Penn State was picked fourth in the Big Ten East in the preseason and 2-2 after an ugly loss at Michigan, prompting the athletic director to issue a public vote of confidence for third-year coach James Franklin.
Two months later, who would have thought the eighth-ranked Nittany Lions would have thrown a wrench into the College Football Playoff hypotheticals by earning a berth in the Big Ten championship game opposite No. 6 Wisconsin?
Things would have been so much simpler if Ohio State hadn’t lost to the Lions on the road Oct. 22.
A win in Indianapolis on Saturday night would give the Lions (10-2, No. 7 CFP) two victories over top-10 teams to weigh against their losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan. Imagine the outrage in Happy Valley if the Lions beat the Badgers and, as a conference champion, were excluded from the group of four teams to play for the national championship. It could happen.
The Buckeyes (11-1, No. 2 CFP) would be at the mercy of the committee if Penn State wins, but the chairman already has said Ohio State has the better resume.
If Wisconsin (10-2, No. 6 CFP) wins, the committee could logically pick Ohio State based on its overtime win over the Badgers in Madison on Oct. 15. If that happens, the city known as “Madtown” would surely be that.
Five things to know heading into the Big Ten title game:
OLD VS. NEW: This will be the sixth Big Ten title game, and Wisconsin is in it for the fourth time. Penn State is making its first appearance and going for its first championship since 2008.
The Badgers are 2-1 in Indianapolis, beating Michigan State 42-39 in 2011 and Nebraska 70-31 in 2012 and losing to Ohio State 59-0 in 2014.
Wisconsin is 9-8 all-time against Penn State. This will be the first meeting since Nov. 30, 2013, when Penn State won 31-24 in a wild game in Madison.
THE BARKLEY FACTOR: Penn State star running back Saquon Barkley’s status is unknown after he injured his right foot against Michigan State on Saturday.
Barkley averages 101.6 yards a game to rank third in the Big Ten. He was held to 14 yards on 12 carries in the 45-12 win over the Spartans.
The Lions really could use him against the nation’s No. 3 rushing defense. If he can’t play, Andre Robinson, Mark Allen and Miles Sanders will split carries.
FRANKLIN’S JOURNEY: Penn State lost four straight to end 2015 and got off to a 2-2 start this season with those losses of 42-39 to Pittsburgh and 49-10 to Michigan. A few days after the loss in Ann Arbor, athletic director Sandy Barbour pledged allegiance to Franklin, saying his job was not in jeopardy.
Despite a run of injuries that hit the linebacker corps especially hard and left the Lions without seven starters, Penn State turned into one of the hottest teams in the nation.
Linebacker Jason Cabinda said he and his teammates never ruled out a chance to play in Indy.
“We talked about it all last season. That this was our goal and this is where we wanted to go, so we put our head down and went to work,” Cabinda said. “Every week we have improved and gotten better and now we have a tremendous opportunity to go Indianapolis next week and finish this thing and get a Big Ten championship.”
BADGER DOMINANCE: Wisconsin and Alabama are the only Power Five programs to reach conference title games four times since 2011. The Badgers have won at least 10 games six of the last eight years and are 17-3 in their last 20 games. They’re 15-3 against Big Ten West teams since the conference went to the current divisions in 2014.
IT’S ABOUT DEFENSE: Wisconsin and Penn State rank Nos. 3 and 4 in total defense in the Big Ten, with the Badgers allowing 292 yards a game and the Lions 346.
No one has been running much against either team lately. Only five opponents have run for 100 yards against the Badgers. Penn State has allowed no more than 110 yards on the ground in any of its last five games.