Penn State football: Is there a realistic road to the CFP for the Nittany Lions?
A college football team’s reach should exceeds its grasp, or what’s a season for.
Dare to dream, Penn State fans. At least for another 6 days, all is possible for your Nittany Lions.
From unranked to the College Football Playoff? Why not?
For an example of just how not crazy this scenario is, I give you the 2021 Michigan Wolverines. They entered last year unranked, hit No. 25 after 2 wins and entered the top 10 after 5 straight wins. Gosh [writer scratches his head], that sounds familiar. They did it with a game-managing quarterback who barely held off a true freshman for the starting job. They did it under a name-brand coach feeling the heat from a rough prior season, Covid or any other excuses be damned. They did it even after blowing a divisional game they clearly should have won against Michigan State.
One season later, Jim Harbaugh’s team is a juggernaut again. All is well in Ann Arbor.
Interestingly, that’s where the No. 10 Nittany Lions will be heading on Saturday to try to get their mojo back. There are plenty of reasons to think Penn State can pull off an upset at The Big House, and we’ll address that in detail on Monday.
For now, let’s look at scenarios and odds for the Lions reaching the Playoff, which all include no more than 1 loss, something a James Franklin team has never accomplished.
Go undefeated. Odds: <1%
Penn State’s mostly young team would need to grow up in hurry. Sean Clifford would have to straighten himself out and be the best version of himself — the guy who went 28-of-32 against Auburn last year — on a consistent basis. Even with all that, and more, the Lions probably would need something bad to happen to Ohio State sometime before Oct. 29. The Buckeyes are humming along even without Jaxon Smith-Njigba and several other injured starters in the lineup.
If Penn State reaches that game undefeated, perhaps a jacked up Beaver Stadium crowd and some lucky bounces could propel the Lions to victory. Then the Lions would still have to avoid a November upset and beat the B1G West survivor to seal the deal.
1-loss B1G champs. Odds: 5%
If Penn State beats Ohio State and Michigan, but drops 1 league game elsewhere, it still makes the B1G title game Dec. 3 in Indianapolis and has that path to the CFP.
More likely, the Lions split with the other 2 East powers and wind up in a 3-way tie with them, all 8-1 in conference play. At that point, you just sit back and wait and hope the B1G says Penn State won the tiebreaker. It has to do with the collective record of each team’s 3 crossover opponents. Penn State’s wins over Minnesota and Purdue might put them in good stead, but Northwestern probably won’t be much help. Michigan’s crossover opponents are Iowa (already beaten), Nebraska and Illinois. Ohio State’s are Wisconsin (already beaten), Iowa and Northwestern. It’s way too early to do machinations on how the West will play out. Just hope for the best.
1-loss B1G East runner-up. Odds: 5%
Let’s say either Ohio State or Michigan runs the table, and Penn State beats the other one to finish the regular season 11-1. If the loss is reasonably close, that’s a pretty darn good resume. Penn State would have a win over a top-5 team and a narrow loss to another.
But the only way the Big Ten gets 2 teams in the CFP is if the SEC only gets 1 or the other Power 5 conferences get none. Either way, several other teams would have to fall off as well.
Since No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia don’t play each other in the regular season this year, the first part of that equation is unlikely. And the SEC East currently has 2 other unbeaten top 10 teams in addition to Georgia — No. 8 Tennessee and No. 9 Ole Miss. Even in a 1-SEC team scenario, 2 out of 3 among Clemson, USC and Oklahoma State would have to lose multiple games for a 2nd B1G team to make the real postseason.
How it could happen …
Why even discuss this?
Well, Manny Diaz’s defense plays fast and loose. And a reckless, devil-may-care approach could shake up Michigan and young QB JJ McCarthy. If the new defensive coordinator pushes the right buttons and his aggressive young players make more big plays than they give up, Penn State will be in the ball game. Michigan has not been truly rattled yet, not even by Iowa’s stout defense a week ago. Maybe the Wolverines are too good to be unnerved, but there’s no doubt Diaz intends to find out.
Penn State has only scratched the surface of what it can be. And with all the true freshmen in key roles, it might be a year or 2 away from doing so. Maybe this team is no better than it looked while sloshing through its mistake-filled victory over Northwestern before its bye. But maybe it can be as good as it looked against Auburn in a 41-12 road victory.
Much stranger things have happened already this college season. Alabama needed a late field goal to beat unranked Texas. Georgia got a challenge from Kent State and had to rally in the 4th quarter to beat unranked Missouri. App State unended Texas A&M when the Aggies were No. 6.
So No. 10 over No. 4? You bet it’s possible. And if that happens, Penn State would just have to win the games it’s favored in to finish 11-1. Then it’s just a matter of hoping the right dominos fall.
This is why we watch. FOX. Noon ET. Saturday. Dare to dream.