The final College Football Playoff rankings are out, and Penn State’s fate is decided. Penn State will head to the Rose Bowl after winning the Big Ten, and will face USC or Colorado in the January 2nd matchup.
The Nittany Lions’ gutsy comeback win against Wisconsin, down 21 points in the second quarters, was not enough to push them through to the playoff field. They’ve capped their season with a Big Ten Championship, which, as we’ve mentioned over and over around these parts, was much more than any of us could have hoped for at the beginning of the season.
USC is a team coming off a similar season as Penn State, losing all of their games early, then making the necessary changes to turn their team around. They are a different team than the one that got worked against Alabama and Stanford, and the big difference was their change at quarterback. Sam Darnold didn’t get much play early in the season, but after the Stanford game he took over the reins for the Trojans, and hasn’t looked back since. Their defense is also one of the best we’ll see this season (ranked No. 14 in S&P+ rankings as of today), and could challenge the Nittany Lions’ wide receivers on deep balls. Lucky for the lions, they’ve seen five of the top 20 defenses this season according to S&P+ (six of the top 30), so they should be used to the pressure the Trojans are likely to throw their way.
Colorado is a story probably more miraculous than Penn State’s. Colorado had finished last in the Pac-12 South every year since joining. They’re now coming off a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance. Mike MacIntyre has done a tremendous job of turning around a moribund program that had been the butt of all jokes for years. They will not be an easy out for the Lions, as they showed when they played Michigan tough early in the season, only losing by virtue of their quarterback, Sefo Liufau, went down with an injury in the second half. Their defense is no joke either. Ranked 10th in the nation according to S&P+, they’d become the sixth top-20 defense the Lions would face this season. Washington did write the script on how to beat this Colorado defense, however.
An important point not to be ignored, Penn State will get a month to heal up, clean up aspects of the offense that haven’t been too pretty so far, and hopefully install new wrinkles that will give the opposing defensive coordinator headaches. Guys like Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley, who have been playing with a bit of pain, get a chance to come back refreshed and ready to go. And who knows, maybe we even see a familiar face back for the Nittany Lions on the offensive line. At worst, this line gets a month of worry-free practices to get even more comfortable with themselves.
Let’s take this all in folks. Penn State has a chance to win 12 games this season, something that hasn’t been done since 1994. And humor me for a second as I get ahead of myself, but the core of this team will come back next season. If there are no surprise NFL departures, the team with a potential chance to match 1994’s win total this season could be even better 10 months from now. Boy oh boy!
UPDATE: Penn State will face USC in the Rose Bowl.