The B1G 10: Fair or not, Penn State's Playoff path will remain muddled even with a win over Michigan
1. The B1G Story
We’ve seen this before, and nothing about it feels right for Penn State.
This can’t be happening again. We can’t be a Penn State upset of Michigan from the Playoff potentially making another colossal mistake, can we?
“I’m focused on all the stuff I see on film,” Penn State coach James Franklin said about Saturday’s critical game against Michigan.
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And if that comment weren’t so rife with irony — considering the NCAA investigation of Michigan’s alleged scouting and recording of future opponents — and didn’t arrive with maybe just a smidge of sarcasm, a story closing fast on the horizon might be getting more attention.
Penn State beats Michigan, Michigan beats Ohio State, and the 3 B1G East heavyweights are tied atop the division with 1 loss each.
In that scenario, the tiebreaker is conference record of West Division opponents played. In other words, as it currently sits:
Michigan: Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue: 7-11.
Ohio State: Purdue, Wisconsin, Minnesota: 7-11.
Penn State: Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern: 8-10.
So if the season ended today, Penn State would win the tiebreak and go to the B1G title game. But considering the fluid state of the West (more on that nonsense later), who knows how this will end?
Before we go further, a quick trip back to 2016: Penn State beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten, but Ohio State was still selected by the Playoff committee.
If it sounds odd, just know that Penn State lost to Pitt and Michigan in September, and Michigan lost to Iowa in early November and again to Ohio State in the regular season finale.
That left Penn State and Ohio State with 1 B1G loss each at the top of the East Division, and Penn State advanced to the Big Ten Championship Game by virtue of its head-to-head win. A week later, the Playoff committee chose 1-loss Ohio State, not 2-loss Big Ten champ Penn State, despite the Lions’ active 9-game winning.
Ohio State then lost 31-0 to Clemson in the Playoff semifinal.
That entire process has stuck in the side of Franklin for the last 7 years. Finally, this might be the season to make it right.
A win over Michigan — the best team in the Big Ten despite Ohio State’s current No. 1 ranking in the Playoff poll — could lead to the inevitable: a Michigan win over Ohio State in the regular season final.
That scenario leaves the West Division race — already a jumbled mess with multiple championship scenarios — dictating the East Division representative in the Big Ten Championship Game.
And you thought the Michigan sign stealing scheme was a headache.
2. All things being equal
Let’s say the aforementioned scenario plays out, and the East Division’s Big 3 are tied at the end of the season.
What would that look like through the Playoff committee’s eyes? That’s the only question that matters.
Currently, the Playoff rankings: No. 1 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 11 Penn State. Should Penn State beat Michigan, the Lions would get a significant bump — maybe all the way to the top of the 1-loss teams. No team will have a better win this season.
That would also mean Michigan falls below Penn State, and if Michigan beats Ohio State — presumably still No. 1 entering the last week of the regular season — how then does the Playoff committee rank the 3?
More than likely, all 3 would be near each other and behind any unbeaten Power 5 teams. Penn State will have given Michigan its 1st regular season loss since 2021, and Michigan will have beaten No. 1 Ohio State — which will have beaten Penn State.
The Playoff will more than likely follow the Big Ten’s tiebreaker lead. In other words, while the teams may not be ranked in order of the tiebreaker results prior to the Big Ten Championship Game, if the East Division champion wins the Big Ten, it will earn a spot in the Playoff.
Translation: Penn State could win the tiebreaker, and still be ranked below both Michigan and Ohio State in the Playoff poll before Championship Weekend. A Penn State Big Ten title would then move the Lions into the Playoff. In theory, anyway.
We’ve seen this movie before though, and it doesn’t end well for Penn State.
3. Eliminate the confusion, The Epilogue
Franklin was right Monday when he said all he cares about right now is Michigan.
Because he’s in danger of becoming the Big Ten’s next Jim Harbaugh: always with a strong team, but never strong enough to beat the heavyweights.
For years, Michigan vs. Ohio State and Michigan vs. Michigan State were black holes for Harbaugh at Michigan. He couldn’t beat his rivals, and thus couldn’t win a Big Ten title.
Now that those days are gone, the new coach in the barrel is Franklin: he’s 3-6 vs. Michigan and 1-9 vs. Ohio State. Those are hideous numbers.
Beating Michigan doesn’t improve the Ohio State blind spot, but it’s a statement about Penn State’s ability to create havoc in its weight class. Especially considering Ohio State hasn’t beaten Michigan since 2019, and has lost the last 2 games by a combined 87-50.
The first step for Penn State is beating Michigan. Then let the West Division — and the Playoff committee — deal with the rest.
4. The case for Marvin Harrison Jr.
Maybe we’re too tied to the almighty statistic. Or the best quarterback on the best team.
Instead of the best player in college football.
“Quarterbacks are, by their nature, a 50-50 proposition,” an NFL scout told Saturday Tradition. “Do I think Caleb Williams and Drake Maye will be good players in our league? Sure. But I thought Zach Wilson would be, too. If you ask me now who the safest pick in the (2024 NFL) Draft is, I’d say Marvin Harrison. It’s not really close.”
Ohio State’s junior wide receiver isn’t going to win a statistical race with a quarterback, or possibly even some other wide receivers. Unless Ohio State upsets Michigan, he won’t be playing on the No. 1 team in the nation.
But he’s averaging 17.9 yards per catch and has 10 TDs, and is the most dangerous player in the game. He’s putting up impressive numbers despite the lack of consistent play from Ohio State QB Kyle McCord.
Ohio State has become predictable offensively, and Harrison is routinely staring down double teams — yet he’s far from out of the Heisman race. In fact, with a big game in a win over Michigan, he’ll likely lock up a spot as a finalist.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
Michigan (-5.5) at Penn State
Maryland at Nebraska (+2.5)
Indiana (+6.5) at Illinois
Minnesota (-1.5) at Purdue
Northwestern (+12.5) at Wisconsin
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Michigan QB JJ McCarthy.
“He has gotten a lot better in the last 2 seasons. He’s more of a thrower now, he sees the field and makes good decisions and has that snap release. He’s needs to bulk up some, and is sometimes too reckless with the ball, but he has the skills to be a guy that can play a long time in this league. Everything just needs further refining. He slips into sloppy mechanics sometimes, but that’s not unlike a lot of college quarterbacks. If he comes out, he’s a Day 1 pick.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing.
1. Michigan: The negative noise of the alleged scouting of future opponents and recording of signals increases daily, and a talented and focused team keeps mowing over everything in sight.
2. Ohio State: The last 2 times the Ohio State defense was on the field in 2022, it was the team’s clear weakness, giving up 87 combined points to Michigan and Georgia. A year later with virtually the same team and a tweaked scheme, and unit is the safety net for a struggling offense.
3. Penn State: The 1 potential weakness for Michigan: pass coverage. The ball has to go downfield with QB Drew Allar. If it doesn’t, the stout Michigan defense will sit on everything.
4. Iowa: Is it possible that Kirk Ferentz decides he has had enough after the new AD fired his son, Brian, as OC? Anything is possible in the coaching business, but Kirk Ferentz has invested too much in the university to walk away out of spite.
5. Rutgers: Bowl eligibility is a big deal. Don’t get disappointed or distracted by a loss to Ohio State. The fact that the Scarlet Knight were eligible for the postseason before November is a huge step in righting a listing ship.
6. Minnesota: The Gophers will look back at the end of the season, and 2 unthinkable losses — Northwestern and Illinois — will have kept them from playing in their 1st Big Ten Championship Game.
7. Wisconsin: A season of transition can be salvaged with wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota. But after the Indiana performance, no game is a given.
8. Maryland: The most perplexing story of the Big Ten season. Just when it seemed like Maryland was ready to make a turn under coach Mike Locksley, a 4-game losing streaks arrives — including 1-possession losses to Northwestern and Illinois.
9. Nebraska: it’s gut-check time now in Lincoln. The loss to Michigan State was beyond ugly. Can the Huskers find 1 win in the final 3 games — Maryland, at Wisconsin, Iowa — to finally return to the postseason?
10. Illinois: Could’ve easily written off this team weeks ago, but they continue to battle every game. The Minnesota and Maryland wins gave Illini a legit chance to return to the postseason.
11. Indiana: Who knows if IU will eat the large buyout to fire coach Tom Allen, but this team is playing hard. Finish the season playing the way they did against Penn State and Wisconsin, and they’ll force the university into a difficult decision.
12. Michigan State: Loved the heart shown in a gutty win over Nebraska. But that’s the last win in 2023 with games at Ohio State, at Indiana and Penn State in East Lansing.
13. Northwestern: After a long season of distraction, it’s all in front of the Wildcats. Win 2 of the next 3 games to get bowl eligible — at Wisconsin, Purdue, at Illinois — and the season is a huge success.
14. Purdue: There’s no way this team should have only 2 wins. New coach transition is difficult, but Purdue had enough to win at least 5-6 games. That’s on all involved, coaches and players.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Is it possible Michigan could be undefeated and not make it to the Playoff? — Tony Cox, Detroit.
The only way unbeaten Michigan doesn’t make it to the Playoff is if the NCAA levies sanctions against the program before the start of the Playoff (zero chance), or if the Playoff doesn’t select the Wolverines (next to zero chance).
It’s possible the university could prevent the program from playing in the postseason, but president Santa Ono isn’t going to make that move. He appears to be fully behind coach Jim Harbaugh, who — and I know this is difficult on our gotta-have-it-now world — should be presumed innocent until otherwise proven guilty of knowledge of any alleged scouting and taping of future opponents.
In fact, Yahoo Sports reported Monday that the NCAA has no direct link from Connor Stalion, the suspected front of the alleged scheme, and Harbaugh.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, has 2 options: It can suspend Harbaugh for any number of games beginning with the Penn State game, or could bar Michigan from playing in the conference championship game — though that seems less likely because you’re punishing players that had nothing to do with the alleged scheme.
That also wouldn’t prevent the Playoff committee from selecting unbeaten Michigan. Only the NCAA can rule Michigan ineligible for postseason competition (see: the Playoff), and that won’t happen because the NCAA hasn’t even sent a notice of allegations. That’s the first step, and that’s followed by a response from the university — a process that typically takes months, if not years.
This will play out way down the road, long after Michigan completes this season. The easiest out for all involved — and not having to deal with that pesky due process thing that’s the foundation of our judicial system — is for Ohio State to beat Michigan and eliminate any decision for the Big Ten or Playoff.
5/1. These are incremental steps, everyone. Indiana was atrocious offensively in the 1st half of the season, scoring 41 points in 4 games against Power 5 teams (10.3 ppg).
In the last 3 — including a near win at Penn State and a win over Wisconsin, the Hoosiers have scored 58 points (19.3 ppg). it’s no coincidence that IU began playing better when QB Brendan Sorsby took over as full-time starter.
In those 3 games, Sorsby has had a TD/INT ratio of 5/1, and is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes. Again, baby steps — but important movement for a winnable stretch of games in the last month of the season.
10. Quote to note
Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell on the Indiana loss: “It’s execution. It’s no excuse. These guys, we’re all here for a reason. We got plenty of guys that have taken a lot of reps, and maybe you don’t know their names as well because they haven’t played as much.”