Political football is back at Penn State
It’s not yet time for Penn State fans to add 2016 to 1968, 1969, 1973, 1994, or 2005 as seasons where many of them felt the Nittany Lions were either cheated out of a national title or chance to play for one.
But it might be getting close.
College football, like boxing, has long been one major American sport where the competitors can do everything under their power to win a title, only to leave their fates up to politics. And both sports have struggled with controversial choices there for decades.
Boxers can only fight those who agree. Title belt holders generally have the power to fight who they want, when they want, and it’s up to the managers and promotors to make it happen.
College football teams can only join conferences that invite them, and they can only complete their schedules against teams willing to play them. Get too good, and nobody important wants to play you unless there’s a financial gain.
Which brings us back to Penn State, which like others has a history of doing everything it can to play for a national championship multiple times only to be denied the chance. Sometimes, like 1968 and 1994, the Rose Bowl tie-in limited either who the Nittany Lions could play in a bowl or what bowl they could visit to play No. 1. Other times such as the 1969 team with future NFL stalwarts that never took a shot at Texas, the last all-white consensus national champion, it was because of a bowl selection process often completed before the end of the regular season.
Then there’s the 2005 team, whose only loss at Michigan came when two seconds were added back to the clock for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown pass. But a BCS title-game spot that year would have depended on passing either Texas, which was No. 1 in the BCS computer rankings, or USC, then the unbeaten two-time defending national champ atop both the Harris and coaches polls after the Associated Press told the BCS to withdraw its rankings.
And now there’s this team. What seemed unthinkable a month ago could become a reality. All the Nittany Lions need to do to reach the Big Ten title game on Dec. 2 in Indianapolis is win at Rutgers Saturday, at home vs. Michigan State next Saturday, and have Ohio State beat Michigan to force a tie atop the Big Ten East. And Penn State, having beaten the Buckeyes on Oct. 22, would get the head-to head tiebreaker.
Ohio State has won its last two games, 62-3 each time. Rutgers and Michigan State have one Big Ten win between them. As beat up as Penn State’s offensive line is right now, a Big Ten title-game shot not only feels within reason, but maybe even likely.
Two-loss Wisconsin appears the likely Big Ten title-game foe, provided the Badgers win at Purdue Saturday and at home vs. Minnesota in two weeks. And the last two Big Ten title-game winners have advanced into the four-team College Football Playoff.
For the Nittany Lions, win and they’re in? Maybe not, and that’s where the eternal struggle of political football returns.
There is no objective measure to reach college football’s final four. A conference championship alone can’t do it. Neither can an unbeaten season. No, the only way to reach the playoff is to win the hearts and minds of the 12-person selection committee which is free to consider whatever it really wants. Teams’ inability to completely control their own fates has been part of the best and worst drama of this sport and 2016 appears no different.
The Nittany Lions could well be Big Ten champs and relegated to the Rose Bowl instead of the playoff should the committee pick a one-loss Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes lost in Beaver Stadium. The BCS even did something similar in 2001, when it put one-loss Nebraska into the title game vs. Miami, even though two-loss Colorado beat the Huskers to win the Big 12 North Division and later the conference title over No. 3 Texas.
At this point, Penn State is also competing with not just unbeaten Alabama for a spot, but one-loss Michigan, Clemson, Washington, Louisville, and West Virginia and maybe two-loss Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Colorado and Utah.
If you believe that the CFP is an extension of the NCAA, and if you believe that in the NCAA’s actions regarding Penn State sanctions make it nothing more than a marketing organization, it’s not hard to imagine the committee maybe bypassing the Nittany Lions over factors beyond the control of anyone currently leading the program or athletic department.
Fans have wrongly assumed the media as a whole was biased against Penn State for decades. But the mere thought the playoff committee is, too? Conspiracy theories on this might be tougher on Penn State than 1994.
But the better comparison to 2016 is probably 1990, when a very good but not great Joe Paterno-led team won at No. 1 Notre Dame in November and met Florida State in the inaugural Blockbuster Bowl. It was a matchup of two very powerful two-loss top 10 teams in a season that ended up with co-national champions in Colorado, with a loss and a tie, and Georgia Tech, with a tie.
There was a scenario where Penn State could logically claim No. 1 if it beat the Seminoles that year, but only if Nebraska beat Georgia Tech, Notre Dame beat Colorado, and Miami beat Texas in other bowls.
“If we beat Florida State, with 10 wins in a row, we can yell as loud as anyone can,” Paterno is quoted as saying in Ken Denlinger’s For the Glory book chronicling the program at the time.
Penn State lost that game, 24-17.
The fans can yell all they want, anyhow.