Why Penn State Belonged In The College Football Playoff

In 2007, the New England Patriots were the best team in the NFL. No one disputes this. If you their 18-1 resume alongside that of the 15-5 New York Giants, the Patriots were clearly the better team. They even split the head-to-head series. But the one loss was in the Super Bowl and for that sole reason, the Giants are acknowledged as champions.

1986 college football season

The point of this restatement of the obvious? That there comes a point in every single sport where overall resume ceases to matter and there are certain threshold games you have to win. As it pertains to the 2016 College Football Playoff and the race for the Big Ten title, one of those games was Ohio State-Penn State. The Buckeyes lost it.

That’s why I really don’t care that there’s a very good argument that their overall resume is more impressive than the Nittany Lions (although that’s based entirely on Ohio State’s win over Oklahoma, and just how big a deal beating anyone from the Big 12 is should be up for considerable debate). What I care about is that Ohio State-Penn State proved to be the threshold game in the Big Ten’s Eastern Division, a sort of de facto Sweet 16 game (with the conference championship game being the quarterfinal).

Ohio State fans may protest that the threshold games don’t begin until the College Football Playoff and that the entire season leading up to that is simply building the overall resume. This is again a reasonable argument and I respect it. But college football does nothing that’s consistent with such a belief. If that’s the case then conference championship games should be eliminated. Everyone should play their 12-game schedule (even make it 13 if you want to have everyone playing in December) and the committee should pick.

If winning a conference title is not a threshold achievement why is every conference other than the Big 12 playing a game specifically devoted to determining such a title? Why were Ohio State fans put in the absurd position last week of deciding whether to root for Penn State, and not risk putting their top-4 position on the line in Indianapolis, or rooting for a Lion loss that would have sent the Buckeyes to the conference championship game. It’s one thing to invite multiple teams from a conference to a postseason. It’s quite another when a team’s best interests are served by not playing for that championship.

Conference play isn’t perfect—Ohio State played a better cross-divisional schedule than Penn State– but it’s still the purest form of “settling it on the field” that exists. It’s a long nine-game stretch followed by a championship game. It should be a threshold achievement. Otherwise, let’s just play out the Playoff games than use the “eye test” and “body of work” to determine who the national champion is. Alabama’s got a loss to give in this race.

Sound absurd? Of course it does. Because sports are about defining threshold moments. Every sport does it. College football chose to separate itself into conferences and then play a championship game. Penn State played by the rules and won the Big Ten. They belong in the Playoff.