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Penn State v. Ohio State Will Decide The Big Ten’s Playoff Representative

Ohio State and Penn State will play Saturday in a game that will likely decide the East, and could also decide which Big Ten team reaches the Playoff.

Penn State is the best team in the Big Ten.

The Nittany Lions are one of eight undefeated teams remaining in the FBS, dominant on both sides of the ball, and have multiple star players, including the Heisman favorite, running back Saquon Barkley.

Ohio State, a strong team in its own right, is Penn State’s main roadblock to reaching the Playoff, and on Saturday the two teams will face off in Columbus, Ohio. The winner of the game will be all but guaranteed the East division crown and entry into the Big Ten championship game. With that in mind, this game also means something else. This game will also decide which Big Ten team will reach this year’s College Football Playoff.

Penn State’s offense is nearly flawless. Barkley leads the FBS in all-purpose yards per game with 211.1, getting the job done with his legs, hands, and even his arm. Quarterback Trace McSorley has thrown five interceptions, but he’s also completed 66.8 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,879 yards and 14 touchdowns, and rushed seven touchdowns as well.

The defense, though, is this team’s driving force.

The Nittany Lions lead the FBS in scoring defense, allowing an incredible 9.6 points per game, fewer even than vaunted Alabama. Head coach James Franklin’s squad is loaded at every level defensively. The front seven can stuff the run and get after the quarterback, ranking 17th in rushing defense and fourth in sacks. The secondary is capable of shutting down the country’s top receivers, ranking seventh in passing defense and tied for 20th in interceptions.

Both units combined, along with an efficient special teams, make Penn State as fearsome as any team in the nation, and an obvious National Championship contender.

The Buckeyes struggled through the first two week of the season. Although they ended up winning by 28 points, the Buckeyes trailed by a point going into halftime of their opener against a now below-.500 Indiana team. Ohio State followed that up with an extremely disappointing loss at home to Oklahoma that could have potentially completely derailed its season before it even truly started.

Instead, the Buckeyes rebounded. Ohio State has averaged 53.2 points per game since that loss, and has won its five games by an average of 42.0 points. The Buckeyes are now tied for the national lead in scoring offense, are 10th in scoring defense, and quarterback J.T. Barrett has gotten into a rhythm with both his arm and his legs.

If any team in the Big Ten can match up against the Nittany Lions, it’s Ohio State. The Buckeyes have athletes on defense with both the speed and strength necessary to at least have a chance at mitigating Barkley on the ground and out of the backfield. They have a defensive line that can get after McSorley and prevent him from ever getting comfortable during the game.

The Buckeyes’ offense is also humming at a high level. As mentioned before, since the Oklahoma game, Ohio State is averaging more than 50 points per game and are tied for the best scoring offense in football. The Nittany Lions have statistically the best defense in the nation to this point, and much like the other side of the ball, Ohio State has the only unit in the country capable of cracking the code to put up points on that defense.

Ohio State also benefits from playing the game at home, with its own fans screaming behind it, and from having a bye week to recover and prepare for this game. As Penn State took it to Michigan, the Buckeyes rested and planned and seethed over the memory of last season’s game against the Nittany Lions.

All that could add up to a premier win for the Buckeyes that would put them on a path to return to the Playoff for the third time in four years.

But it won’t. Penn State is going to go into the Shoe, win, and represent the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State’s offense may look phenomenal right now, but I think it is instructive to return to the point that the Buckeyes haven’t played anybody halfway decent in the last month and a half, and the fact that that has inflated how strong their offense has looked. Here is a list of the defenses Ohio State has faced since Week 3:

TeamPoints Allowed Per GameRankYards Allowed Per GameRank

Those are not strong defenses. It should also be noted that in the game against the Sooners, a game that was played in Columbus, Ohio (like this weekend’s game will be), Ohio State managed just 16 points against a defense that currently ranks 60th in scoring defense. How many points will the Buckeyes be capable of scoring against Penn State’s elite defense if it couldn’t manage more than 16 against a mediocre Oklahoma defense?

It’s certainly possible that the Buckeyes’ offense has found a new gear, but it’s difficult to tell based on the level of competition they have faced.

The same goes for the defense. The best offense Ohio State has faced since is Army’s, which ranks 48th and averages 31.5 points per game. The average points for four of the five teams the Buckeyes faced since Oklahoma is only 27.9 points, far from impressive. And the Buckeyes’ opponents during their five-game win streak have a combined record of 17-19, and the team with the best record by far, Army, has six wins, but all six have come against either the FCS or a team well below .500 overall.

Ohio State is a very good team, and it may very well be that the Buckeyes are now elite on both sides of the ball and will take down unbeaten Penn State. But my money is on the team with the nation’s best defense and the nation’s best player that is coming off a win during which it throttled a ranked opponent.

Whoever wins this game, though, will reach the Playoff.

Both teams have favorable schedules moving forward. Penn State’s most difficult remaining game is a road game next week against a Michigan State team that cannot score points to save its life. After that, they have three walk-over games against Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland.

Ohio State will also have to take on the Spartans, and will additionally face Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. Michigan State should be no trouble, nor should Iowa or Illinois. Michigan could be problematic – that is one of the most fervent rivalries in sports – but the Wolverines have been as offensively inept as anyone in the country since Wilton Speight went down due to injury. 

Of course, upsets happen. It’s one of the things we love most about college football. But don’t count on it in these cases. These two teams are too strong to drop any of their remaining games, meaning whoever wins this game will head to the Big Ten title game.

What about Wisconsin, you might ask? Surely the Badgers could defeat either of these teams in the conference championship game, thereby preventing the Nittany Lions or the Buckeyes from reaching the Playoff.

Of the seven teams Wisconsin has faced, no team looks poised to finish with more than seven wins, and it’s possible none finish with more than six. That means the Badgers have yet to even face an impressive team, let alone beat one. At least Ohio State has the experience of taking on an elite opponent earlier in the year, and both Penn State and Ohio State will have the experience of taking on each other.

The only team left on Wisconsin’s regular season schedule with a record more than a game above .500 is Michigan, who could very well still be Speight-less when the teams face off mid-November. It’s very likely Wisconsin enters the Big Ten title game simultaneously undefeated and completely untested.

Whichever team emerges from the East to take on the Badgers will have the two advantages of being a better team and being battle-tested. That mitigates the chances of an upset. The winner of the Penn State-Ohio State matchup will win the Big Ten East and the Big Ten title.

This game is for a Playoff berth, and that makes it even more enticing than it already was.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

When did Penn State last win a national championship?
Created 10/23/17
  1. Never
  2. 1945
  3. 1986
  4. 2003

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