Penn State capped off an improbable turnaround season by coming from 21-points behind to take the Big Ten Championship over Wisconsin. Is it deserving to be in the College Football Playoff?
Just as we all thought at the beginning of the college football season, a team from the East division won the Big Ten Championship. We just had no idea it would be Penn State.
Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. It was supposed to be a three-horse race in the East, but the Nittany Lions found a way to crash the party late and steal the door prize — a Big Ten Championship trophy.
So now let the debate begin on whether Penn State belongs in the four-team College Football “Playoff.” I say let the Nittany Lions in because they deserve it.
The champion of the best conference
Remember when the Big Ten was the punching bag of the Power Five conferences? No more. Football in the heartland has been the flag-bearer of college football this year. Heck, you had four teams in the College Football Playoff conversation all the way through the final day of the season.
The Big Ten has had these same four teams; Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in the top eight of the rankings for a few weeks now. They are led by great coaches and great staffs, who have great players.
The defenses are a cut above the rest of the conferences, and the talent level has gone up off the charts. Each week has provided great theater, and Penn State is the last team standing at the end of it all.
Is a playoff really a playoff without the champion of the best conference being excluded?
Penn State and head-to-head results
There’s not one team out there that has a significantly better win than Penn State. The Nittany Lions beat No. 2 Ohio State back in a fateful night in October. Alabama is No. 1 and unbeaten, so show me a better win?
You add that to the win over Wisconsin and there are now two top ten wins to go along with the conference championship. The Playoff committee has head-to-head and conference championships as two of the main criteria used in determining which teams get into the field and Penn State can check both of them off when compared against Ohio State.
Peaking at the right time
I hate to keep going back to what the CFP Committee has shown us in the past, but that’s mainly what we have to go by in the short two-year history of this little experiment. To that end, the committee has made it known that it likes teams playing well at the end of the year.
That certainly fits the model that Penn State is showing us. It was a slow start with a loss to Pitt and Michigan in a three-week period of time early on, but the Nittany Lions have since rattled off nine-straight wins, including the one we just witnessed in Indianapolis.
This team keeps getting better as the season progresses, and if you are a potential opponent, the most dangerous one is one that has come back with new life and has started to realize its potential.
Strength of schedule
Guess what else the Committee has shown us? That’s right, strength of schedule is rewarded.
We all remember 2014 when Ohio State passed both TCU and Baylor to squeeze into the semi-finals. It had a lot to do with beating Wisconsin 59-0, but it also had a lot to do with a very, very weak schedule for both of the Big Twelve teams.
You don’t have to look very far to see a team that should be worried when comparing opponents with this Penn State team. According to ESPN’s Playoff Picture, Penn State had the 40th toughest schedule. And while the No. 1 strength of schedule belongs to Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson’s are Nos. 29 and 33 respectively.
Now compare that to the Pac-12 champ Washington. The Huskies have looked dominant at times and have one-fewer loss than Penn State, but it also has a schedule ranked No. 55. And while that doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference, when the separation is razor-thin, it could make all the difference in the world.
The bottom line here is that there are basically three teams competing for two spots if you believe that Alabama and Clemson are safe. The three remaining teams (Washington, Ohio State and Penn State) all have resumes that could get them in, and the lone wolf that gets left out is going to have a legitimate beef.
There are simply too many variables that make circular arguments to here to really know what aspect is going to hold more emphasis than the others.
What we do know however is that at Noon tomorrow, we’ll know which team is going to be sending letters of regret and disappointment to the College Football Playoff Committee’s conference center in Grapevine, Texas.
Penn State should get just as much consideration as the other teams waiting with bated breath tomorrow.
Phil Harrison is the lead Big Ten writer for CollegeFootballNews.com. Catch his analysis and opinion all-season long.