While we debate playoff bona fides, Penn State and Wisconsin vie for Big Ten title
Take a break from the CFP noise to appreciate Wisconsin and Penn State
INDIANAPOLIS -- You can feel the screaming coming because, really, no sport does outrage better than college football. When the College Football Playoff committee emerges Sunday with the four teams deemed to be the "best," whatever that means, there will be anger.
You sense it out West, where the nervous Pac-12 tries to avoid missing the playoff for the second straight year. You feel it in the Southwest, where the Big 12 is resigned to getting left out for the second time in three years. You even hear it from a legendary basketball coach, who of all people should know the risks of watering down the regular season with a larger playoff.
"I don't understand why you don't go to eight [playoff teams]," Duke coach basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said on his radio show this week to Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre.
"Me too," MacIntyre replied.
Nowhere is this angst felt more uniquely than in the Big Ten, where No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Penn State are playing while No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan are home. Want a ticket to Wisconsin-Penn State, where the Big Ten champion might be left out of the playoff? The cheapest seat is available for $13 on TicketCity.com.
Top-10 teams shouldn't have to apologize for playing in a title game. Yet in a way, that's what happened this week to the Badgers and Nittany Lions as their playoff résumés got scrutinized more than their game.
Ohio State is a lock for the playoff and should be given its résumé. Michigan is one Clemson or Washington loss away from having a very good shot at a bid. Meanwhile, Wisconsin and Penn State get picked apart with half-hearted praise and disinterest during the public evaluation process of the CFP contenders simply because they're playing another week.
When Penn State coach James Franklin was asked Friday a question related to the Nittany Lions' résumé, he wondered aloud what that has to do with the Big Ten Championship Game.
"I'm not going to sit here and make a case for us," said Franklin, who promised to be excited with wherever the Nittany Lions play in a bowl. "Our focus is going to be on Wisconsin and this tremendous opportunity."
"I don't spend any time trying to think about what maybe you're asking -- the big picture," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "I know this is a big deal for us and our players."
Wisconsin and Penn State are really good teams playing in a really weird game that might not matter to the playoff process. In the 97-game history of FBS conference championship games, only 10 percent paired two teams ranked as high as Penn State and Wisconsin. The ACC and Big 12 have never staged a championship game with two top-seven teams.
Wisconsin beat LSU, took Ohio State to overtime and lost close to Michigan. Penn State beat Ohio State, and yes, got routed by Michigan, but didn't slip up late against Iowa as the Wolverines did.
Wisconsin lost its defensive coordinator to the SEC (LSU's Dave Aranda) and new coordinator Justin Wilcox thrived. Points per game allowed in 2016: Wilcox's Badgers 13.7, Aranda's Tigers 16.4.
Penn State lost its defensive coordinator (Tennessee's Bob Shoop) and new coordinator Brent Pry didn't miss a beat. Points per game allowed in 2016: Pry's Nittany Lions 22.8, Shoop's Volunteers 29.3.
Do Wisconsin and Penn State have résumés worthy of CFP inclusion? Maybe, maybe not. Ohio State (1-1 vs. Penn State and Wisconsin) and Michigan (2-0 vs. Penn State and Wisconsin) have good cases to be made that they belong ranked ahead of the Big Ten champion.
But try telling Wisconsin that matters now as it tries to win its third Big Ten Championship Game. Alabama and Wisconsin are the only Power Five teams to reach their conference title game in four of the past six seasons.
Try asking that question of Penn State, whose Big Ten East title during what looked like another rebuilding year is one of the more stunning stories of this season. Penn State students camped out for hours to buy tickets for this unexpected appearance.
"It's been crazy," Penn State linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "They call it Happy Valley for a reason. I've never seen Happy Valley this happy."
Lost in the great playoff debate -- but not to the participants -- is the actual game. Fans and media debate; coaches and players compete.
What does the Big Ten championship really mean when neither of the Big Ten's two highest-ranked teams are playing in it? I don't know. It's a valid question, as I wrote about Friday.
Franklin symbolized this conundrum when he struggled to answer a question this week about whether the value of the championship game has changed due to the playoff.
"I think it probably impacts it," Franklin said. "Whether it impacts it more or less, I'm not really sure. I think it's no different than anything else when you're making decisions in life. You want to have as much information as you possibly can and I think championship games give you an opportunity to do that. I think it's a very, very valuable piece of information."
Even as ticket prices plunge, even while the debate rages on if the Big Ten champion belongs in the playoff, even while Penn State and Wisconsin have their résumés scrubbed to death, the game still matters to the participants. There's something refreshingly pure about that -- or as pure as possible in the made-for-TV world of conference title games.
"When you can say you've earned the right to be Big Ten champions, that's a heck of a statement and an accompaniment for a team," Chryst said. "It stands on its own and it's pretty cool."
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