Nittany Lions' Playoff Hopes Becoming More Realistic Each Week

By jshawls
Nov. 18, 2016

Penn State's Chris Godwin congratulates teammate Saquon Barkley
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to 8:00 PM EST last Saturday night, it seemed as though Penn State's dream of a Big Ten championship were just that. A far-off dream. The seemingly unbeatable Michigan Wolverines were steamrolling the competition and without two losses by Jim Harbaugh's crew, the Nittany Lions would not qualify for the Big Ten title game next month.

Many people, including myself probably didn't turn on the game because they made their peace with the inevitable result of a Wolverines' victory over the (former) 5-4 Iowa Hawkeyes. The same Hawkeyes who were embarrassed by the Nittany Lions the previous weekend in Happy Valley. And those are the same Nittany Lions who were annihilated in Ann Arbor in September. Logic suggested that Michigan would handle the Hawks and roll into Columbus unbeaten in the season finale in two weeks. But despite the odds, Kirk Ferentz' resilient group electrified Kinnick Stadium and shocked the country with one swing of the leg.

[Michigan unbeaten no more - ESPN Video]

Penn State pulled off an equally stunning upset when they took down the then-No. 2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes last month to put themselves back in the national conversation.

[Penn State Blocks Field Goal and Grant Haley Scores a Touchdown vs. Ohio State]

A season that once looked hopeless now holds promise for a conference championship. And though it may still be a long shot, it's worth mentioning that the Nittany Lions are still in contention for a playoff berth and a shot at a national title. That possibility looked bleak at best a week or two ago, but after the crazy weekend that we just witnessed as well as Houston's 36-10 upset of No. 5 Louisville Thursday night, Penn State's unlikely journey could still take them to the third-annual college football playoff.

Vegas released their updated odds just a few days ago, listing 15 teams with the best chance of winning a national championship. Penn State comes in at No. 10 on that list with 66-1 odds. Those are just projections, of course and have no actual meaning but it's exciting to think about if your a Penn State student, alumnus and/or fan considering where this team was just seven weeks ago. We were all considering the possibility of a losing season and life beyond James Franklin. Now, the third-year coach of the Nittany Lions is certainly in contention for national honors.

What should Penn State fans be hoping for this weekend?

1. Nittany Lion faithful can look at the national picture as much as they want, but they still need to win their final two games to remain in contention. On paper, the road looks pretty easy but be cautious. The blue and white should have little trouble with Rutgers this weekend but the Scarlet Knights have nothing to play for but pride. They've been shut out by an aggregate score of 185-0 against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, so they'll want blood against the Nittany Lions. A letdown is unlikely, but we know that James Franklin isn't looking beyond Saturday.

For those who don't follow the local radio scene in State College, the tweet above is in reference to an appearance on a talk show this week in which Franklin was asked to comment on the big picture around college football and the chaos that last weekend started. He had only one thing in mind. Rutgers.

2. Michigan State's struggles this season (3-7, 1-6 B1G) have been well-documented but they'll try to be the second team to knock Ohio State out of the No. 2 position in the polls. This would certainly benefit the Nittany Lions, who could still lose a playoff spot to the Buckeyes even if Penn State wins the division. A loss to Michigan State would likely drop the Buckeyes behind Penn State on the list of playoff contenders if the Lions win the Big Ten championship.

3. While it's unlikely the Wolverines drop two straight against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten teams,
Indiana (5-5, 3-4 B1G) can be dangerous. They nearly upset the red-hot Nittany Lions last weekend and will be looking for bowl eligibility on Saturday. Michigan's starting quarterback, Wilton Speight is on the shelf for the remainder of the season, leaving the duties to Houston transfer John O'Korn. A Wolverine loss this weekend would give Penn State the opportunity to control their own destiny in the Big Ten East regardless of what happens in Columbus next weekend.

Clemson's matchup with Wake Forest (6-4, 3-3 ACC) this weekend shouldn't be considered a cake walk and Nittany Lions fans should be watching that game closely. Pitt defeated the Tigers on a last-second field goal last Saturday and I'm sure Dabo Swinney would tell you that they aren't overlooking the Demon Deacons, who led Louisville at the half last week before collapsing in the second half.

5. Washington will also be looking to avoid dropping two straight when they host Arizona State (5-5, 2-5 Pac-12). It should be an easy win for the Huskies considering the Sun Devils have been relatively noncompetitive in their conference losses, but after last weekend, it would be foolish to assume anything. Penn State will certainly be pulling for the unlikely upset.

I left out No. 1
Alabama and No. 7 Wisconsin, each for completely different reasons. 

The unbeaten Crimson Tide will be playing Chattanooga this weekend, which barring a miracle, won't be competitive. There's probably nothing Alabama can do at this point to miss out on the playoff.

Wisconsin is ahead of the Lions in the polls, but Penn State will have the opportunity to beat them head-to-head if they reach the Big Ten championship game, meaning they won't require any outside help from any of the Badgers' upcoming opponents.

James Franklin may not be looking ahead, but the fans certainly are. Regardless of what happens throughout the rest of the season, it's safe to say the Nittany Lions haven't just taken a step toward championship contention. They're already there.