Owners of the second-longest winning streak in the conference and one of the best wins in the nations, Penn State (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) slotted in at No. 12 when the first College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled Tuesday night.
The Nittany Lions were 2-2 five weeks ago and smarting from a 49-10 mauling by Michigan. But an undefeated October has pushed Penn State into the national rankings and to the fringe of the Big Ten title race. An Oct. 22 win against No. 6-ranked Ohio State is clearly the biggest selling point on Penn State’s resume. But the Nittany Lions also have victories against Minnesota (6-2), Maryland (5-3) and Temple (6-3).
Penn State is ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and No. 23 in the coaches’ poll.
The winning streak began with a comeback overtime victory against the Golden Gophers. Impressive blowouts of the Terps and Purdue, sandwiched around the stunning upset of the Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium, followed.
After a slow start to the season, running back Saquon Barkley has a Big Ten-leading 888 rushing yards. He has 508 in the past three games, including two 200-yard performances and 99 yards on just 12 carries against Ohio State’s stout defense. Quarterback Trace McSorley has completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the past four games. But he is fourth in the Big Ten in passing yards (1,818) and tied for first in yards per attempt (8.2).
Injuries decimated the defense at times earlier in the season, particularly at linebacker. But the Nittany Lions are 14th in the nation in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ defensive rating, which is good for fourth in the conference behind Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Penn State likely will be favored in each of its final four games, which starts with Iowa on Saturday night at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions then close at Indiana, at Rutgers and at home against Michigan State. Finishing 10-2, including an 8-1 mark in the Big Ten, would be Penn State’s best season since the Nittany Lions were co-conference champs in 2008 and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl.
If someone upsets Michigan, which is No. 3 in the first CFP poll, before “The Game” against Ohio State on Nov. 26, and Penn State wins out, a Buckeyes win against the Wolverines would push the Nittany Lions into the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis via a tiebreaker.