin – currently No. 7 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 30%
Nebraska needs to win out convincingly and hope Wisconsin loses once more. In the hypothetical Big Ten championship game, Nebraska would need to win convincingly against whoever they faced. An unlikely scenario to say the least, but the Cornhuskers are not out just yet.
Nebraska – currently No.19 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: less than 1%
In the SEC, the Eastern division has already bowed out of the playoff race, but three SEC West teams remain. Alabama is the favorite to land a playoff spot, followed by Auburn and Texas A&M. Alabama and Auburn control their own destiny, while Texas A&M needs to win out and hope for chaos.
Alabama just needs to defeat Auburn and they will be in the playoffs, regardless of how they perform in the SEC championship game.
Alabama – currently No. 1 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoff: 80%
Auburn also controls its own destiny for the playoff. Auburn must win out, including wins over Georgia and Alabama, and must win the SEC championship game against whoever they would face. All in all, Auburn is in decent position for the playoffs.
Auburn – currently No. 9 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoff: 30%
Texas A&M must win out and root for chaos to ensue. Alabama going unbeaten would strengthen their argument, but losing to Mississippi State and losing QB Trevor Knight is bad news for the Aggies moving forward.
Texas A&M – currently No. 8 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoff: 5%
In the Pac-12, things get a little bit tricky. In the South division, Colorado, USC, and Utah all have an opportunity to reach the Pac-12 championship game. All three teams need to win out, win the Pac-12 championship game, and hope for chaos.
Colorado – currently No. 12 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 5%
USC needs to win out and do it convincingly, hope to face Washington for a second time in the Pac-12 title game, and defeat them again to make a statement to the selection committee. With three losses, USC is facing an uphill battle, as no three-loss team has ever made the playoff before. Their chances remain very slim
USC – currently No. 20 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: less than 1%
Utah needs to win out, do it convincingly, and win the Pac-12 championship in the process. Similar to Colorado but Utah didn’t face Michigan in non-conference play, which will help the Buffs.
Utah – currently No. 15 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 1%
In the North division, Washington and Washington State remain unbeaten in conference play. The Huskies are huge favorites to win the Pac-12 and make the playoffs now, but things could change if Luke Falk and Washington State upset the Huskies in a few weeks.
Washington – currently No. 4 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 50%
Washington State – currently No. 23 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: less than 1%
In the Big 12, Oklahoma rode a dominate finish to the 2015 season to the playoffs and is looking to do the same in 2016. Oklahoma and West Virginia have not been mathematically eliminated yet, but are long shots to reach the playoff. All three teams need to win out and do it convincingly. No Big 12 title game hurts the conferences chance at the playoff selection table.
Oklahoma – currently No. 11 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 10%
Oklahoma State – currently No. 13 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 1%
West Virginia – currently No. 16 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 1%
In the ACC, Clemson and Louisville are the favorites and playoff front-runners, but North Carolina and Virginia Tech have yet to be mathematically eliminated.
In the Atlantic Division, both teams need to win out, Louisville could benefit from style points and Clemson and Florida State to continue to look dominate, as Louisville needs their lone loss to Clemson to look as good as possible going into championship week.
Clemson – currently No. 2 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: 75%
Louisville – currently No. 6 in CFP rankings: Chance to make playoffs: 25%
In the Coastal division, North Carolina needs Virginia Tech to lose another game in addition to winning out in dominate fashion in the hopes of reaching the ACC title game, in which they would need to defeat Clemson to get the selection committee’s attention. Still a longshot. Virginia Tech needs to win out, defeat Clemson, and hope for chaos. Slightly better odds.
North Carolina – currently No. 17 in CFP rankings. Chance to make playoffs: less than 1%
Virginia Tech – currently No. 14 in CFP rankings: Chance to make playoffs: 1%
Based on these projections: the playoffs will consist of:
No 1. Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington
No 2. Clemson vs. No. 3 Michigan/Ohio State winner
Teams in Control of Their Own Destiny:
Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Washington, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Auburn.
Teams Rooting for Chaos:
Louisville, Texas A&M, Penn State, Oklahoma, Colorado, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Utah, West Virginia, North Carolina, Nebraska, USC, and Washington State.
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