Charboneau: Penn State could vault into title game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Only in college football could the Big Ten have an 11-1 team sitting at home Dec. 3 while a 10-2 team heads to Indianapolis for the conference championship game.

No, there’s nothing shady going on, that’s simply what could be reality in the East Division over the next couple of weeks. If Ohio State wins its final two games and Penn State does the same, the two-loss Nittany Lions will play at Lucas Oil Stadium for the conference title while the one-loss Buckeyes will watch on TV.

Michigan played its part in creating this scenario by losing to Iowa on Saturday.

That’s significant because a three-way tie is no longer possible and Ohio State does not control its fate. In fact, neither does Penn State. Only Michigan holds that card.

Of course, Michigan can make this championship-game scenario null and void if it wins out because it has that nifty little 39-point trashing of Penn State on its resume.

In that case, an 11-1 team would be heading to Indy and it would be the Wolverines.

Needless to say, it makes the last two weeks of the regular season fairly intriguing, especially when you add into the fact Ohio State could be the highest rated Big Ten team in the college football playoff rankings come Tuesday and possibly not make the conference championship.

Yes, this is getting goofy. But we’ll try and straighten it all out by looking at the final two weeks for the East contenders.

■Michigan

It’s as simple as it gets for the Wolverines who find themselves in almost the exact spot Michigan State was last season when it lost by a point at Nebraska with just three games left. The Spartans won out, including at Ohio State, to win the East and play in the championship game. The fact the Ohio State game remains for Michigan is critical, and of course, that win over Penn State.

“We’ve all been talking and everything is still right there for us,” quarterback Wilton Speight said. “We just have to handle our business for the remainder of the regular season and then just let it play out. It’s all still right there.”

It all comes down to Nov. 26 at Ohio State, unless the unthinkable happens and the Wolverines lose next week to Indiana.

■Ohio State

The Buckeyes had a three-week stretch where they looked a little off, and the middle of that malaise was the three-point loss at Penn State.

They’re rolling now, but they need help because wins over Michigan State and Michigan won’t be enough to send Ohio State to the Big Ten title game. It needs Penn State to lose — simple as that.

“It’s just that time of year where you’re getting closer to the playoffs and championship games,” running back Curtis Samuel said. “We know we’ve got to step it up. We’ve got to come out here every day and give it our all, put up numbers.”

Ohio State can put up as many numbers as it likes, and the Playoff Committee might be impressed, but numbers alone won’t give the Buckeyes a Big Ten title. That lies in the hands of others.

■Penn State

Nobody expected the Nittany Lions to be in this spot, especially after a non-conference loss to Pittsburgh back in September. But they’ve persevered, developed a young quarterback and have one of the best running backs in the nation. Oh, and they have a win over the Buckeyes.

“Just really proud of our guys,” coach James Franklin said after Saturday’s victory over Indiana. “I aged probably five or six years. I’m already an old 44-year old as it is, so that’s probably not good for me.”

He might be stressing, but if Penn State can take care of business against Rutgers next week and Michigan State after that — two teams with a combined one conference victory — they’ll be in position to reach the conference title game. It’ll need Ohio State to beat Michigan, and that alone might take a few more years off for Franklin, but being in that spot is far better than not.

West race clearing up

Over in the West, Wisconsin is cruising toward what looks like a spot in the conference championship game. The Badgers have lost twice — to Ohio State and Michigan, each by a touchdown — and are still harboring playoff thoughts.

But with a four straight victories and games left with Purdue and Minnesota, Wisconsin is in perfect position to sit and wait for whichever team comes out of the East.

Of course, that’s not exactly how the Badgers are approaching things.

“There is no such thing as an easy (game), especially in November and December,” safety D’Cota Dixon told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after a blowout of Illinois on Saturday. “Everything is mental. And a lot of players can get caught up in rankings and winning out and things like that.

“But it has no place on our team.

“All it does is brings complacency and that’s not the way we operate here.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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