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  • The circumstances surrounding Saturday's Big Ten title are unusual, but Penn State and Wisconsin are ready even if a playoff spot isn't guaranteed.
By Brian Hamilton
December 02, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS — It was the strangest thing: The item sitting on the table at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday read “Amos Alonzo Stagg Championship Trophy.” And Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst stood up on the dais in the interview room behind it, waiting for Penn State coach James Franklin and a handshake photo op with this large and shiny prize, coveted by both smiling men and their teams. That trophy ostensibly belongs to the best team in the league. Yet this year it somehow may wind up in the hands of a team that comes in second or third.

The Big Ten began December with a big nuisance: The winner of its championship game on Saturday night has an outside chance, at best, of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. In fact, the playoff selection committee may deem the victor to be inferior to two Big Ten teams not even playing this weekend; as of Friday, the Badgers and the Nittany Lions prepared for a title game while nevertheless looking up at both Ohio State and Michigan in the latest playoff rankings. So two programs arrived for a championship tilt that could mean…well, no one really knew, just a little more than 24 hours before kickoff.

It is an enviable position to be in, when one of the worst-case scenarios involves a trip to the Rose Bowl. It’s also an undeniably odd predicament, to be a team that earns a championship, only to learn that it wasn’t enough.

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Except it would be plenty, irrespective of what came next, both coaches argued Friday. Which makes the whole dynamic as confusing as it sounds. “Big Ten championships are hard to get. Championships in general are hard to get,” Franklin said. “I don't care what level, I don't care where you're at, I don't care what sport, championships are hard to get. You could make a really good argument that the Big Ten may be the best conference in all of college football right now. To have the chance to play for the Big Ten championship is a tremendous honor. To find a way to win this game, to be able to take this bad boy back to State College, it would be awesome.”

 

Or as Chryst put it: “When you can say that you've earned the right to be called Big Ten champions, that's a heck of a statement, heck of an accomplishment by a team. It stands on its own. It's pretty cool.”

To their credit, it would appear that both coaches successfully exercised some mind control and left at least some of their players completely oblivious to the idea that a playoff berth wouldn’t necessarily follow a league title.

In a Camp Randall Stadium tunnel on Monday, for example, Wisconsin tailback Corey Clement was asked if it was weird that the Badgers might earn a conference championship that leaves them short. “Is that a possibility?” Clement asked. “Why is that?”

Well, you lost to Ohio State, so…

“Oh, yeah,” Clement responded. “So if we do win, we’re ‘in’ in? Or we’re still waiting?”

Probably still waiting, actually.

“Dang,” Clement said. “What are we waiting for?”

Well, not much, by the time kickoff arrives. When Penn State and Wisconsin wake up Saturday morning, the result of the Pac-12 title game will be in the books. A Washington win over Colorado—the Huskies are No. 4 in the current playoff rankings—effectively eliminates one spot to contend for on Saturday. Then it’s a matter of monitoring Clemson, the selection committee’s No. 3 team, which plays in an ACC championship game against Virginia Tech that runs concurrently with the Big Ten title tilt.

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The Nittany Lions and the Badgers absolutely need at least one of those two teams to lose … and even then it would be a white-knuckler of a night to see if Michigan’s general résumé and head-to-head victories over both Wisconsin and Penn State trumps a Big Ten championship. Computing all the possibilities and contingencies is exhausting, so perhaps it’s no wonder that players weren’t asked to consider the consequences of their actions in Indianapolis.

“Coach Chryst, I wouldn’t say he’s brainwashed us, but he’s trained our minds to say this week matters and this week only,” Clement said. “Don’t look past it or behind it. Whatever it is, whoever it is, know we’re going to give it all we can. We know what we control.”

Or, as Penn State senior defensive end Evan Schwan put it at a news conference on Tuesday: “Right now we’re focused on Wisconsin and being 1–0 this week.”

The playoff has diminished, to some extent, the luster on other postseason opportunities. But weep not for Wisconsin or Penn State. The winner surely will compete in the Rose Bowl, at minimum. The loser is likely bound for a different, high-profile New Year’s Six affair. In fact the Big Ten very easily could place all four teams in either the playoff or New Year’s Six contests, which would lead to much rejoicing in the conference office just outside of Chicago some 202 miles up the road.

And there are less tangible reasons that a league title would be meaningful for either side. For Penn State, the sordidness of the Sandusky scandal ought not be forgotten easily … but neither should the current staff and players be held hostage to that horror. A championship won’t erase anything, but it will give people something happy to talk about as an alternative. “How long it was going to take us to get to one of these games, I did not have a number on it,” Franklin said. “We're in a position right now where everybody is feeling really good, everybody is excited, everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction. When you're able to do that at a place like Penn State, you have the chance to do some pretty special things.”

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Wisconsin, meanwhile, is far from jaded despite making its fourth appearance in the six-year history of this event: Only two years ago, the Badgers lost 59–0 to Ohio State and lost head coach Gary Andersen to Oregon State just days later. Reappearing in the championship game affirms the trajectory of Chryst’s fledgling two-year tenure; winning it would be an indelible statement about Wisconsin’s viability as a developmental program apparently immune to the effects of instability and change.

“This is a big deal that we're here,” Chryst said. “I think one quality of this team that I've appreciated a ton this year is their ability to make the most of the moment. They've done that. It would be doing this game and our team a lot of disservice if we didn't put every bit of energy (into the game).”

None of that is small stuff. It may not be quite as propulsive or breathtaking as a playoff berth, and the opportunity to chase a national championship. But as Franklin noted, a Penn State team that wins a Big Ten title is now literally etched into history in State College, with the years of undefeated teams, national champions and league champions displayed under the west-facing suites at Beaver Stadium.

One of these programs indeed will order banners and rings regardless of what happens after Saturday. No, Wisconsin and Penn State might not be afforded the chance to win it all. They insist that doesn’t mean this is all for nothing.

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