INDIANAPOLIS — A Big Ten team will make the College Football Playoff. It probably won’t be the Big Ten champion. Penn State beat Wisconsin 38-31 Saturday night in a game that was thrilling and classic and anointed a nominal league titleist but in reality featured the third- and fourth-best teams in the conference, a scenario that earns them rings and a lifetime of debating semantics with sneering graduates of other schools. Arguments can and will be made that the all-consuming specter of the playoff significantly diminished the proceedings at Lucas Oil Stadium, that the Nittany Lions sifted through the streamers and confetti for a consolation prize. And all this after the commissioner of the league went on television earlier in the day and conceded he had to be O.K. with a non-champion representing his league in the playoff, when he campaigned against that very thing when the playoff was first built.
“If we don’t make the playoffs would I be upset?” Nittany Lions tailback Saquon Barkley said after the nerve-jangling win over Wisconsin. “Yes. Because you’re a competitor, and you want to compete for a national championship. But you also only can control what you can control. If we get left out, we’re still playing for the Rose Bowl. You can’t go wrong with that.”
And somehow the Big Ten and Jim Delany win even when they lose, or at least when they don’t exactly get their way.
If the idea is to deliver a national championship, then the league is better off having Ohio State try to do so than either of the teams on display Saturday. (Wisconsin is one thing; scaling Mount Saban is quite another.) And no other conference in the country entered the weekend with even a fleeting hope of getting more than one program into the CFP; the Big Ten, if you squinted, arguably had a faint hope of placing three into the bracket. So the league championship game turned into a pretty rote exercise, the sort of thing you do out of reflex without any real meaning, like cracking knuckles. There were still 61,058 fans in the building for Penn State's victory. And so Delany appeared to eat some crow during a College GameDay appearance Saturday morning. He had to get the bites in between laughs.
No, this was a healthy result for a league with renewed fortitude and an auspicious trajectory. It’s a little hazardous to project Big Ten stability after a year that featured rock-solid Michigan State falling off a cliff. But there’s enough to build on for all four teams that began the weekend in the playoff discussion (Ohio State and Michigan, plus the teams that played Saturday) to expect they’ll continue to have the capacity to make runs like they did in 2016. Putting three or four teams in the top 10 seems reasonably sustainable, especially if the league’s bottom-feeders struggle to improve and nine-game conference schedules remain full of wins.
It was odd that the best league in the country settled its championship with its two best teams elsewhere, but Delany surely could live with it. He stumped for conference champions when the playoff was first constructed and now has been backed into supporting his own non-champion, Ohio State, as a viable choice. “I was the campaign manager four years ago, for the four best conference champions,” Delany said on Gameday. “We lost that election. What we decided on was the four best teams, which I'm fine with. Obviously, this year is unique in some respects. We have the two divisional champions here today playing for the conference championship, and they should be respected for that. The committee has another role, and that's to pick the four best teams in the country.”
Penn State made a respectable run at that distinction on Saturday, and if ever there were a program desperate to direct everyone’s attention to the future instead of the past, well, this would be the one. Of course one win or one championship banner doesn’t make everything O.K., to say the least. (And people already got a little loose with the redemption talk and where they placed the pity once the result rolled in). But if we’re permitted to narrow the focus to football in the here-and-now-and-moving-forward, the Nittany Lions are emblematic of what may come in the Big Ten, because they may be preposterously fun for a little while.
This is a team that was down three scores after being ground to dust by Wisconsin early on. Then an incautious and extroverted offense with a desperado at the helm came alive. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 384 yards and a Big Ten title-game record four touchdowns and at one point was averaging nearly 19 yards per completion. And that doesn’t even get to Barkley, who was the Big Ten offensive player of the year. Basically everyone on that side of the ball is back for 2017, and though the turnover on defense will be much more abundant, the potential for more of the same from the Nittany Lions is tantalizing.
“We have a better understanding of what we’re going to see,” McSorley said of the offensive growth during the nine-game win streak. “As the season has gone on, you can definitely see there have been games where we’ve thrown for a lot, our passing game has been on. But there have been other games where our running game has been on. And we’ve had some games where we’re pretty balanced. If teams want to stack the box, we’ve been able to exploit them on the outside. And if teams want to play some coverage and drop guys out and not let us hit deep passes, then we’ve been able to get them up inside. It’s how we’ve been able to take what the defense gives us—take what they’re trying to game-plan against us and use it against them in a way.”
But two-loss teams are two-loss teams, and there almost surely wasn’t a large enough gag elsewhere in the country to nudge the Big Ten champion into the playoff field. Not even with a nine-game win streak capped by a staggering comeback from three scores down. And a team that was nowhere near Indianapolis and the league championship trophy on Saturday night likely will take the Big Ten’s shot at a national title, while the one team that beat it won’t get the chance.
Asked to assess his team's worthiness on a celebratory dais immediately after the game, James Franklin was predictably fiery—“It’s on you now, [selection] committee!” the Penn State coach bellowed—but he was more subdued on the subject a few minutes later. “We just won the Big Ten conference championship,” Franklin said in the interview room. “I’ve also heard for the last couple of years that you have the ability to overcome early setbacks. And we did that as well. So I think we can make a great case for ourselves. We’re going to be part of that conversation. But at the end of the day, whatever the powers that be tell us that our future is, we’re going to be really appreciative and we’re going to be really happy.”
And that committee probably will see two losses, against the one loss on the record of the teams ahead of Franklin’s, and leave those rankings alone Sunday. It will be an extremely odd way for the best conference in the country to wrap things up. But the Big Ten wins even when it loses out in 2016, and judging by the way things are setting up, it may get multiple chances at do-overs down the line.