Six years of differences highlight B1G Championship between Wisconsin and Penn State
Everything is going to be different on Saturday.
On the West side of Lucas Oil Stadium, there will be one team familiar with the backdrop and the storyline. It runs with the underdog story but has played for a conference championship in four of the last six seasons. There’s a been-there-done-that type of attitude that radiates from a fan base that’s cheered its team to a 59-21 record and a pair of B1G titles in the past six seasons.
That same comfort level won’t exist on the East side. There’s a team playing for its first conference title since 2008 and the first time in a conference championship game. A program that’s been drifting out of blue-blood status and into the category labeled “average.” Maybe there’s some confidence amongst the players and the fans, but deep-down everyone knows this game is more than just a battle for a B1G title.
Wisconsin is on the West. Penn State occupies the East.
Two programs, which have endured extremely different experiences over the past six years, are meeting for the biggest game of the season. Considering the success of Wisconsin and the struggles of Penn State, it almost seems impossible that these are the two programs representing the country’s top conference for a league crown and a potential bid in the College Football Playoff.
But here we are. Two teams – Wisconsin expected to finish third in the West, Penn State picked as the fourth-best team in the East – overcoming that underdog persona and claiming their respective divisions.
That’s not unusual for the Badgers, who have enjoyed a stable amount of success since the conference split into two divisions, despite some minor, internal turmoil.
In a span of four seasons the Badgers have had three different coaches. Gary Andersen was brought in after Bret Bielema raced out of Madison for Fayetteville at the end of the 2012 season. Andersen himself then checked out, taking a job with Oregon State, forcing Barry Alvarez to bring former quarterback and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst back to his Alma Mater.
During that time, though, the Badgers never waivered. Since 2011, they owned a 59-21 record, claimed two B1G titles and appeared in three conference championship games. Saturday will be the fourth time the program has made the trip to Indianapolis in six seasons.
Usually some sort of chaos accompanies that kind of turnover. It has been managed brilliantly, though, making it through somewhat frequent transitions without so much as a hiccup.
But that’s been it for Wisconsin. There’s been no coaching cover-ups, no major run-ins with the law and no NCAA violations that the program has had to deal with. As James Franklin acknowledged on Sunday, Wisconsin has been a program that was been doing things the right way for a long time.
For Penn State, this is new territory. Sure, the Lions have played the role of underdog for the past several years, but they’ve never exceeded the expectations. The bar has been low, and this program has barely cleared it. But in Happy Valley, there’s been higher hurdles to leap than the ones in Madison.
The Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked State College and outraged the rest of the country has loomed over the program since 2011. Coaches and administrators were fired, players left and recruits were skeptical about the future of Penn State football. That once-storied past that enticed so many of the nation’s top prospects to become a Nittany Lion became irrelevant. Assuring youngsters – and their parents – that a new chapter could be written was a tough idea to sell.
When Bill O’Brien bolted for the NFL after just two seasons, the commitment to rebuilding the program in the post-Joe Paterno era seemed like an empty promise. When Franklin was hired, he inherited a do-or-die situation. If he couldn’t turn things around, nobody would. If Penn Sate couldn’t break free from the shackles it was destined for mediocrity.
For the past six seasons, Penn State hasn’t been much more than that. The Lions won seven games each year from 2013 through 2015. They were never in the running for a division title and were frequently laughed off the field. Franklin’s job was in serious jeopardy heading into his third year.
Not much was expected to change in 2016, either, other than maybe the head coach in Happy Valley.
It’s almost perfect, in a way, that this is how the season has played out. Like so much about the programs over the past six years, the styles of a play and the keys to success contrast in such a beautiful way.
Penn State has been riding Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley to easy wins over the last five weeks, averaging 46.4 points per game on the way to clinching the East division. Wisconsin’s defense has stymied opponents all year long, allowed just 13.7 points per game and intercepting 21 passes, 11 of which have come in the last three weeks of the season.
Consistency vs. inconsistency. That’s been the major difference between the two programs over the last six years. What Penn State has wanted to do, Wisconsin has been accomplishing.
The Badgers would be fine with keeping their distance. Chryst would like to claim his first conference title and give the program its third in the last seven seasons. Penn State wants – maybe even needs – to close the gap. A B1G title would prove that this program – decimated by tragedy just a few years ago – has risen from the ashes.
Both teams have their own agendas and there’s plenty at stake. Each team, each coach, and each fan base wants to win on Saturday.
That may be the only similarity between the Badgers and the Lions this weekend.