Don't look now, but Penn State might have itself a season just yet. The Nittany Lions are roaring (sorry) after a 35-7 victory against Illinois that was every bit as lopsided as the score would indicate.
Now, beating the living daylights out of Illinois is no great shakes—Louisiana Tech did that too, and nobody's talking about it winning the National Championship or anything like that—but it's mighty encouraging.
In fact, if Sam Ficken doesn't have the worst day of his life in Week 2, we're probably looking at a 4-1 Penn State team, and if that were the case, we wouldn't be too far removed from talking about Penn State as a potential division title winner in the Leaders Division—especially if the Nittany Lions knock off undefeated Northwestern on Saturday, as they're actually favored to do.
Now, Penn State is ineligible for a bowl game and inclusion in the Big Ten Championship, so we're not going to go totally sci-fi, alternate universe or anything.
But unlike what the Pac-12 did with USC last year, the Big Ten never barred Penn State or Ohio State from actually winning division titles, and thus there are six teams playing for a Leaders Division championship this and every year—Penn State obviously included.
So now let's ask: what if? What if Penn State rips off a miracle run and takes the division crown?
Wouldn't that be crazy? Wouldn't that be awkward for the Big Ten? Wouldn't that be ultimately bad for college football?
Answers: yes, yes, and not at all.
Yes, Penn State is under sanctions that are meant to significantly weaken the program beyond recognition, and we're not even to the worst part of that punishment yet. The NCAA wants Penn State to suffer, and winning division titles is generally not part of that suffering.
But we're not talking about the NCAA. We're talking about college football. That's a difference as vast as the NBA and David Stern. And while the last thing the NCAA wants to see is its most punished team persevering through the purported "fate worse than death," it would be a huge deal for the sport as a whole.
After all, there's nothing that's still terrible about this Penn State team, nothing that even merited sanctions from the NCAA. This wasn't about ineligible players or any negative athlete behavior at all.
Joe Paterno is gone and never coming back. Yes, this is not a new argument by anyone involved with Penn State, and we're not extending it to the point of saying the punishment shouldn't have happened. It's just that there's nobody on the team who personally earned that punishment. It's okay to cheer for this team.
And cheer for Penn State people shall if that big run comes. Some people will be diehard Penn State fans to begin with. Some will be fans of an underdog. Some will just be folks who enjoy watching the Big Ten suffer through embarrassment—and make no mistake, watching Jim Delany smile while he presents a division trophy to a team he barred from the conference championship and reprimanded just months ago is going to be all sorts of embarrassing.
But that's not necessarily bad for college football. It will get folks talking, and the reason the media loves storylines is because people love storylines. Not everyone, of course, and perhaps not you. But if you don't, you'd be surprised how many people do.
Moreover, think about the things that are incontrovertibly bad for a sport. Those are issues of legitimacy, safety, and other issues of suitability for wide audiences. Penn State winning a division falls into none of these categories.
It will have been an earned victory, to say the least—doubly so since so many of Penn State's top players departed before the year. Safety is a pure non sequitur here unless Penn State starts winning by intentionally injuring opponents, and that doesn't exactly seem like a Bill O'Brien move.
And as for suitability, as mentioned before, Penn State is in the clear. It's not as if PSU is trying to "win this one for Jerry Sandusky" or something objectionable and embarrassing for the sport.
Sure, some fans will take it as vindication for Joe Paterno or something, but what a Penn State division title would really represent is something far better for the school and the sport as a whole: a first step toward moving on.