HEISER: Penn State in national football conversation

Steve Heiser
  • Penn State has a chance to earn a berth in the Big Ten football championship game.
  • The Lions must beat Michigan State on Saturday and hope Ohio States tops Michigan that same day.
  • The Lions are now listed as a 40-1 shot to win the national championship.

Penn State has most definitely forced its way into the national college football conversation for the first time in a long time.

Penn State coach James Franklin has led his Nittany Lions to seven straight victories.

That realization was slammed home Tuesday morning when ESPN's “Mike and Mike” show devoted much of its time to talking about the Nittany Lions' chances of making the College Football Playoff.

Who could have predicted that on Sept. 24, when the Lions sat at 2-2 after a disappointing 42-39 loss at rival Pitt and a humiliating 49-10 pounding at Michigan?

Certainly not this writer.

Yet, here we are entering the final week of the regular season and arguably the most popular sports talk radio show in the nation is spending gobs of air time gabbing about Penn State football.

And they should.

That's because, against all odds, PSU (9-2) has a reasonable chance of playing in the Big Ten title game and a long-shot opportunity to make the four-team national playoff.

Given the state of the program just eight weeks ago, that borders on astounding.

Before the season, Penn State was coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons under coach James Franklin and had beaten absolutely no one of significance. The gap between PSU and the Big Ten elite seemed wider than ever.

In fact, before the season, the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook listed Penn State's odds of winning the national title at 300-1. As recently as Oct. 31, the Lions' national title odds were 200-1. Those odds have now plummeted to 40-1.

According to fivethirtyeight.com, the Lions have a 22 percent chance of winning the Big Ten and a 9 percent chance of making the national playoff.

If the oddsmakers are right, Penn State will at least play for the Big Ten title. The Lions are a 12 1/2-point favorite on Saturday at home vs. Michigan State, while Ohio State is a 6 1/2-point favorite to beat arch-rival Michigan at the Horseshoe.

If both favorites win, PSU will play for the Big Ten title because the Lions and Buckeyes will tie for the East Division crown at 8-1, but the Lions hold the tiebreaker by virtue of their head-to-head, 24-21 shocker over Ohio State on Oct. 22.

Business to take care of: Before we get too carried away with the postseason possibilities, however, the Lions still have some regular-season business to take care of.

Michigan State is historically one of the most unpredictable teams in the nation — unbeatable one week, underachieving the next. The Spartans also have a tendency to play their best against their best foes.

In addition, Michigan State appears to be playing its best football right now. They humbled a bad Rutgers team on Nov. 12, 49-0, and then took No. 2 Ohio State to the limit last Saturday before falling, 17-16. Only a missed two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter prevented the Spartans from pulling off the upset.

And, lest we forget, just a year ago Michigan State won the Big Ten championship and earned a College Football Playoff berth.

Make no mistake, despite their 3-8 record and underdog status, these Spartans are still very talented and very dangerous. Despite their 1-7 Big Ten record, they've been outscored in those games by just 17 total points.

A Sparty upset is very possible and the line definitely seems a tad high.

Still, this is a game Penn State should win. The Lions are peaking right now, having won seven straight. They're healthy everywhere but on the offensive line, which has still performed admirably despite some serious injury losses. They're playing at home, where they're 6-0 this season. And it's Senior Day.

Plus there's also a little payback factor in the Lions' favor.

The Spartans have handed PSU two humbling defeats in the last two seasons — 34-10 in 2014 and 55-16 in 2015. The Spartans capped their home finale last season by putting senior center Jack Allen in the backfield in the fourth quarter. He then rumbled for an embarrassing 9-yard touchdown run against the over-matched Lions.

That's something the PSU players aren't likely to forget.

All in all, the intangibles would seem to favor Penn State.

So, come Saturday night, the Nittany Lions should still be firmly entrenched in the national college football conversation.

Considering the odds just a few short weeks ago, that is nothing less than unbelievable.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.