The 2017 Big Ten schedule, it turns out, has not been completely kind to your Penn State Nittany Lions.
It’s reasonable to argue right now that the second-ranked Nits are the best the Big Ten has to offer. Big Ten schedule makers, working without that knowledge, decided to let James Franklin’s group prove it over 15 days.
We’re not suggesting bias against Penn State, which took care of Michigan over the weekend, and now faces consecutive trips to Ohio State and Michigan State. Television has something to do with all this, too, wanting better games later in the season. Makes sense.
Before we go too far here, Buckeyes fans would say, “Cry me a river.”
You only need to go back to last year to see that Urban Meyer’s group had a similar one-two road trip. The Buckeyes survived a trip to Wisconsin and headed to Happy Valley the following weekend. That was too much for them.
Odds makers see all this and have established Ohio State as a clear favorite. In college football, the schedule often presents a luck of the draw beyond when the games are played. The real key is where. So far in the last two seasons, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan have faced off four times. The home team is 4-0; two blowouts, each involving Penn State and Michigan; two three-point games, each involving Ohio State.
The blowouts mean the better teams won. The three-point games mean the home team was happy to be home.
None of this is new in college football. Home-and-homes ain’t happening, as cool as that would be to imagine.
It will take a little doing for Penn State to get into the Big Ten title game with a loss Saturday in Columbus, so the stakes couldn’t be higher in the Horseshoe.
Last season, the Buckeyes famously got to the national playoff without getting to the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes also had Wisconsin on the Big Ten schedule and won the game — scheduling luck, as long as they won the game — and also had a three-TD victory at Oklahoma. Hosting Akron, Pittsburgh, and Georgia State, as Penn State did this season in nonconference play, just isn’t the same and could come into play.
Teams that get past big road hurdles are national contenders. Georgia already did it, at Notre Dame. (I’m not ruling out that Georgia is the most-talented team in the country.)
Just for kicks, let’s review the toughest road games left for teams in the Associated Press Top 10:
1. Alabama at No. 19 Auburn.
2. Penn State at No. 6 Ohio State and at No. 16 Michigan State.
3. Georgia at No. 19 Auburn.
4. TCU (which won at Oklahoma State), at No. 25 Iowa State and at No. 10 Oklahoma.
5. Wisconsin, probably at Indiana.
6. Ohio State at Iowa and at Michigan.
7. Clemson (which won at Louisville and Virginia Tech and lost at Syracuse) at No. 14 North Carolina State.
8. Miami (which won at Florida State) at Pittsburgh.
9. Notre Dame (which won at Michigan State) at No. 8 Miami and at No. 20 Stanford.
10. Oklahoma (which won at Ohio State and lost at Iowa State) at No. 11 Oklahoma State.
Based on those rankings, no team has a tougher regular-season game left than Penn State at Ohio State. No team has a tougher road one-two than the Nittany Lions’ Ohio State-Michigan State.
One conclusion is that, once again, Wisconsin is as lucky as the Big Ten East Division teams are unlucky. The Badgers look as though they’ll be waiting to take on the East survivor. (This problem isn’t fixable. You want Penn State in the East playing these teams every year. Trade a Michigan game for a Minnesota game? No thanks. Big games are good for the sport and good for schools’ bottom line.)
Another conclusion: Penn State could take the 2016 Buckeyes’ route to the playoff even with a loss Saturday. It’s a narrow road, but not impossible. The Pac-12 has all but given up the ghost, its top contenders stumbling against unranked teams. Losing to Ohio State and beating Michigan State or vice versa would keep Penn State ahead of Washington and Washington State.
It would be bad for the Big Ten, however, if Georgia and Alabama both ran the regular-season table and then met in the Southeastern Conference title game. Tough to keep the loser out of the playoff and put another nonleague champ in.
Penn State has genuine reason to believe it is a national-title contender to the end. The best way to prove it is to win their tough road games. The toughest ones are upon us. Look at it March Madness’ Sweet 16 is about to begin. Sometimes, the biggest hurdles come before the Final Four.