Two years ago, Penn State won the Big Ten title and finished fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings, just one spot out of the actual CFP. This year, the Nittany Lions finished 12th in the CFP rankings, and are the highest ranked team NOT to land a spot in the playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl.
Instead, PSU (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) will face No. 14 Kentucky (9-3, 5-3 SEC) in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. The game kicks off at 1 p.m. and can be seen on ABC.
In separate conference calls with reporters late Sunday afternoon, James Franklin — while going out of his way to say how thankful he was that his program is in the Citrus Bowl and facing a quality opponent — also said the Big Ten must take a look at how well it is positioning conference teams for the postseason.
For the second straight year, there will be no Big Ten team in the CFP. The B1G champ is not in the CFP for the third straight year.
“The first thing, it probably needs to start with the Playoff (selection) committee making some recommendations on what … would give them the best opportunity to evaluate everybody and compare oranges to oranges or apples to apples,” he said. “Everyone is playing conference championship (games) or they’re not. Everybody is playing the same number of conference games — you can’t have one team that’s not in a conference and everybody else is.
“The only way you can do it is to make sure everyone’s playing with the same criteria,” he added. “From there, the commissioners and athletic directors make decisions. That’s where the dialogue needs to start.”
Franklin was clearly comparing the approach of the Big Ten to that of the SEC — and even Notre Dame.
The SEC, which has had a total of three teams in the last two CFPs, plays only eight conference games per season to the Big Ten’s nine. Further, the SEC allows its teams to play FCS opponents, something the B1G prevented for two years before dropping the policy in 2017. Meanwhile, Notre Dame — which went 12-0 in the regular season and landed as the third seed in this year’s CFP — is an independent that plays five games per year against ACC teams but otherwise can schedule whomever it likes.
“When one conference — who is playing less conference games than we are and has been playing (FCS) programs for a long time — when there’s discussion of them possibly getting two teams in and us having been left out the last three years, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to not at least have the conversation,” Franklin said.
The Big Ten actually did have a team qualify for the CFP in 2016. That was the year Ohio State checked in at No. 4 and Penn State finished No. 5. When Franklin said “three years,” he was likely referring to the fact that the Big Ten champion has not made the playoff the last three years, because the Lions won the title in 2016.
Along those lines, Franklin believes the Big Ten has to at least consider divisional realignment after teams from the East have won the last five league championship games.
“We’ve got to look at what we’re doing,” he said. “Historically … programs have been stronger some years than not. But in general, the strong programs have been the strong programs since the beginning of time. We have to look at that as well, and say, are we putting our programs in the Big Ten in the best position to compete for national championships?”
After Ohio State won the Big Ten title this year, Franklin was pulling for the Buckeyes to make the CFP. He was also hoping the Lions would land a NY6 bid. Neither happened. The SEC ended up with one team in the CFP (undefeated Alabama) and three in NY6 bowls (two-loss Georgia, three-loss Florida and three-loss LSU). The B1G has nobody in the CFP and two teams (one-loss Ohio State, two-loss Michigan) in NY6 games.
“Obviously, we’d love to play in the highest-rated games that we can possibly play in,” he said. “… I think everybody knew that we had a chance to get in but likely (were) sitting just on the outside. Guys are just excited to go to Florida and play in the Citrus Bowl and play a really good opponent and enjoy ourselves.”
In the Wildcats, the Nittany Lions got the highest-ranked opponent possible outside of the CFP and NY6 participants. Of that group, only No. 13 Washington State is ranked higher than Kentucky, and there was no realistic way PSU could have drawn the Cougars in a bowl.
“The players are really excited, the coaches are really excited,” he said. “It’s an historic bowl game, and we’re looking forward to playing Kentucky. I’ve been a head coach in the SEC and very familiar with (UK coach Mark Stoops), and I think it’s going to be a great game and a tremendous challenge.”