Starting 11: Penn State Got Screwed

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Penn State’s Derek Dowrey, right, kisses the trophy held by head coach James Franklin after Penn State defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship NCAA college football game Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Indianapolis. Penn State won 38-31. (AP Photo/AJ Mast) AJ Mast AP

This is the final Starting 11 of 2016. Every year, it seems, the regular season in college football passes faster. I remember being a kid and it seemed like a college football season lasted a lifetime, now it’s over in the blink of an eye. 

So here are my thoughts on the week that was and the weeks and years going forward. 

1. We need an eight team playoff. 

It needs to happen sooner rather than later and it should reward the five major conference champions and then include three wild card teams. The playoff committee can be used to seed the playoff and pick the three at-large teams. 

If we had an eight team playoff this year and the final rankings stayed the same it would look like this:

#1 Alabama vs. #8 Wisconsin

#2 Clemson vs. #7 Oklahoma

#3 Ohio State vs. #6 Michigan

#4 Washington vs. #5 Penn State

All four of these games would take place on campus and they would be fantastic. Yes, the Ohio State and Michigan game would be a rematch, but so what? I’d like to watch that game again. Rematches would occasionally happen in an eight team playoff, but it would be hard for teams to predict they would happen. Also, to be honest, the committee could easily avoid them by slightly adjusting the rankings.

There is no way that an eight team playoff would impact the primacy of the regular season, it would just make everything better.

Right now college football has the lowest percentage of teams advance to the playoff of any sport in America. Having eight teams advance would be the perfect size to continue to grow the sport while rewarding excellence and maintaining the importance of the regular season.     

2. If conference title games are going to continue, divisions need to be eliminated in college football. 

Personally, I find conference title games unnecessary. We play the entire regular season to decide who the best teams are. If, by chance, two teams finish with the same record, just name them co-champs. 

But if the conference title games have to continue, it’s imperative that divisions be eliminated in all of college football. Just take the top two teams in the conference. This year, for instance, Ohio State and Penn State would have played in the Big Ten title game if the top two teams had advanced. That would have made the Big Ten title game a virtual playoff game, since I think everyone would have agreed the winner went to the playoff and the loser didn’t.

As is, Wisconsin gets in just about every year because they happen to be in the Big Ten West.

It’s nonsensical.

Just about all divisions are lopsided. The SEC West is better than the SEC East, the Big Ten East is better than the Big Ten West, the ACC Atlantic is better than the ACC Coastal.



3. Ohio State got in because of its brand and because of Urban Meyer. 

I believe that 11-2 Ohio State if it had won its division, its conference and won the head-to-head would have also gotten in over 11-1 Penn State with the exact same resume as Ohio State.

That’s because bias is real.


All teams are not treated equally, some brands and coaches are considered of higher value.  

Urban Meyer and Ohio State got in because they’re Urban Meyer and Ohio State, not because they deserved to make it. 

4. The simple truth of the matter is this, the playoff committee’s directions are broad enough that you can justify any decision to seed and select a playoff.

My personal belief is that you should balance the best and the most deserving criteria. 

What I mean by that is this — if you only take the best teams then Las Vegas might as well seed the playoff. The problem with Las Vegas, however, is that sometimes the best teams screw up and lose multiple games they shouldn’t. For instance, LSU is ranked as high as number five in the country in Vegas’s rankings. But I don’t think anyone would argue that LSU, which lost four games to Wisconsin, Auburn, Alabama and Florida, deserves to be in the playoff or even in playoff contention. That’s because LSU’s results aren’t deserving of a playoff spot. They are one of the best teams, but they aren’t a deserving team.  

Yet Vegas sees the talent on LSU’s roster and would tell us that they are one of the top teams in the country.

Frequently the two criteria, best and most deserving, overlap: Alabama is the best and most deserving team in the SEC, Clemson is the best and most deserving team in the ACC, Washington is the best and most deserving team in the Pac 12, and Oklahoma is the best and most deserving team in the Big 12.

But that’s not the case in the Big Ten.

Penn State is certainly the most deserving. They won the Big Ten and finished with the best record. But the committee believes that Ohio State is the best. (I disagree that Ohio State would beat Penn State right now and you can read my rationale here). So how do you break that tie? I believe the committee broke it because they were biased to favor Ohio State and Urban Meyer. The Buckeyes were the brand the committee expected to see and they were the brand that they convinced themselves was better.

Even though, interestingly, Penn State beat Ohio State head-to-head, the committee effectively waved that result off as an aberration. My biggest issue with that decision is this — games have to have consequences, otherwise why play them at all? We could just let Las Vegas seed the committee and take the best teams without ever needing to see the season results.


Of course, college football fans uniquely believe that whatever happened once in a game is likely to happen again. But Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL or NFL fans don’t think this way. I think that’s because rematches are so common in those sports. Before those leagues decide a champion two teams will likely play multiple times. A champion may lose three times in a seven game series or lose the regular season NFL game before winning the playoff contest.

A champion losing doesn’t surprise us.

But in college football there are almost never rematches of great significance. (Alabama losing to LSU the first time and then trouncing them the second time in the BCS title game is the most prominent of these rematches.) Indeed, the very concept of rematches causes people to recoil. BUT WHAT IF TWO GOOD TEAMS PLAY TWICE, THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PEARL CLUTCHERS ASK?

The result is that college football fans have been uniquely conditioned to believe that whatever happens once would occur again and again throughout perpetuity. Plainly, that isn’t true. Sometimes, quite a lot of times actually, the team that isn’t as good wins. So just because Penn State beat Ohio State doesn’t prove that Penn State is better than Ohio State. So I understand how the committee can believe something other than the on field results. 

My argument, however, is that these games have to have significance.

Otherwise you end up with what happened this year to Penn State, the Nittany Lion conference win over Ohio State in late October mattered less than Penn State’s three point road loss to Pittsburgh on September 10th.  

If Penn State beats Pittsburgh and finishes 12-1 then Ohio State is probably left out of the playoff. 

That seems absurd to me. 

Why should an out-of-conference game in the second week of the season mean more when it comes to picking a playoff team than a conference game in late October? Effectively, from a playoff perspective, Penn State could do nothing to make the playoff once the Nittany Lions lost to Michigan. Their improvement and their nine game winning streak didn’t matter. They were eliminated from playoff contention before October even arrived. 

5. The conference title games were worthless when it came to the playoff.

Clemson and Washington had nothing to gain and everything to lose by playing conference title games. (Unless you believe that 11-1 Washington would have gotten jumped by Penn State, which I don’t.) They were already in the playoff, but could lose those spots to teams that might not have even been playing.  

Ohio State actually benefited by not winning its own conference since the Buckeyes didn’t have to risk loss or injury. Instead Ohio State players could kick up their feet and watch other teams battle. In essence Ohio State got a bye week while Clemson and Washington played games that could only cost them a playoff spot.

Does that make sense at all?

Of course not.

It’s why I think conference title games are a total waste.

The same four teams that were in the playoff before the conference title games were in the playoff after the conference title games. All of these games had no impact.   

6. An eight team playoff would probably save the Big 12 conference. 

Sometime in the next six or seven years Texas and Oklahoma are going to have to decide whether to commit to the Big 12 or join new conferences. If they join new conferences the Big 12 dies as a major conference. 

What’s the only way the Big 12 can ensure that its conference stays alive?

By pushing for a playoff expansion to award an automatic bid to a conference champion. 

The Big 12 has been left out of the playoff two out of three years so far. Indeed, it is the only major conference not to have a single playoff win through three years of the playoff. 

There wasn’t much of an argument that 10-2 Oklahoma deserved to be in the playoff, but that would still be the case even with a conference title game since the Big 12 would have immediately played a second Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game in back-to-back weeks. (Oklahoma State has the tiebreak over West Virginia). Oklahoma wouldn’t have gotten in the playoff at 11-2 either. 

But let’s say that Oklahoma hadn’t played Houston and had instead beaten a lower level, and not particularly talented, non-big 5 school. That would have been easy to do and Oklahoma would have probably won, right?

Then do you leave out Oklahoma or Washington? Both teams would have won their conferences and finished with only one loss to a top ten team.

I bring it up just to show you that four playoff teams isn’t the right number.

If Oklahoma had beaten Houston, the committee’s job would have been even tougher.  

7. Alabama is potentially the greatest team in college football history.

No one has ever gone 15-0 in major college football. What’s more, aside from a challenge from Ole Miss back in September and a road game at LSU, no one has even come close to the Tide this year.


Florida had no hope of winning against Alabama. Watching the Gators spar with Alabama was like watching a toddler try to fight an elephant with a stick. 

If Alabama finishes this year 15-0, I think you have to crown them as the greatest college football team in modern history.  

8. ESPN desperately needs Ohio State to play Alabama in the title game.

Last year the college football ratings tanked when Alabama beat Michigan State and Clemson beat Oklahoma. The ratings plummeted for the New Year’s Eve weekday semifinal games, but also stayed low for Alabama against Clemson on a Monday night.


The game was too regional for a national audience as Clemson doesn’t bring many fans outside of the South.

If Alabama beats Washington and Clemson beats Ohio State will there really be that many casual fans interested in watching a rematch in which Alabama would be favored by double digits? I don’t think so.

ESPN is taking body blow after body blow when it comes to subscribers plummeting and Monday Night Football rankings tanking. If Alabama plays Ohio State that will the best possible match up for the network and could give the worldwilde leader a chance to get back its shine. If it’s not Alabama against Ohio State, look out.

Things could get even worse for ESPN.   

9. Clemson is the only team with a quarterback who can beat Alabama.

J.T. Barrett isn’t playing well and Jake Browning is a pro style quarterback. Neither stand a very good chance of upsetting Alabama. But if Deshaun Watson plays flawlessly then Clemson can at least hope to get in another shootout with Alabama.  

Here are the quarterbacks who have been Nick Saban in the past several years: Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, Johnny Manziel, Stephen Garcia, Trevor Knight, and Cardale Jones. 

Notice anything that connects them?

They’re all guys who can extend plays and run.

J.T. Barrett just isn’t good enough, I don’t believe to beat a Saban defense. I think Deshaun Watson could, but he’d have to play flawlessly.

10. My top ten coaches in college football now that the 2016 regular season is complete:

1. Nick Saban

2. Urban Meyer

3. Jim Harbaugh

4. Chris Petersen

5. Bobby Petrino

6. Bob Stoops

7. Jimbo Fisher

8. James Franklin

9. Dabo Swinney

10. David Cutcliffe

11. Outkick’s final top ten. 

1. Alabama

2. Clemson

3. Washington

4. Penn State

5. Ohio State

6. Michigan

7. USC

8. Wisconsin

9. Oklahoma

10. Colorado

Written by Clay Travis

Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021.

One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines.

Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide.

Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports.

Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.