Big Ten Football: Can Penn State Keep the Conference's Playoff Hopes Alive?

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2014

Big Ten Football: Can Penn State Keep the Conference's Playoff Hopes Alive?

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    The 2014 college football season is just four weeks old, yet the Big Ten is already down to its final two undefeated programs—Nebraska and Penn State.  The Nittany Lions, fresh off of a win over Massachusetts and the NCAA's announcement that it is lifting their postseason ban, are suddenly thrust into a position where they not only control their own College Football Playoff destiny but perhaps also that of the Big Ten's.

    We've heard plenty about how the Big Ten's rough non-conference record will keep the eventual conference champion out of the inaugural CFP come January.  But will a 35-14 record really do that?  Is it that much worse than the ACC's 33-10?  Or the Big 12's 19-8?

    Penn State is the true wild card in this situation.  Perhaps the media has spent so long ignoring Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal that it will provide the Nittany Lions an opportunity to fly in under the radar.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the Nittany Lions, in the wake of an embarrassing and shameful chapter in their history, can become the saviors of the Big Ten's College Football Playoff hopes in 2014.

    Unless otherwise noted, quotes or references to quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.

The Postseason Awaits

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    We could spend hours dissecting the NCAA's decision to lift Penn State's sanctions.  Heck, we could go even further by questioning whether or not the NCAA should have or had the right to impose such sanctions in the first place.  That's all moot now.

    The sanctions have been lifted, and in terms of the postseason ban, it's effective immediately.  That means Penn State's quick 4-0 start means more than we thought it would have just a few weeks ago.

    While Penn State still tries to rebuild its reputation, the 2014 season now means more to the Nittany Lions than pride.  It means a potential bowl game.  It means a potential conference championship.

    A bowl game is looking like an almost certainty at this point.  There's little chance a program like Penn State won't be able to win at least two of its next eight games.  From a conference standpoint, that means more exposure and more money.

    For Penn State, it means a return to relevance, both within the Big Ten and nationally.  No longer with the Nittany Lions be playing spoiler to every other conference team it faces.  The Lions have a shot of their own.

    And what about that shot at a Big Ten Championship in early December?

The East Division

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    When Penn State surprised many by kncoking off defending Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland to start the season, the Nittany Lions got to hoist a trophy.  It was Penn State's first trophy of any kind in quite some time, and we all believed it would be the Lions' last for a while longer.

    After learning that the sanctions were gone, things changed rather quickly.  All of a sudden, Penn State, at 4-0, looks to be a real player in the East Division in 2014—especially with the collapse of Ohio State and Michigan.

    When the 2014 season got underway, almost everyone had the division coming down to defending conference and Rose Bowl champion Michigan State and fellow preseason top ten Ohio State, with potentially dangerous Michigan having an outside shot if fate smiled on the Wolverines.

    We now know the Wolverines were a complete fraud.  Ohio State lost Heisman hopeful quarterback Braxton Miller before the season even began before losing to a middling Virginia Tech squad—and almost losing to Navy.

    That leaves Michigan State as the odds-on favorite.

    Penn State and MSU will tangle for the Land Grant Trophy in the familiar regular-season finale on November 29.

November 29

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    Penn State is already 1-0 in Big Ten play, having edged past a surprisingly good Rutgers team 13-10 on September 13.  The Nittany Lions now prepare for Northwestern on a homecoming Saturday in Week 5.

    After Northwestern, they travel to Ann Arbor on October 11 to face a very beatable Wolverines squad that can't seem to figure out what to do with all the talent on the roster.  The Nittany Lions get Ohio State at home the following week before four favorable games against Maryland, Indiana, Temple and Illinois.

    It's at least halfway conceivable that Penn State could win most or even all of those games.  Is it really possible Penn State and Michigan State could enter the showdown for the Land Grant Trophy with 21 wins between them?

    It's very possible.

    Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg leads the Big Ten with 1,261 passing yards.  If he can continue to improve on his unimpressive touchdown-to-interception ratio (which is currently standing at four touchdowns against five picks) and head coach James Franklin can find a way to get backs Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch more involved, Penn State suddenly takes on the appearance of a contender.

    What's more, if the old adage "defense wins championships" is true, Penn State is well-positioned.  Through Week 4, the Lions have the No. 10 total defense in the nation (270.8 yards per game).  Only Wisconsin and Michigan are better in that category among Big Ten teams, and just barely.

    Penn State has learned to use "pride" as a mantra over the past few seasons.  Nothing could create more pride in State College than a return to national prominence with a run at the East Division title—which is looking more and more possible every day.

Saving the Big Ten

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Okay, we'll admit, a 12-0 run by the Nittany Lions all the way to Indianapolis isn't the most likely outcome in 2014.  There are still several questions (such as Hackenberg's decision-making and the lack of a true running game) that have to be answered before Penn State can truly call itself a contender.

    While it's possible those problems could be solved in short order, it's a process that even a coach like James Franklin may take a few seasons to finish.

    But as Penn State continues to improve and take massive steps toward the postseason, pollsters and pundits are sure to take notice—and that is where the Nittany Lions can do the Big Ten the greatest service.

    In the latest B/R Top 25, Penn State would have been a theoretical No. 27 were the poll to go that deep.  The Nittany Lions were also placed at "No. 27" in both the AP and Coaches' polls.  If Penn State can pick up a few more important wins, a Top 25 ranking will be the inevitable result.

    Remember those SEC shills we mentioned?  Apparently the only thing they recognize as "big games" these days are Top 25-vs.-Top 25 matchups.  The SEC is full of them for the simple reason that pollsters skyrocket any winning SEC team while barely dropping any SEC team that loses (because, well, they did lose to a ranked SEC team, right?).  The self-fulfilling delusion of SEC greatness can do the same for the Big Ten.

    Even if Penn State can't manage an undefeated record when MSU comes for a visit on November 29, a Top 25 ranking will help whichever team wins.  If Penn State wins, there will be so much attention on a potential Big Ten title run that it will get a lot of press coverage and no one will have time to notice what a potential No. 2 in the SEC is up to.

    If it's Michigan State, the Spartans can point to a quality road win over a Top 25 opponent.  Either way, the better Penn State does in 2014, the better the Big Ten's chances are for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

    The College Football Playoff is what college football will be all about for the foreseeable future, and Penn State's ability to influence the Big Ten's role in that playoff this year should have everyone rooting for the Nittany Lions.

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