Why a Penn State upset of Michigan would set stage for wild Big Ten finish

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College Football

Nov. 6, 2023 4:00 a.m. ET

There are just two Power 5 conferences that kept their divisional structures intact for the 2023 season — the SEC and the Big Ten

In the former, things have played rather simply following this past weekend. Barring multiple, shocking upsets, we’re on a collision course for Alabama to win the SEC West (after topping LSU) and meet likely SEC East winner Georgia (which beat Missouri) in Atlanta.

In the Midwest, however, the same traditional East/West split has the potential to devolve into complicated chaos ahead of a Big Noon Saturday heavyweight clash between Michigan and Penn State in Happy Valley.

This was a contest that was always going to be circled on the calendar as soon as the conference released the schedule. The Nittany Lions had perhaps the best roster the program has seen in roughly a decade and still have everything to play for despite the close loss to Ohio State a few weeks ago. The Wolverines, sign-stealing scandal aside, have just two true tests on the docket this year, and this is the first of them — and the only one on the road.

Now they’ll meet in State College not just with realistic postseason aspirations, but facing a result on Saturday afternoon that means even more to the two programs achieving those ultimate goals as a result of the round-robin they’re contesting down the stretch this season.

The Big Ten divisional tie-breaking procedure, which may be put to use just as it’s being put out to pasture at the end of this season, is as equally Byzantine as it is relevant for both of this weekend’s “Big Noon Kickoff” participants.

Obviously, if there are just two teams tied, the head-to-head result determines who advances to Indianapolis in the first week of December. If Michigan beats Penn State but loses to Ohio State in The Game, the Buckeyes win the East with no controversy about how things shook out (beyond the obvious shots the two fan bases will take at each other).

But if the Wolverines lose in State College, that’s when things get tricky — especially if Jim Harbaugh’s team goes on to beat OSU in the Big House to conclude the regular season. That would leave all three teams tied atop the Big Ten East standings.

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There are eight steps involved in sorting out the ultimate order of finish, but it would quickly advance to the fifth tie-breaker, which involves the winning percentage of non-divisional opponents — i.e. the trio of Big Ten West teams that Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State each played.

Heading into Week 11, here is where the three teams stand in this category:

Penn State’s non-divisional opponents (Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois) are 8-10 in league play.Ohio State’s non-divisional opponents (Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota) are 7-11.Michigan’s non-divisional opponents (Nebraska, Minnesota and Purdue) are 7-11.

If things were frozen in time, a win this Saturday would ensure James Franklin would be taking his team to the Big Ten Championship, and the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would order another round at their hotel in the Dallas area to sort out the larger ramifications.

But things are not frozen in time, and the Hawkeyes, Wildcats, Illini, Badgers, Gophers and Boilermakers all have games left to play.

PSU has to be rooting for Iowa to win out and for Northwestern to upset Wisconsin. Michigan is pulling for Nebraska to win out — not only so they can get a rematch in Indy but because it would include wins over Iowa (hurting Penn State) and Wisconsin (hurting Ohio State). The Buckeyes will be pulling for mutually assured destruction, but also might have to hope their rivals to the North can make things clear-cut and help create a situation like last year when both the winner and loser of The Game have a chance to make the Playoff.

But first things first — Michigan and Penn State both could use a win this weekend. Do that, and the headaches that follow outside the football building can be dealt with later on.


10 a.m.-Noon ET: “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show on FOXNoon ET: Michigan at Penn State on FOX and the FOX Sports app

First and 10

1. Had Kansas State pulled it off, Chris Klieman’s gamble to go for it on fourth down in overtime would have been forever celebrated in the state as a perfect way to say goodbye to Texas and help inch the program closer to a chance to defend its Big 12 title in a few weeks. Alas, it didn’t, as the Longhorns defense stood up and underscored it’s own championship credentials. We’ll see how things transpire from here, but that win in Austin said plenty about how different this group is under Steve Sarkisian and is perhaps the toughest — mentally and physically — that Texas has been since 2005.

Is Texas in trouble until Quinne Ewers gets back?

2. It’s fitting that amidst Mike Gundy’s best coaching job in recent memory at Oklahoma State — taking the Cowboys from a home loss to South Alabama to the verge of a Big 12 title game appearance — the final Bedlam for the foreseeable future served as a perfect cherry on top for somebody who has a tortured history against his rival. The scenes in Stillwater underscored how cathartic the victory over Oklahoma was and how cherished it will be despite the Sooners’ overall dominance in the series. As for Brent Venables, he now has to circle the wagons with his team after the fourth set of back-to-back losses during his time in Norman (something Bob Stoops did just three times in 18 seasons).

3. Washington held off USC in a memorable shootout, but the lasting impact of the game was undoubtedly felt by the home side. The Trojans had never in the program’s illustrious history allowed 34-plus points in six straight games until this season, and the number of defensive records that have fallen in the past two years remains quite unfathomable for the fan base. It’s gotten to the point where numerous former players in Cardinal and Gold were taking to social media each Saturday to question how the team’s scheme is unrecognizable, unfathomable or both. Lincoln Riley had no choice but to fire DC Alex Grinch on Sunday, but you can’t help but think that it was 12 months too late, as USC continued to waste having Caleb Williams do Caleb Williams things every weekend.

Remarkably, the loss means the only Trojans coach to beat Washington at the Coliseum during the Pac-12 era was Lane Kiffin topping Steve Sarkisian in 2011.

Why Alex Grinch was fired and what it means for USC moving forward

4. Alabama continues to channel a 2014 redux this season, undergoing a shifting offensive identity with an inexperienced quarterback to overcome an early loss and eventually win the SEC West. After beating a disappointing LSU side in Tuscaloosa, it might be time to shift our thinking about the Tide as they’re hitting their stride at the right time of year and planting themselves in that select group of national title contenders.

5. It says something about the current discourse that one of the talking points surrounding Dabo Swinney’s viral radio call with “Tyler from Spartanburg” is whether the caller was a plant engineered by the head coach to rally the troops. As far-fetched as that theory is, it certainly worked, as little ol’ Clemson played one of its best games of the year in beating Notre Dame

6. This season’s Group of 5 bid to the New Year’s Six could be as compelling as ever seeing as the field has expanded more than it’s contracted as the year has gone on. Tulane, which topped the committee’s rankings out of the AAC, had its third straight one-score clunker to narrowly beat East Carolina (which is now 1-8 on the year). Air Force, meanwhile, turned out one of the biggest surprises of the weekend by laying an egg vs. Army for its first loss of the season. Meanwhile, Fresno State may have reasserted itself as the team to beat in the Mountain West. Throw in SMU inching closer to double-digit wins by playing a close one to Rice (without starting QB JT Daniels for most of the night), plus Troy looking like the easy favorite in the Sun Belt, and it could be quite a finishing flourish in the chase for one of those elusive major bowl invites.

7. Speaking of the Sun Belt, hats off to Texas State for thumping a good Georgia Southern side 45-24 to become bowl-eligible — all but assuring the program’s first bowl game ever. The Bobcats, led by first-year head coach G.J. Kinne, have played in the postseason just twice in 40 years of Division I football. They join a host of bowl-eligible teams already, such as Arizona (bowling for the first time since 2017) and Rutgers (officially bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014). Should there not be enough 6-6 teams by next month, we could see James Madison and Jacksonville State in a bowl game to leave UMass as the lone FBS program that has not played in a sponsored exhibition game to cap off the season.

Arizona fans rush field after knocking off UCLA

8. Not too far from San Marcos, Sam Houston State finally got off the mark with its very first win as an FBS program by beating future/current conference rival Kennesaw State in comeback fashion with a 35-yard field goal as time expired. 

9. Even after the announcement that OC Brian Ferentz would not return next year, Iowa didn’t seem to play any looser in escaping Northwestern by a perfectly appropriate score of 10-7 at Wrigley Field. The last time two Power 5 teams had fewer than 170 yards of total offense in the same game was 2004, while the Hawkeyes moved to 6-1 when the over/under is at 35 or less.

Even more remarkable is how the team continues to control the Big Ten West, which capped off quite a day in the division with Wisconsin falling to Indiana, Nebraska allowing Michigan State to finally win a game and Minnesota giving away one to Illinois.

10. As bad as last season’s national title game was for TCU, the hangover from the trip to Los Angeles in January might be worse. The Horned Frogs lost at Texas Tech on Thursday, a Red Raiders team that hadn’t won in over a month. Now, TCU must upset at least one of Texas and Oklahoma to even make a bowl game.

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Saturday Superlatives

Best player: Jayden Daniels/Jalen Milroe

Team of the Week: Oklahoma State

Coach of the Week: Jeff Monken, Army

Hot Seat of the Week: Billy Napier, Florida

Heisman Five: 1. Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State), 2. Bo Nix (Oregon), 3. Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), 4. J.J. McCarthy (Michigan), 5. Jayden Daniels (LSU)

Tweet of the Week

Quote of the Week

Play of the Week


Super 16

My ballot going into Week 11 in the FWAA/Super 16 Poll:

MichiganGeorgiaWashingtonOregonFlorida StateOhio StateTexasAlabamaPenn StateLouisvilleOle MissOklahoma StateKansasJames MadisonUtahArizona

Just missed the cut: Missouri

Best of the rest: Oregon State, Oklahoma, LSU, Fresno State, Kansas State, Tulane, Iowa, Air Force

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Pre-Snap Reads

Michigan at Penn State (Saturday, Noon ET on FOX) 

Will Jim Harbaugh be coaching in this one? This is the first real test for the Wolverines, and given everything going on, it wouldn’t shock if they started slowly before eventually pulling away against the Nittany Lions. Michigan -5

Ole Miss at Georgia (7 p.m. ET)

The injuries keep mounting for the Bulldogs, but they’re playing at home, and Ole Miss was lucky to escape with a win against an equally flawed Texas A&M side last week. Lane Kiffin will scheme up a few plays to get the Rebels in the end zone, but the Dawgs’ winning streak eventually adds another number to it. Georgia -12

Utah at Washington (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX)

Kyle Whittingham’s side got right in a big way against Arizona State but going on the road to Montlake presents an entirely different challenge. The physical nature of the Utes‘ offensive and defensive lines should pose a stiff test for the Huskies before they find some second half success to keep their CFP hopes alive for another week. Utah +9

USC at Oregon (10:30 p.m. ET on FOX)

Oregon is the No. 11 rushing offense in the country behind Bucky Irving & Co. while featuring the nation’s most accurate passer. The Trojans defense has given up 798 yards on the ground the past three games, their worst stretch since 2009 when they gave up 797 yards in a three-week run. Even if Caleb Williams puts up points, this has all the makings of a late-night one-way street. USC +17

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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