Rarely does a college football season go exactly as planned. Just ask Michigan State and Iowa.
The teams that produced a classic battle in last season’s Big Ten championship game were expected to be in the middle of the fight to get back for another shot at it this year. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t happening in 2016 as Michigan State has suffered through a historically awful season and the Hawkeyes have been only slightly better, at least reaching bowl eligibility but falling far short of last year’s perfect regular season.
But the surprises aren’t always bad. Just ask Penn State.
For a team that hasn’t won a conference championship since 2009 and has been mired in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-assault scandal for the better part of the last five years, it seemed contending in the brutally tough East Division still was a couple years off. After all, the Nittany Lions just now have their full complement of scholarships back as third-year coach James Franklin tries to re-establish the once proud program.
With one week left, however, here is Penn State, one more win and a little help from heading to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game Dec. 3.
“When you play DI football, that’s what you dream of, especially when you come to a place like Penn State,” quarterback Trace McSorely said after Penn State’s blowout over Rutgers. “For a lot of these guys who came here and stuck with the program when people told them they were not going to get the chance to play in a bowl game or any kind of postseason play. It is surreal to a point where if you sit down and think about it, it’s incredible. But taking care of the next game is the only way we’ll be able to have that opportunity.”
That next game, of course, is vital to the Nittany Lions having the chance to get to that championship game. And that next game comes against a Michigan State team that understands what it’s like, having played in three and won two of the five Big Ten title games already played, including last season’s.
But the Spartans are mired in misery in 2016, which might have some in State College thinking a win is in the bag. However, Franklin understands what his team is facing as Michigan State took No. 2 Ohio State to the limit this week, losing by a point after failing to convert on a two-point try in the fourth quarter.
“Everyone saw today what Michigan State was able to do,” Franklin said just minutes after dispatching Rutgers. “They’re a tough team and have been a tough team for a long time. Coach (Mark) Dantonio has done a great job for a long time and they have talent.
“We’re going to have to have a great week of practice.”
And, of course, there’s the matter of the Ohio State-Michigan game. Penn State needs Ohio State to win that game, considering it holds the tiebreaker edge over the Buckeyes but not the Wolverines.
They’ll know before they kick off with Michigan State if a shot at the championship game still is on the table as Michigan and Ohio State kick off at noon with the Nittany Lions and Spartans starting at 3:30.
It will be just one thing pushing the Nittany Lions. A group of seniors who have seen tough times will be playing their final home game and Franklin is already urging fans and former players to show up in full force. It could be setting the stage for something few outside of State College expected this season — a march to a championship.
“I don’t think our focus is going to change much,” defensive end Evan Schwan said. “We’re going to approach every game like we have up to this point. Obviously this game being our Senior Day is really special for me. To be able to run out and meet my parents in the center of the field. But we’re still going to prepare like we have for every other game. Just get a good week of practice. We don’t have class this week so that’ll give us some more time to look at film and prepare for a good Michigan State team.”
A look out West
There is plenty to keep an eye on over in the East for the final week of the regular season, but there’s intrigue in the West, too. There aren’t quite the scenarios there are in the East as Wisconsin simply needs to beat Minnesota to reach the title game.
But a win over Minnesota isn’t a given, and the Golden Gophers have at least put themselves in a position to share the West title if they can upset the Badgers and Nebraska loses at Iowa. It’s not that far-fetched, and that would be a heck of a way for Minnesota to close the season after falling to Nebraska by a touchdown two weeks ago, its only loss in the last six weeks.
“It means a lot,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said of winning at least eight games for the third time in four years. “At the same time, we are not finished yet. We are really looking forward to going out to Wisconsin next weekend and doing everything we can to prepare this week to make this a great football game.”
Even if it all played out favorably for Minnesota in the final week, it wouldn’t be headed to Indianapolis. Wisconsin would win the three-way tiebreaker by virtue of what would be a 5-1 mark in the division.
It would be impressive, nonetheless, for coach Tracy Claeys, who is in his first full season as head coach and came to Minnesota with Jerry Kill in 2011 to try and rebuild the Gophers. They’ve reached a bowl game in each of the last four years and will go again this year, riding a senior class that has helped establish the Gophers as a contender in the West.
“When they said they were going to come play at the University of Minnesota, we weren’t doing things real well, football-wise or off of the field,” Claeys said of the seniors. “They had a big part in believing in what we wanted to do. They established that culture and have kept it going. … To get a win at home in the last game at TCF, it means a lot to these players.
“But it’ll mean a lot to those kids for how much they have put into it.”