There’s nothing left for Penn State to do but watch and let its résumé speak for itself.
For better, or for worse.
With a convincing, 38-3 win over Maryland on Saturday at rainy Beaver Stadium, Penn State closed out a strong finish to the 2018 season.
It secured its third consecutive nine-win regular season for the first time since winning at least nine five times in a row from 2005-2009. It allowed only 20 points over its last three games after a blowout loss at Michigan, and it has a chance to secure a coveted New Year’s Six bowl berth for the third time in as many seasons, a feat it hasn’t accomplished since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
“I know that, this season, there have been some ups and downs and some challenges and some adversity,” head coach James Franklin said. “When you talk about the Big Ten era, this has been one of the best three-year stretches in program history. We have a chance to do some really special things by winning the bowl game.”
On the New Year's Six bubble: Of course, where Penn State will head come late December or early January remains to be seen, and as symbolic as that third consecutive New Year’s Six bowl appearance would be, the Nittany Lions will enter championship week firmly on the bubble, watching others determine their fate.
Entering the season-finale ranked No. 12 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, the Nittany Lions were in position to secure the automatic berth, which goes either to the top 12 teams in the final CFP poll (which will be released Dec. 2) or the top 11 with the highest-ranked champion outside of the Power 5 conferences securing a berth.
With unbeaten Central Florida ranked No. 9 and likely to be favored in the upcoming American Athletic Conference championship game, being ranked No. 12 going into the last week of the regular season seemed to be a strong position as far as the New Year’s Six was concerned.
Other results may have impact: Even though the Nittany Lions dominated the Terrapins, events elsewhere over Thanksgiving weekend may raise some questions for Penn State as the committee prepares its latest round of rankings, which is released Tuesday.
There was a team ranked ahead of Penn State that, conceivably, could fall behind them, strengthening the Nittany Lions in the top 11. No. 7 LSU lost to Texas A&M, 74-72, in a wild, seven-overtime classic that gave the Tigers their third loss of the season, the same number as Penn State.
Complicating matters more, No. 16 Washington, Penn State’s victim in last year’s Fiesta Bowl win, topped No. 8 Washington State, 27-15, in a snowy Apple Cup. It’s conceivable the committee could push the three-loss Huskies, who now have a win over a top-10 opponent, past Penn State, whose best win can be debated between Wisconsin or Iowa, especially after Miami blew out Pittsburgh on Saturday. It’s also conceivable Washington State could fall below the Nittany Lions.
Milton's injury may be issue for PSU: The biggest issue to be considered, though, might be the injury to Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton, who has led the Golden Knights to back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons, but suffered a gruesome injury to his right knee against South Florida on Friday. UCF finished out a convincing win, but College Football Playoff director Bill Hancock told ESPN that the injury could be a factor the committee will consider this week when determining where to rank the Knights.
“The committee does consider injuries that may have affected a team’s performance during the season,” he said. “Obviously, UCF continued to play well after McKenzie left the ballgame. The committee also does not project what might happen next week. They only evaluate what has happened to this point in the season.”
Possible soft landing in Citrus: Of course, any number of upsets next week in conference championship games could affect Penn State’s New Year’s Six chances, and if the major bowl doesn’t pan out, the Nittany Lions appear to have a soft landing spot available in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl, perhaps against Kentucky.
“Wherever they tell us we’re going, we’ll be very appreciative of the opportunity,” Franklin said. “We’ll go enjoy ourselves and try to be 1-0.”