So, No. 3 Ohio State will play No. 2 Clemson in one of the College Football Playoff semifinals. This accomplishment reinforces what all of us who follow the Buckeyes closely already knew: they can really coach, and they can really recruit. Who would have thought that after jettisoning one of the most impressive NFL draft classes ever that Ohio State would simply reload, navigate the program’s most arduous schedule in years, and qualify for the playoff.
And who woulda thunk that the 2016 Buckeyes would make the playoff, but the 2015 squad that had 10 players selected in the first 100 selections of draft and enjoyed a much easier schedule would miss out on college football’s final four?
Life’s a trip, man.
The Buckeyes now turn their attention to Clemson, who racked up 576 yards of offense in their 40-35 victory over the Scarlet and Gray in the 2014 Orange Bowl. That game doubled as the final game in for Ohio State’s pre-Chris Ash era pass defense, which surrendered 378 passing yards and five touchdowns to Tajh Boyd and 227 receiving yards to Sammy Watkins. Dark times, indeed.
On to the rankings!
1. Unexpected bye weeks
Instead of playing in Indianapolis following back-to-back sledgehammer games against Michigan State and Michigan, the Buckeyes were able to able rest their players and send their coaches out recruiting, all the while still making the playoff. Not a bad gig if you can have it.
On a strange-but-true note that was recently pointed out by Cleveland.com, Ohio State has lost two regular-season conference games over the past five seasons—and both of the defeats have resulted in the Buckeyes missing the Big Ten Championship Game despite 39 victories over that same span. Ohio State also went 8-0 in Big Ten play in 2012 but missed out on a trip to Indianapolis because of NCAA sanctions.
Again, life’s a trip, man.
2. The Big Ten East
The 2016 college football season will be remembered for a lot of things—with today’s semi-controversial selection of the latest iteration of the College Football Playoff likely earning the No. 1 slot on a such a list—but high upon that same register should be that 2016 was also the year that the Big Ten’s East division wrestled away the title of the sport’s best division from the SEC West, even if history may reveal that to be a one-year anomaly. (I wouldn’t bet on that, but we’ll see.) The Big Ten East sported half of the committee’s top six teams, meaning that in a hypothetical world where an 8-team playoff existed, the East would easily have had three teams in the playoff.
Narrowing the scope to the Big Ten itself, the East further increased its dominance over the West by claiming the conference’s inter-conference crown for the third year running, with Penn State following Ohio State in 2014 and Michigan State in 2015. With Penn State’s rise and Michigan State’s sustained run of excellence prior to this year, the gap between the two divisions is only getting wider. Sure, the East has Rutgers, the conference laughingstock—let us not forget that the West has a pair of court jesters in Purdue and Illinois, though—but Indiana has gained respectability in recent years (the mess surrounding Kevin Wilson’s dismissal notwithstanding) and Maryland remains an Under Armour-backed semi-sleeping giant that improved in 2016 and could sniff eight and nine-win seasons soon if D.J. Durkin keeps reeling in top-20 recruiting classes.
3. Penn State’s present and future
The Nittany Lions’ dud of a first half on Saturday night removed any possibility that they could submit any sort of ‘wow’ win that may have altered its perception among the minds that be in the committee room, but outscoring Wisconsin 24-3 in the final two quarters and lighting up the Indianapolis night sky with McSorley bombs wasn’t a bad alternative.
In the end, Penn State’s loss to Pitt and the severe nature of its road defeat to Michigan proved to be too much to overcome in the eyes of the committee despite its status as a conference champion and its head-to-head triumph over Ohio State.
Once the sting of missing out on a Cinderella playoff run washes away, Nittany Lions fans should take great solace in knowing that this team probably hit its stride a year early. The current squad has just four senior starters, and the crux of the squad’s big play offense—Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton—all have eligibility remaining. Thus, Penn State—which has also recruited very well under James Franklin—should be able to sustain this positive momentum in 2017, though the schedule gets far more difficult with a September road game at Iowa and a brutal post-bye week stretch: a home game vs. Michigan, then back-to-back road contests at revenge-minded Ohio State (a surefire night game) and Michigan State.
4. Washington’s friskiness
Of all the realistic playoff contenders, Washington was the team in most need of a ‘statement win’ over the weekend, if only to make sure that its Baylor-esque non-conference slate (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State) would not totally undermine its near-evisceration of the Pac-12, where the Huskies boasted a scoring margin of plus-205 in conference play.
And while most will provide Washington nary a chance to survive Alabama—early Vegas lines have installed defending champs as two-touchdown favorites—I’m not willing to do the same.
Though Alabama will boast a massive talent advantage, the lone time this season the Tide faced an offense with the sort of quarterback play and skill position player talent the Huskies harbor, they yielded 421 passing yards (and 522 total yards) to Chad Kelly and Ole Miss. Washington also sports a bonafide giant-slaying coach in Chris Petersen, whose Boise State squad felled Adrian Peterson and Oklahoma in the unforgettable 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Petersen’s Broncos also beat TCU, Virginia Tech, Georgia, and Oregon (twice). Dude can coach.
Do I expect Washington to win? No. But as long as the Huskies, tops in the country in turnover margin, keep Bama’s defense and special teams from scoring—easier said than done given that the Tide have 14 (!!!) combined defensive and special teams touchdowns—they will be in the game.
5. Wisconsin’s missed opportunities
Up 21 with just over two minutes left in the first half of Saturday night’s game in Indy, the Badgers had the Nittany Lions pinned on their own 10-yard-line. Even if Wisconsin limited Penn State to three points, it would have preserved its three-score advantage. Instead, McSorley found Saeed Blacknall for 12 yards on a 3rd-and-10 from midfield. On the next play, McSorley hit Blacknall again for a 40-yard touchdown.
Still, Wisconsin got the first crack at scoring after intermission and drove to Penn State’s 27. Facing a 3rd-and-3, the Badgers lost three yards and then missed a field goal. On the next play, McSorley bombed away to Blacknall again, this time from 70 yards away, and Wisconsin had officially ceded control of the game. The Nittany Lions scored on their next three possessions, while Wisconsin logged two punts, a field goal, and a turnover on downs.
However, looking at the Badgers from a glass half-full sense, Paul Chryst’s team (like Penn State) was probably a year ahead of schedule. Wisconsin has only five non-special teams senior starters, and stands to return its entire offensive line in 2017. Freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who was more than serviceable in his first taste of action this fall, will also be back. The Badgers will have tough road games at BYU and Nebraska next fall, but get Iowa and Michigan at home and avoid inter-division games with Ohio State and Penn State.
All hail the kings of the West.