Now that we’ve had our fun debating the first College Football Playoff rankings that came out Tuesday, let’s get back to football.
This is set up to be one of the best weekends of the year in the Big Ten. There is a highly anticipated clash of unbeatens happening north of the Mason-Dixon, there is a matchup of ranked teams (Iowa at Wisconsin) and one of the Big Ten’s most surprising teams (Illinois) angling for bowl eligibility.
But let’s zero in on the game in Minneapolis between No. 4 Penn State (8-0) and No. 17 Minnesota (8-0), who are two of the probably 13 teams with a real chance for the four spots in the College Football Playoff.
Penn State is obviously well-positioned after the first CPF rankings as it is ahead of Clemson and just behind Alabama. If we’re being honest, it should probably be either ahead of both Clemson and Alabama or behind both Clemson and Alabama because it seems like there is different criteria being applied, but this will all sort itself out on the field. Alabama is likely to move to No. 1 if it wins (or at the very least up to No. 2), and Penn State will move into one of the top two spots if it wins this week and in two weeks at Ohio State.
Meanwhile, the time is now for Minnesota, which had the most favorable schedule in the Big Ten (and probably all of Power Five conferences) through eight games. But that stops now with three ranked opponents in its final four games of the regular season. Ranked just 17th in the initial CFP rankings, by far the lowest undefeated team, Minnesota could shoot up the rankings with a win against a team that would be in the CFP if it started this week. This is a chance for Minnesota to add some legitimacy to a great start to the season.
Here are three keys for the game, which is at noon on ABC:
1. Minnesota’s rushing attack against Penn State’s defense
This game could be decided on the ground, specifically whether Minnesota can run the ball against Penn State’s vaunted defense, which is good both against the run (allowing 68.4 rushing yards per game, second in the country) and through the air (allowing 5.9 yards per pass attempt, tied for 14th in the country).
Minnesota is clearly a run-first team, averaging 47 attempts per game compared to just 21.8 pass attempts. But something flipped after four games: They started running the ball well. I mean really, really well. After a season-low 34 rush attempts against Purdue, Minnesota dedicated itself to the ground game, with at least 45 attempts in each of the last four.
In its last four games, Minnesota is averaging 293.3 rushing yards per game, and that is the sixth-most in the country during that span. Compare that to the first four games of the season when it averaged just 115.8 rushing yards per game, which was 108th nationally. It’s a stunning shift when you consider the Golden Gophers through four games were one of the least efficient rushing teams in the country, averaging just 2.6 yards per carry (127th in the country).
Whether Minnesota can continue that level of production against a very good run defense could determine which team gets its first loss.
2. Penn State’s big plays, third down conversions
It’s hard to find a metric Penn State doesn’t grade out well as it is good in all the big ones. The Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten in points (38.5 per game), second in points allowed (9.6), fourth in total offense (422.1 yards), fifth in total defense (280 yards) and third in turnover margin (+7). It shows you what a well-rounded team they are.
But if you want to nitpick, Penn State has a little boom-or-bust in it and is maybe a little over-reliant on the big play. The Nittany Lions are in the top five in the Big Ten in plays of 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80 yards. Yet in plays of 10 yards or more, Penn State is just 11th.
The biggest key for Minnesota will be to get Penn State into third-down situations because the Nittany Lions aren’t great in those spots (relative to everything else). Penn State has converted 40.4 of its third-down attempts, which is seventh in the Big Ten.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has been terrific in his first year as the starter, providing a big arm and also proving very capable as a runner. But the one situation he seems to not be quite as good in is on third down. He ranks near the top of the Big Ten in yards (second), TD passes (second), QB rating (third), interceptions (tied for fourth) and completion percentage (sixth). But on third down, Clifford has dropped off significantly in comparison to his peers around the league. He is 12th in completion percentage and eighth in QB rating.
Again, there’s not much you can point to with Penn State. Minnesota will have its hands full.
3. Who handles the intangibles better?
One of the interesting subplots of the week was Penn State coach James Franklin and PJ Fleck getting thrown around the rumor mill. Minnesota responded by giving Fleck an extension through 2026. Franklin, meanwhile, is once again being mentioned as a candidate for the USC job.
"Really enjoy coaching these guys and don’t really see that changing anytime soon."
Penn State coach James Franklin, when asked about his name coming up regarding other coaching jobs at this time of year. His full answer, minus P.J. Fleck's phone number. pic.twitter.com/FlGzPk52FV
— Mark Wogenrich (@MarkWogenrich) November 5, 2019
While both of these coaches are professionals and probably used to this speculation, it is one more thing the media gets to ask about.
Also, how does Minnesota handle the big-game environment? The Golden Gophers are 13th in the AP poll, their highest ranking since 2004. They hadn’t even been ranked since 2014. This is unfamiliar territory.
Penn State, meanwhile, is in familiar territory as this is its fourth straight year reaching the top 10 in the AP poll. But how will it handle the pressure of being at No. 4 now? Penn State has been flying under the radar to an extent this season, but a national audience will tune in at noon ET as an appetizer for LSU/Alabama, which starts at 3:30 p.m.