Jeff Shain

Not a league champion, yet Ohio State still plays for bigger spoils

Ohio State players and fans celebrate their win over Michigan in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Michigan 30-27 in double overtime.
Ohio State players and fans celebrate their win over Michigan in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State beat Michigan 30-27 in double overtime. AP Photo

Remember Penn State’s victory over Ohio State?

The Nittany Lions won 24-21, roaring back from a two-touchdown deficit to start the fourth quarter. Grant Haley scooped up a blocked field goal and ran it back 60 yards for the winning score with 4:27 left. You can watch highlights on YouTube, courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

(Actually, you can relive pretty much the entire game via a couple of non-official posts. Just in case you’re going through withdrawal until the bowl games kick off in 10 days.)

So there’s video evidence the game actually happened. We just don’t know how much it mattered.

The Nittany Lions used that victory as a springboard to a Big Ten championship, plus a sweet invitation to the Rose Bowl. They just don’t get to play for the national title. Ohio State will, drawing No. 2 Clemson in a Fiesta Bowl national semifinal on New Year’s Eve.

That’s even though the Buckeyes didn’t even play for the conference title. And were beaten by the team that took home the trophy Saturday night.

Let that one roll around a little bit. Especially anyone who preaches head-to-head results should be the ultimate tiebreaker.

If you didn’t win your conference championship — and were beaten by the team that did — do you really deserve a chance to play for bigger spoils?

Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a whole bunch of indignation over the College Football Playoff committee’s call. Even in Happy Valley, there’s a lot more thrill over their Nittany Lions’ crown — their first since 1994 — and a trip to Pasadena than unhappiness that that’s where it ends.

Which only goes to show that even when humans are fully in charge of matchups and don’t share the burden with computers — Bowl Championship Series, anyone? — what makes for the most deserving is a moving target.

Exhibit A: Nebraska didn’t play for the Big 12 title in 2001, getting hammered by Colorado 62-36 in its regular-season finale. But in a season where there was no clear-cut No. 2 behind Miami, the Cornhuskers still bubbled up as the team with the next-best portfolio over the entire season. Cue the outrage.

Exhibit B: Oklahoma not only lost the Big 12 title game in 2004, the Sooners got thumped 35-7 by Kansas State for the crown. Nonetheless, OU still held sway in the computer metrics to remain No. 1 in a three-team race. LSU also got in; Southern California got left out. More outrage.

None of this would happen, critics fumed, if a panel of humans made the determination.

And so we evolved to the College Football Playoff, with an expanded format and a 12-member “blue ribbon” panel to play matchmaker. And Ohio State doesn’t play for the Big Ten title, but its résumé is judged to be one of the nation’s four best. Hmmm.

In fact, the Buckeyes had the easiest time of it, risking nothing on the season’s final Saturday. The fact that they got bumped from No. 2 to No. 3 only changes the uniform colors in Arizona. It might have been more significant if the non-champion had to play No. 1 Alabama.

Granted, Ohio State owns three wins this season against teams that finished in the top 10 — Oklahoma, Michigan and Wisconsin. Penn State only had two (Ohio State and Wisconsin).

“Obviously, us being Big Ten champions and winning a game head-to-head,” said Penn State coach James Franklin, “we felt like gave us a lot of value and the fact we’re hot now.”

Indeed, the Nittany Lions finished on a nine-game winning streak. Only three other teams can claim they haven’t lost since September — unbeatens Alabama and Western Michigan, along with Oklahoma.

Critics also will point to that blocked field goal as the only thing that stood between Ohio State and an unbeaten season. Fair enough, but let’s also recall that the Buckeyes survived Michigan State by staving off the Spartans’ 2-point try at the end, and beat Michigan with the help of a dubious no-call that looked like pass interference in overtime.

Ask Jim Harbaugh about that one. The Wolverines coach still wasn’t backing off Sunday, though he had to tone it down after the department got dinged five figures for his original rant.

So what to make of all this? Only that next year will bring another debate, and no one will know what the criteria du jour will be.

As for this year, there’s one quick way to put the issue to bed. Your move, Clemson.

Jeff Shain: 843-706-8123, @jeffshain