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Don't Break the Ice: Penn State's Path to Indianapolis and the Inaugural B1G Championship Game

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With three games left in the 2011 regular season, Penn State finds itself in a position few thought they would be in come early November: 8-1 overall, 5-0 in conference play, and tops in the Leaders Division standings (with a two game cushion to boot). However, those remaining three games have been on everyone's mind since the schedules were reworked following Nebraska's inclusion in the Big Ten.

After a much needed bye week, Penn State will host the Cornhuskers for the final home game of the season before heading to Columbus and Madison in successive weeks. With both the Buckeyes and Badgers chasing the Nittany Lions for the first ever Leaders Division crown, it will take a Herculean effort to keep them at bay. Obviously, the easy solution is to win out, but that is something that will certainly prove easier said than done. The scenarios that could play out are seemingly endless, but let's take an in-depth look at what could transpire over the next four weeks, and what Penn State's path to Indianapolis (if it is in the cards) could look like.

First, a big (but pretty safe) assumption will be made - both Ohio State and Wisconsin will win this weekend, defeating Indiana and Purdue, respectively. Thus, our scenarios will be limited to the last three weeks of the Big Ten season, a time frame that certainly won't want for drama. The outlook:

Penn State Ohio State Wisconsin

I think it's pretty safe to say Penn State has the hardest schedule remaining, though Ohio State's slate is quite rocky with an always dangerous Purdue team and a Wolverine squad that is currently in a three-way tie atop the Legends Division. Wisconsin has a couple of should-be-easy tests before closing the season at home against the Lions, but both the Badgers and the Buckeyes need to make up ground on Penn State, with two games separating Penn State from the rest of the pack.

So what could happen? Well, anything, obviously. We've already seen some crazy college football action this year, so why should the last three weeks be any different. Let's take a look at the possibilities, from best to worst outcomes.

Scenario 1 - Penn State runs the table.

Well that's an easy one. Finishing 11-1 overall, 8-0 in conference and Penn State is headed to Indianapolis. And coming off 10 straight victories including the three grueling November matchups, the Lions would be a force to be reckoned with for whomever comes out of the Legends Division.

Scenario 2 - Penn State drops one of three.

Similarly, this one is a no-brainer, as the Lions would only have one conference loss and both OSU and UW already have two. Penn State heads to Indy. It should be noted, that if Penn State is going to drop one, Nebraska is the team to lose to. It is the earliest and would allow the Lions to regain momentum heading into the postseason, and should one of the two-loss scenarios happen below, Nebraska is a non-division game, so Penn State could remain on top via Big Ten tiebreakers.

Scenario 3 - Penn State drops two of three.

Here is where it gets tricky, and where we need sub-scenarios, as Big Ten tiebreaker rules are likely going to come into play. If we assume that each of Ohio State and Wisconsin win their non-PSU games remaining, then Penn State will be watching the CCG from home in any of the following scenarios. Another loss by either Wisconsin or Ohio State in addition to a loss to PSU renders them on the outside looking in for all scenarios with four conference losses. So the three sub-scenarios would be as follows...

Scenario 3a - Penn State loses to Nebraska and Ohio State, beats Wisconsin.

This is the Ohio State dream scenario (well, any scenario such as this where they win out). Having already taken care of Wisconsin, Ohio State would earn the B1GCG berth by way of the first conference tiebreaker, record against each other. If Penn State in fact loses to Nebraska and OSU, and then takes care of Wisconsin, every Penn State fan immediately turns into a Michigan fan (and puts 2005 temporarily out of their mind). A Wolverine victory puts PSU back in the championship game.

Scenario 3b - Penn State loses to Nebraska and Wisconsin, beats Ohio State.

Ah, the transitive property argument in sports, a personal favorite of mine. In this scenario, Ohio State beat Wisconsin, who beat Penn State, who beat Ohio State...and so on. Ohio State, with three conference losses, is out of the picture, and the tiebreaker falls to Penn State-Wisconsin. With the Badgers having taken care of the Lions, they would head to Indianapolis.

Scenario 3c - Penn State loses to Ohio State and Wisconsin, beats Nebraska.

Once again, Ohio State would come out on top here. With each team having two conference losses, the first tiebreaker comes into play once again. Here, Ohio State will have beaten both PSU and UW, earning the trip to Indy on behalf of the Leaders

Scenario 4 - Penn State loses out.

Help, please. The only way PSU loses out and still makes it to Indianapolis is if the other Leaders Division contenders lose as well, preferably multiple times. It's hard to see that happening, but anything is possible I suppose.

So, what do we root for? A Nittany Lion ten-game winning streak, obviously. Even one loss puts us safely in Indianapolis. But rooting against OSU and Wisconsin the rest of the way wouldn't hurt. Wisconsin is reeling after a heartbreaking loss to Ohio State, and Purdue could sneak in there and steal a victory. I don't see OSU losing to Indiana, so once again, the Buckeyes are going to be in it until the end. However, the season finale against Michigan will be a tough road test for the Buckeyes, as Michigan should be fighting for their division title at that time. A loss by either would go a long way to solidifying Penn State's chances of making the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, and is the only way Penn State can make it to Indianapolis if they drop two of three.

It's tough to imagine a reasonably possible scenario where anything but the first tiebreaker is required, but in case you were wondering, here is what happens if further tiebreakers are needed:

  1. Record of the teams against each other
  2. Record of the teams within the division
  3. Record of the teams against next highest ranked division member
  4. Record against common conference opponents
  5. BCS ranking (with a slight caveat if two tied teams are ranked next to each other)
  6. Overall win percentage
  7. Random draw

Somehow a two-game lead just doesn't seem reassuring enough, but it's certainly better than the alternative. Let's just win out and render this whole discussion moo.

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