For Penn State, a one-point loss is the difference between being in the driver’s seat for a College Football Playoff berth and being at the mercy of several other teams.
Not that Tuesday’s first CFP top 25 was all bad news for the Nittany Lions. By debuting at No. 7, they slot in ahead of two undefeated teams in No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 10 Miami, meaning the selection committee likes the Lions’ resume enough that one loss won’t sink them outright.
But Saturday’s 39-38 loss at Ohio State certainly means Penn State will need some help to finish in the top four come December.
To win the Big Ten East and reach the conference championship game for a second straight year would require the No. 6 Buckeyes to lose twice in November — they play at Iowa Saturday then host Michigan State and Illinois before closing out against rival Michigan in the Big House.
Another path for the Lions would likely involve the committee putting two Big Ten teams into the Playoff. That would require one of the two unbeatens atop the rankings — No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama — to lose in the regular season and then again in the SEC championship.
Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said things were “very close” between the one-loss teams ranked No. 3 through No. 7 — Notre Dame, Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State and the Lions. It was implied there was a dropoff between the No. 7 Lions and the rest of the top 10 — TCU (7-1), Wisconsin and Miami.
“Penn State has been and continues to be an impressive team,” Hocutt said. “The selection committee has talked about how impressed we’ve been with them, especially at the running back and the quarterback position.
“(We’re) very well aware of how that (Penn State-Ohio State) game transpired, how both teams competed, and that will continue to be a component of their resume as the season moves along.”
So what can the Lions do to help their cause in the meantime? ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who was in the booth for Penn State’s wins over Iowa and Michigan, had some advice.
“The best thing Penn State can do is blow people out,” Herbstreit said on ESPN after the initial rankings were unveiled.
Penn State’s biggest issue is that its non-conference schedule of Akron, Pitt and Georgia State won’t be of much help if there are multiple 11-1 teams in contention for a spot at the end of the season.
“If you go by the numbers and you look at the different comparisons, they will lose almost all of those arguments,” Herbstreit said. “So, the best thing that they can do is blow people out by 40 or 50 points if they can … so the committee has to look and just say, ‘Penn State is one of the best four. The resume doesn’t say it, but they’re one of the best four.’ Penn State, in my mind, that’s really their only hope at this point.”
That makes Saturday’s game at No. 24 Michigan State all the more important, as it could easily be the Lions’ last game against a well-regarded opponent this season.
Unsurprisingly, James Franklin made no mention of the Playoff earlier in the day at his weekly news conference — the word never came up.
Instead, the Lions coach opened his remarks by closing the door on the loss in Columbus.
“We’ve gotta finish. We have to develop a finisher’s mentality,” Franklin said. “That’s coaches, that’s players, that’s everybody. We’ve got to learn from these situations. Painful lesson to learn for all of us.”
As he did after Saturday’s loss, Franklin talked about the Lions needing to improve up front on both sides of the ball — blocking for Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley — and generating a pass rush of their own, which was nonexistent down the stretch against the Buckeyes.
Franklin also discussed the defense not handle “sudden change” well enough — such as Ohio State scoring in just two plays after blocking a punt in the fourth quarter.
“There’s issues that need to be addressed,” Franklin said. “I promise you they are being addressed and worked on. But we’re not going to hit panic mode because we lost on the road to the sixth ranked team in the country — on the road — by one point.
“Do we need to finish better? Yes. Do I take responsibility? No doubt. Do I have tough conversations with my staff about the things that we need to get better about? Yes. Do I challenge the players to take a hard look at themselves and grow as a program? Yeah. But I am going to stay positive.”
More honors for Barkley
The Buckeyes may have swarmed Barkley in the second half on Saturday, but it didn’t stop the laurels from coming in this week.
Barkley was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award — a national player of the year honor — and also won his fifth Big Ten honor of the season by being named special teams player of the week thanks to his kickoff return touchdown to open the game.