Big Ten key in Lions’ success

COMMENTARY

Gauge most Penn State fans on their feelings about being members of the Big Ten Conference, even 23 years since the inaugural season, and you’ll probably still get a mixed response.

Some no doubt long for their old Eastern brothers and would rather be playing in the same league as Pitt and West Virginia, Syracuse and Boston College.

Some may think they’d be a better fit in the ACC.

Some might say Penn State has often gotten the short end of the Big Ten’s officiating stick, though nobody complained about the late pass interference penalty that wasn’t called against Ohio State.

And there are some who would say it’s turned out to be the perfect marriage with compatible institutions, extraordinary financial stability and exposure galore.

As this magical season continues to unfold, it should be clear that being part of the Big Ten has never worked out better for Penn State than it is right now.

The last time the Nittany Lions were this deep in the national conversation was 2005, when they finished third in the country.

That wasn’t the year to sing the praises of the Big Ten since Penn State felt jobbed at Michigan, where time was added to the clock in what eventually turned into a last-second back-breaking loss.

So Penn State wasn’t feeling the Big Ten vibe then, and it definitely wasn’t in 1994.

That was before the Bowl Championship Series had more flexibility to match the best teams, before the College Football Playoff was born, and the Nits were stuck in the Rose Bowl having to play Oregon instead of settling the national championship against Nebraska.

Fast-forward to today.

Despite starting the season 2-2, including a 49-10 blowout at Michigan, Penn State is somehow bearing down on the College Football Playoff solely because of its place in the Big Ten.

The strength of the conference, which has never been better, has allowed Penn State enough opportunities to climb as high as No. 8 the poll — soon to be No. 7 following Louisville’s loss. Four of the nation’s top eight are from the Big Ten.

The Lions not only get credit for their season-shaper over Ohio State, but now their win over Iowa, which stunned Michigan, looks even better.

They’ve taken care of beating the teams they were supposed to — Minnesota,  Maryland, Purdue, Indiana and presumably Rutgers — and they still have a couple of barometers left.

Tonight isn’t one of them.

The only opportunity Rutgers presents is a chance not to impress. Penn State needs to put the Knights away and early, just like Michigan and Ohio State did.

Michigan State next week, though, is a different story, and the higher the stakes the Lions are playing for, the more the Spartans, who have endured an unexpectedly miserable season, may get interested.

Should the Buckeyes cooperate and beat the Wolverines, a great test in Wisconsin will likely await in the Big Ten title game as the Badgers played Michigan to a one-score game in Ann Arbor, stood toe-to-toe with Ohio State and beat LSU.

Then there’s the Pitt factor. Penn State can now brag about almost beating the Panthers, whose decking of Clemson further strengthens the Lions’ resume.

(And for those who think having the Panthers on the schedule hurt Penn State, consider another rent-a-win, a Georgia State, would have put the Lions in the same boat as Washington — having to defend the non-conference schedule.)

Whether Penn State is good enough to run the table, get to and win the Big Ten is questionable.

It’s been a remarkable season, no question, but the Lions are banged up on the offensive line, and it was all they could do to beat an average Indiana team that lost five fumbles.

And yet, here they are, in large part due to their success in the Big Ten, the only league that may end up claiming two of the four national semifinalists.

If Penn State fans aren’t finally sold on the Big Ten, they should be.

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Neil Rudel covers Penn State from the Altoona Mirror.

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