DONNIE COLLINS COLUMN: Top-10 preseason rankings give Big Ten teams a key advantage

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Four Big Ten teams are ranked in the Coaches Poll preaseason top 10.
  • That includes Penn State at No. 6.
  • A preseason top-10 ranking can give a team a key edge in making the College Football Playoff.

It’s August, and with all due respect to the Big Ten’s regular-season football schedule, it’s not really about the regular season anymore.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs for a touchdown against the USC Trojans during the first half of the Rose Bowl. Barkley's return is one big reason the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 6 in the preseason Coaches Poll.

Seems like only yesterday, the conference stood as somewhat of a laughingstock among Power 5 conferences. They played hard-nosed football, sure. But they didn’t play the same brand of football the SEC did. They didn’t run with the Florida States or the Clemsons out of the ACC, either. Heck, the Big Ten’s champion hardly ever seemed to do anything more than compete for a few quarters against whoever the Pac-12 threw at them in the Rose Bowl.

Things have changed, though. Three seasons after Ohio State shocked the sports world by winning the first-ever College Football Playoff, the Big Ten has earned the respect it lacked for so many years.

Maybe, too much respect.

Preseason rankings key: Preseason rankings are based on nothing, and they mean everything. Especially if you earn one of those coveted spots in the top 10. Get one of those, and it essentially hands a program a get-out-of-trouble free card. The committee has handed out 12 playoff bids in the three years of its existence. Nine of them have gone to one-loss teams. Seven of them were to teams ranked in the top 10 in the preseason poll.

The trend is easy to understand: If you’re seen as a potential title contender in August, you can lose a game and still be considered a title contender in December. You don’t even have to play for your conference’s championship to do it.

Four Big Ten teams will open the season ranked among the top 10 in the Coaches Poll, a stunning number considering the four teams in that top 10 will have plenty of questions to answer before they can legitimize their candidacies for the College Football Playoff this time around.

No. 10 Wisconsin: No. 10 Wisconsin brings back 15 starters. But leading rusher Corey Clement is playing for the Philadelphia Eagles now and quarterback, Bart Houston, is trying to earn a roster spot with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Badgers’ three best defensive players from last season — linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, as well as cornerback Sojourn Shelton — are all gone, too. That’s quite a bit of talent to replace.

Sure, they have been the class of the weaker Big Ten West Division. But should that be enough? This is, after all, a team that had a three-touchdown lead in the Big Ten Championship Game and let it slip away. Not exactly a sign it could control the East’s best when it had to.

No. 9 Michigan: No. 9 Michigan brings back just five starters — and only one on defense — on a team that, frankly, blew every chance to make the playoff last season. It started 9-0, then couldn’t move the ball against an Iowa team Penn State bludgeoned the week before. It choked away a 10-point, third-quarter lead with the East Divisions’ Big Ten Championship Game berth on the line against Ohio State. Then, it squandered another late lead in the Orange Bowl against Florida State.

This is a very young, very talented team, for sure. But should that be enough?

This is, after all, a team whose ranking seems based more on reputation than results, a frank characterization for sure of its coach Jim Harbaugh, who has not come up aces in the big game as a college coach.

No. 6 Penn State: No. 6 Penn State might have two Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, and Barkley is probably the best player in the Big Ten. It also should be better on defense with the experience it gained in 2016. There’s little question this team somehow seems to still be percolating some of the momentum it built starting last October, when it went on a nine-game winning streak to claim the conference title.

Three fearless predictions for Penn State's 2017 football season

This team feels exciting. Feels like it’s on the cusp. But should that be enough? This is, after all, a group that seemed to be as much a magic act as a football team last season. It trailed in the last minute of the game against Minnesota. It was behind two touchdowns against Ohio State in the fourth quarter. Indiana held a 10-point lead against the Nittany Lions at the break. Michigan State and Wisconsin led them at the half, and they were tied with lowly Purdue as intermission hit, as well.

That’s a lot of Saturday-night miracles for one team. Teams that live by the comeback all too often die by it, too.

No. 2 Ohio State: Then, there’s No. 2 Ohio State, which may be the biggest question mark of them all.

This is a team that brings back an unquestioned leader at quarterback, senior J.T. Barrett, and a defensive line that is probably the deepest in college football. The potential to be dominant is there. But, should that be enough?

This is, after all, a team that lost its swagger in the second half of last season, a team that has not been the same since the Penn State loss. The Buckeyes lost their top three receivers, their leading tackler (LB Raekwon McMillan) and their biggest defensive difference-maker (safety Malik Hooker).

This is also the team that clamored for the chance to play in the College Football Playoff and laid a goose egg against Clemson. It gave a 31-0 pounding as the reward to those who backed its claim, and the specter of having amassed a mere 215 yards of total offense in a game that big still looms large.

Perfection not necessary: The beauty of it all is that none of it matters. This is a new season and a new chance and a new slate wiped clean. As much as Penn State might want 2017 to be a continuation of 2016, it’s gone. As much as Ohio State might want 2016 to be in the past, though, the memories lurk.

But, so do the lessons. And the main lesson for these four teams hoping to garner College Football Playoff attention is that you don’t have to be perfect to get there. You just have to rebound.

The key is not an unbeaten season, for sure. The key for all will be staving off a second loss. That should be enough.