Wisconsin, Penn State have hopes beyond Big 10 title
INDIANAPOLIS -- The winner of the Big Ten Championship Game has an outside chance of slipping into the four-team College Football Playoff.
The loser knows that it has been formally -- if not officially -- eliminated.
It is a showdown between the third- and- fourth-best teams in the conference when No. 6 Wisconsin faces No. 8 Penn State in the Big Ten title game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday (8:17 p.m. ET, FOX).
The Badgers are ranked sixth in the latest CFP rankings and the Nittany Lions sit seventh. The winner will likely need both No. 3 Clemson and No. 4 Washington to lose its conference title games as No. 5 Michigan is positioned to be the first benefactor should the Tigers or Huskies stumble.
So the fate of the winner is hard to determine and some players aren't spending much time worrying about it.
"I've said before: We can't control what (the selection) committee does," senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton said on a conference call. "For that decision to be made, the only thing we can do is just try to focus on the week of the game and try to play our best football and just put ourselves in the best position to be talked about."
Both squads have certainly put themselves in position to be discussed as two of the hotter teams in the country.
The Badgers (10-2, 7-2) won six consecutive games to claim the Big Ten's West Division. Wisconsin averaged 42.7 points over its last three contests and the defensive-oriented squad leads the nation with 21 interceptions.
Penn State (10-2, 8-1) enters with eight straight wins and averaged 40.4 points during the stretch en route to the East Division crown. The Nittany Lions registered a shocking upset of Ohio State on Oct. 22 and rode the momentum to win a division that includes both the Buckeyes and Michigan.
With both teams streaking and so much at stake, it's hard to downplay the magnitude of the teams' first matchup since 2013.
"It's going to be a great challenge," Penn State coach James Franklin said at a press conference. "I know our guys are excited."
This is the Nittany Lions' first-ever appearance in the Big Ten title game and it wasn't expected to occur this season.
Not just because of the powerful Buckeyes and Wolverines, but due to where Penn State's program had dropped in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal.
The legacy of Joe Paterno was tainted and the football program received a bowl ban and scholarship reductions. Worse to the players was the stigma hung over them despite no wrongdoing on their parts.
But suddenly the joy is back in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions reveling in their best season since 2009.
"Yeah, there's a huge buzz going around right now," fifth-year senior defensive end Evan Schwan said at a press conference. "Before I got here, I always heard that whenever Penn State is playing well, Happy Valley is that much happier.
"You see it walking around campus. People that I have never met in my life will say, 'Hey, great game,' that kind of thing. I'm very, very appreciative of them supporting us throughout this entire ride."
Schwan is tied with junior defensive end Garrett Sickels for the team lead with six sacks for a unit that held three of its last four opponents to 14 or fewer points.
The Nittany Lions will be attempting to slow standout Wisconsin senior running back Corey Clement, who paces the offense with 1,140 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
The Badgers are employing two quarterbacks in redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and senior Bart Houston. Hornibrook's output is 1,243 yards and eight touchdowns against seven interceptions, while Houston has 912 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
Hornibook suffered a concussion during last Saturday's victory over Minnesota but was cleared to practice on Tuesday and is expected to play against Penn State.
Wisconsin's opportunistic defense ranks third nationally in scoring defense (13.7) and rushing defense (100.8 yards per game).
Among the standouts are senior free safety Leo Musso (team-best five interceptions), junior strong safety D'Cota Dixon (four picks), Shelton (four picks) and junior outside linebacker T.J. Watt (team-leading 9 1/2 sacks).
Penn State sophomore running back Saquon Barkley suffered a right foot injury in Saturday's win against Michigan State but Franklin declined to discuss his status during a press conference.
Barkley is the team's most explosive weapon and rushed for 1,219 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Quarterback Trace McSorley enjoyed a breakout campaign as a sophomore by passing for 2,976 yards and accounting for 27 touchdowns (21 passing, six rushing). The passing yardage is the fourth-best single-season output in Penn State history.
Wisconsin has more experience on this stage as it is making its fourth Big Ten title game appearance in six seasons. And coach Paul Chryst sees the goal this time around -- winning and slipping into the national playoff.
"You always want to be the best you can be," Chryst said on a conference call, "and certainly, in college football, that's the pinnacle."