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MMQB: A Question to Ponder

Hoops conference title or football national title - which one comes next? Or ever?

Penn State v Purdue Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Somewhere back in 2009, I was engaged in a discussion about Penn State athletics somewhere on the web. The question that was posed, and that demands revisiting, was this: what would happen next - Penn State winning a third national championship in football or Penn State’s men’s basketball team winning a Big Ten championship (regular season or tournament)?

After all, it was a great time to have such a conversation. Penn State was coming off a Big Ten title in football. Meanwhile, the basketball team had claimed an NIT title and had a young core led by Talor Battle returning.

Well, more than a decade later, we’re still waiting for either to happen.

Yet now in 2023, with Penn State coming off a Rose Bowl win and an expanded playoff approaching coupled with the basketball team having an historically good season ahead of its fifth NCAA appearance since joining the Big Ten, it seems a fair time to revisit this conversation.

And, of course, Penn State’s basketball team appearing in the conference tournament title game for just the second time ever, and losing in heartbreaking fashion, sparked this even more.

Back in 2009, I dug in hard that Penn State had a better shot at winning a national title in football than any sort of major conference success in basketball. My rationale was pretty simple: Penn State had DONE the football thing before and come really close other times. While 1982 and 1986 are on the board, we all know 1978, 1985, and 1994 could easily have gone differently. Meanwhile, even back in 2008, Penn State was one stupid quarter in Iowa City away from playing for the title.

I was met nearly entirely with people who disagreed. I recalled many who acknowledged that Penn State, who at the time and still to this day has never finished higher than third in the conference basketball standings, lacked the depth, talent, and consistency necessary to claim a Big Ten regular season title. However, the idea was that the conference tournament provided a chance to harness some magic in some midwestern city over the course of a few days to cut down some nets.

I vehemently disagreed - and I think, even after this past weekend, - that I still do. While the major case against winning a football title now is that demographic changes (and NIL) are meaning more and more of the top players in the nation are playing at SEC schools, I am a believer that the expanded playoff CAN help level the playing field and that Penn State stands to benefit as much as anyone.

A bracket with Alabama and Georgia and Clemson and others? Yes, I agree it’s absolutely daunting. But, I’m also a believer that Penn State has a blueprint for major football success and that they exist in a footprint (from a conference and recruiting standpoint) to make it happen again.

So, here’s the case against “getting hot and winning a few straight games”. Since joining the Big Ten in 1992-93 - so we are talking a 30+ season sample size - Penn State has had only 15 streaks of at least three consecutive wins against conference opponents. (By the way, two of those are in THIS season - so pay the man, Pat).

That’s it.

More troublesome, with Penn State’s typical conference finish - they’ve never earned a bye to Friday in the conference tournament - the “get hot” really means winning four straight Big Ten games.

That means to win a Big Ten title, Penn State would have to win four straight games in conference play.

How many times has that happened in program history? Six - and one of those just ended yesterday.

Of course, none of these streaks necessarily reflect doing it in the course of a few days against increasingly more challenging opponents either. Penn State’s lack of general depth and overall talent has already been addressed with the idea that they aren’t destined to win a Big Ten regular season title anytime soon.

So what say you? What do we see next (first?) in our lifetimes? The football team as the kings of the College Football Playoff or the men’s basketball team cutting down nets and raising a Big Ten title banner (of some sort) to the rafters of the BJC?