— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @psuTripp
After falling behind 28-7 in the second quarter, Penn State scored 31 of the game’s next 34 points to win its first-ever Big Ten Championship Game Saturday night in Indianapolis. The conference title, Penn State’s first since 2008, culminates an unforgettable nine-game winning streak pushing the Nittany Lions to the brink of National Championship contention.
Yet, Sunday, hours after the completion of the Big Ten’s annual east vs. west showcase, Penn State was left out of the College Football Playoff in favor of Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington. The Buckeyes are the first team to fail to win a conference title and reach the playoff. Meanwhile, Washington’s non-conference schedule was comprised of games against Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State and, arguably, the Huskies’ lone signature win came in the Pac-12 Championship Game Friday night.
Penn State’s absence from this season’s College Football Playoff does not diminish the accomplishments of a team that opened 2016 2-2 and needed overtime to avoid dropping below .500 on October 1st. Ultimately, according to College Football Playoff Committee Chairman Kirby Hocutt, Penn State had two losses, while other playoff contenders had none or one and fourth-ranked Washington had more impressive statistics than the Lions.
In a subjective system with five deserving teams, one team and its fans were bound to be disappointed. Based on its conference championship, nine-game winning streak and impressive wins against Ohio State and Wisconsin, Penn State deserved inclusion into the Playoff. So too do the four participants and each team has its own resume to justify its claim.
Yet, in previous seasons, committee members seemed to value the strength of wins and conference titles. The ambiguity of criteria used by this year’s committee makes the selection process incredibly frustrating for any reasonable college football mind.
While certainly upsetting for most Penn State fans, I can’t point to one team and simply say they don’t belong. All season long, Penn State did everything it could to overcome a disappointing September and got the help it needed to become a contender for a conference title and Playoff contender. The Nittany Lions have a legitimate argument for inclusion in this year’s final four and to be so close and not qualify is tough to digest. However, I wonder if Ohio State would be excluded if it was in the same position? Does Penn State’s altered national reputation impact decision-makers’ judgement? All we, as college football fans, ask for is a fair and reasonable system to determine the National Champion. Is the College Football Playoff just another derivative of the much-maligned BCS?
It certainly looks like the Lions are being built for sustained success, but there are no guarantees. Winning is hard! When will the team be this close to competing for a playoff berth again, especially in a conference with multiple national powerhouse programs? Prior to the season, if you told me Penn State won the conference title, I’d fully expect it to be in the marquee postseason tournament.
So, Penn State finishes the season at #5 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and will take on #9 USC in the Rose Bowl on Monday, January 2, 2017. A berth in the nation’s most prestigious bowl game is a terrific consolation for the potential injustice served by the committee. The Nittany Lions posted their 16th 11-win season in program history and appear to be blossoming into an annual contender for conference championships. Last January, Penn State lacked an offensive identity. Now, the Nittany Lions’ feature one of the nation’s top offensive minds and amassed 30 or more points in ten games, the most since the prolific 1994 season. First-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry molded an injury ravaged unit into a deep and reliable unit that ultimately made the season’s biggest play on a 4th and 1 with just over a minute to play on Saturday night. Finally, head coach James Franklin appears to be the perfect fit for the program’s resurrection with his demeanor, positivity, recruiting prowess and ability to adapt to a role bigger than any young incoming coach could possibly imagine.