Neither team has a shot at a conference championship or a bowl game, but there still is a lot to play for this weekend in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State will host Ohio State this weekend in a game that will ultimately determine who has the upper hand on the Big Ten’s Leaders Division heading in to November. The division lead may be on the line, but NCAA sanctions being served by both programs will prohibit either from playing for a potential Big Ten Championship, in addition to a postseason game, this season. With no postseason future in sight for either program, this weekend’s contest in a packed whiteout Beaver Stadium may be the most important non-relevant game in Big Ten history.
Jokes have been made about this weekend’s Big Ten clash being the Ineligible Bowl, or simply the Ineligi-Bowl. Ohio State’s sanctions expire at the end of this season, while Penn State will have three more seasons without postseason play. Despite the current status though, the Big Ten has announced both schools will be eligible for a division championship, which still is rewarded with a trophy. This may seem like little more than a consolation prize for Ohio State, but for Penn State this is a much-needed prize to pursue.
For a program going through the treacherous future still ahead of them, anything that can serve as inspiration is worth getting excited about. It will become a valuable recruiting tool that Bill O’Brien will have to hang his hat on at some point, after he sells the academics and the idea of playing in front of 108,000 on national television as often as Penn State does. But O’Brien recognizes how important this game against an undefeated Ohio State is right now, and believes his players have earned the right to play in such a game.
“For me to sit up here and say it’s not a big game, that’s crazy,” O’Brien said this week. “This is Ohio State, a great tradition, great players, great head coach, great coaching staff. So, it’s a big game.”
A win on Saturday would put Penn State in the driver’s seat for a division title, with Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin still to play. After starting the season with two tough losses, games O’Brien would do anything to get a second chance with, a division championship would do wonders to help the program get through the next three years. Penn State is expecting their largest recruiting turnout this weekend with over 100 recruits making the trip to watch the game and program up close. Many of Penn State’s top targets, including tight end Adam Breneman and quarterback Christian Hackenberg, will be there to soak in the atmosphere and perhaps try to sell the program to potential future teammates.
The sanctioned future of Penn State football will not be determined by this one single game result of course, but it could potentially have an influence on what happens next. Nobody knows exactly what will happen, but O’Brien has said before that winning will help, and many pundits agree with the idea that Penn State’s best chance to keep more players from taking advantage of a free transfer is to keep winning games and have players buy in to the team philosophy despite a lack of a postseason game.
“I know there’s going to be some tough sanctions against them,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said this week. “I have great admiration for Penn State, always have been being from this area and knowing what kind of school that is, just the academics and everything, just a strong, strong school.”
If Ohio State had issued a self-imposed postseason ban last season, when the Buckeyes completed the regular season with a 6-6 record before losing to Florida in the Gator Bowl for the first losing season since 1988, then there is a chance Ohio State could have more to play for this weekend. The Buckeyes are ranked ninth in the Associated Press Top 25 and with a record of 8-0 would be thought to be in terrific position in the BCS picture if not for their eligibility status. There is no guarantee the NCAA would not have issued a postseason ban for this season anyway, but if the school had taken the measure on their own there is a good chance Ohio State could be making a BCS push with a win this weekend. But Meyer and the Buckeyes cannot worry about that now. Instead, Meyer wants to focus on the one-game-at-a-time approach, and he knows his team has their work cut out for them this weekend.
“Make no mistake about it, Penn State was undefeated at this time last year. As a result, when you’re undefeated, you’ve got very, very good football players. I mean, very good.”
There is no rivalry trophy associated with the game between two signature universities sharing a common border. It does not need one. It may fly under the radar when you rank and file college football rivalries, and fans from Ohio may even think Penn State is their third best rival at best. Despite all of that, there is no doubt that when these two schools play a football game, people will pay attention, and for good reason. Since the 2005 season the winner of the annual Penn State-Ohio State game has gone on to either win the Big Ten conference championship or a share of the Leaders Division championship. Six times in that span the winner advanced to play in a BCS game with the Big Ten’s automatic BCS berth. That clearly will not be the case this time, but the division trophy is still something to shoot for to keep that streak going.
You better believe this weekend’s game still means something.
Kevin is a national college football writer for quadrust.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Submit your mailbag questions via Tumblr. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.