Saturday Michigan and Ohio State battled it out in a thrilling double overtime affair ultimately won by the Bucks 30-27. It was a game chock-full of playoff implications and paves the way for an appetizing Big Ten Championship showdown between Wisconsin and Penn State.
Wait, Penn State?
Although OSU almost certainly clinched a spot in the playoff with a very strong resume, and also knocked Michigan completely out of the picture (although the Wolverines are still in the running for the Rose Bowl), their earlier loss to the Nittany Lions does keep them out of the conference title game. Wisconsin clinched its division much more cleanly, winning it outright with a very strong season led by a smothering defense. This leaves fans with two things to sort out next week: the title game itself, and the playoff implications for the Lions, Badgers, and Bucks.
Before the final unveiling by the college football playoff committee next Sunday, one last round of games will play into the committee’s decision process. The winner of the matchup between Penn State and Wisconsin will assure itself of at least a Rose Bowl berth, and possibly even a second spot in the playoff for the conference. These two teams have taken different paths to the Big 10’s new final destination game.
Wisconsin has quietly built a consistent contender, tracing back to a spark of an upset against Ohio State in 2010. Since then the program has won three league titles and appeared in four title games, and has managed to do so under three different coaching staffs.
In its last appearance, the program was humiliated 59-0 by OSU under a Gary Anderson regime that already had one foot out the door. But management has gone with a more sensible hire this time in Wisconsin naive Paul Chryst.
The usually run-first program had a very odd down year in that regard in 2015 but is right back up this year behind Corey Clement’s 1140 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. But what makes this team unique is its atypical fierce defense. It allows fewer than two touchdowns a game, forced 25 turnovers and registered 31 sacks. While UW’s quarterback-by-committee has produced only fair results, this is surely the strongest Badger team since Russell Wilson’s one-year stand in 2011.
Penn State has a rich and storied football tradition but infamously fell on very tough times a few years ago with the Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky locker room scandal, resulting in Paterno’s dismissal and a four-year bowl ban. After Bill O’Brien had led the Lions for two years before leaving for the NFL, the NCAA lifted its postseason ban just in time for current coach James Franklin to arrive.
The 2016 team isn’t the strongest, given its 49-10 loss to Michigan and an additional loss to a middling Pittsburgh team, but, with college football being what it is, was able to defeat the Buckeyes on a late blocked field goal return. While this team isn’t statistically dominant, it has outscored its opponents by a very wide margin in the second half this year, which should give Badger fans reason to hold their collective breaths if the game comes down to the end.
This year’s Big Ten title game pits a budding Big Ten dynasty against a once proud program searching for redemption and promises to offer one last taste of excitement before the regular season concludes.
After the final gun Saturday, the last question to be answered is if the league’s champion will be joining the Bucks in the playoff, or will be given a very nice consolation trip to the Rose Bowl. Analytics site FiveThirtyEight pegs the Badger’s chances of making the playoff at 64% with a win, and the Lions’ at 41%. Either team would probably need help from a Clemson or Washington upset.
Alabama’s resume is so strong the Tide would likely be in even with an unlikely loss. No matter how it plays out next weekend. It’s sure to be a memorable two days for the suddenly proud Big Ten Conference.