JENSEN: Scheduling luck not on Penn State's side with two major road tests looming

  • Penn State is facing consecutive road games at Ohio State and at Michigan State.
  • It can be argued that is the toughest one-two scheduling test in the nation in 2017.
  • Penn State enters the Ohio State game at 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

The 2017 Big Ten schedule, it turns out, has not been completely kind to your Penn State Nittany Lions.

It’s reasonable to argue right now that the second-ranked Nits are the best the Big Ten has to offer. Big Ten schedule makers, working without that knowledge, decided to let James Franklin’s group prove it over 15 days.

In this Oct. 24, 2014, file photo, Penn State coach James Franklin, right, shows Ohio State coach Urban Meyer the student section of Beaver Stadium before an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa. Franklin's Lions will travel to Ohio State on Saturday to take on Meyer's Buckeyes.

We’re not suggesting bias against Penn State, which took care of Michigan over the weekend, and now faces consecutive trips to Ohio State and Michigan State. Television has something to do with all this, too, adding better games later in the season. Makes sense.

Before we go too far here … Buckeyes fans would say, “Cry me a river.”

You have to go back to only 2016 to see that Urban Meyer’s group had a similar one-two road swing. The Buckeyes survived a trip to Wisconsin, and headed to Happy Valley the following weekend. That was too much for them.

Odds makers see all this and have established Ohio State as a clear favorite. In college football, the schedule often presents a luck of the draw beyond when the games are played. The real key is where. So far over the last two seasons, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan have faced off four times. The home team is 4-0. Two blowouts, each involving Penn State and Michigan. Two three-point games, each involving Ohio State.

The blowouts mean the better teams won. The three-point games mean the home team was happy to be home.

None of this is new in college football. Home-and-homes ain’t happening, as cool as that would be to imagine.

Stakes couldn't be higher: It will take a little doing for Penn State to get into the Big Ten title game with a loss Saturday in Columbus, so the stakes couldn’t be higher inside the Horseshoe.

Last season, the Buckeyes famously got to the national playoff without getting to the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes also had Wisconsin on the Big Ten schedule and won the game — scheduling luck, as long as they won the game — and also had a three-TD victory at Oklahoma on the books. Hosting Akron, Pittsburgh and Georgia State, as Penn State did this season in non-conference play, just isn’t the same and could eventually come into play.

If you get past big road hurdles, you’re a national contender. Georgia already did it once, at Notre Dame. (Personally, I’m not ruling out the thought that Georgia is the most talented team in the country.)

Toughest road games: Just for kicks, let’s review the toughest road games left for teams in the AP Top 10:

1. Alabama, at No. 19 Auburn.

2. Penn State, at No. 6 Ohio State, at No. 16 Michigan State.

3. Georgia, at No. 19 Auburn.

4. TCU (which already won at Oklahoma State), at No. 25 Iowa State, at No. 10 Oklahoma.

5. Wisconsin, probably at Indiana.

6. Ohio State, at Iowa, at Michigan.

7. Clemson (which already won at Louisville and Virginia Tech, lost at Syracuse), at No. 14 North Carolina State.

8. Miami (which already won at Florida State), at Pittsburgh.

9. Notre Dame (which already won at Michigan State), at No. 8 Miami, at No. 20 Stanford.

10. Oklahoma (which already won at Ohio State and lost at Iowa State), at No. 11 Oklahoma State.

So nobody, based on those rankings, has a tougher regular-season game left than Penn State at Ohio State. Nobody has a tougher road one-two than Ohio State-Michigan State.

Fortune favors Wisconsin: One conclusion you can draw is that once again Wisconsin is as lucky as the Big Ten East Division teams are unlucky. The Badgers look like they’ll be standing there once again at the end waiting to take on your East survivor. (This problem isn’t fixable. You want Penn State in the East playing these teams every year. Trade a Michigan game for a Minnesota game? No thanks. Big games are good for the sport and good for schools’ bottom line.)

Another conclusion: Penn State could still conceivably take the 2016 Buckeyes’ route to the playoff even with a loss Saturday. It’s a narrow road but not impossible. The Pac-12 already has all but given up the ghost, top contenders stumbling against unranked teams. Losing to Ohio State and beating Michigan State or vice versa would keep Penn State ahead of Washington and Washington State.

It would be bad for the Big Ten, however, if Georgia and Alabama both ran the regular-season table and then met in the Southeastern Conference title game. Tough to keep the loser out of the playoff and put another non-league champ in.

Penn State has genuine reason to believe it is a national title contender to the end. The best way to prove it is to win your tough road games. The toughest ones are here. Look at it like the Sweet 16 is about to begin in March Madness. Sometimes, the biggest hurdles come before the Final Four.