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Smeltzer: Predicting how Penn State Would Have Done in 2016-19 College Football Playoff Appearances

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Trace McSorley

The College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams, it’s expanding soon and that’s good news for Penn State.

The 2023 season will be the last year of the four-team format we’ve known for years.

For players that won’t be on the 2024 Nittany Lions, this change is happening too late, especially if those players were on the team between 2016 and 2019.

With the 12-team format, Penn State would have been in the Playoff every year from 2016-2019. It would also be going this year.

So who would Penn State have played in the Playoff had it made it in those years, and how would it have done? We’ll never know for sure, but I’ll give it my best guess. I won’t forecast this year’s Playoff since we have yet to determine who the top 12 teams will be at the end of the regular season.

Instead, let’s disobey Mark McGwire and talk about the past.

2016: FIRST-ROUND BYE

Penn State fans, I apologize for bringing up 2016 in an article about the College Football Playoff. The fact that Penn State beat Ohio State in the regular season, won the Big Ten and got left out of the Playoff while Ohio State got in is still hard for many people to swallow. The fact that, in the new format, Penn State would have made the Playoff and gotten a bye as Big Ten champion doesn’t make it any easier.

QUARTERFINAL: NO. 4 PENN STATE VS. NO. 5 OHIO STATE, NEUTRAL SITE

If the 12-team College Football Playoff format that’s coming in 2024 existed in 2016, Penn State would have been one of the four conference champions that received a bye. The committee would have had no choice but to rank Penn State ahead of Ohio State after championship weekend.

No. 5 Ohio State would have been matched up with No. 12 Oklahoma State in Columbus and likely would have beat the Cowboys, who finished 9-3.

That would have set up a rematch of Penn State’s 24-21 upset at Beaver Stadium, and who knows what would have happened? Would lighting have struck twice, or would Ohio State have avenged its only regular-season loss? The world will never know, but like the 2017 and 2018 games in real life, Ohio State would have pulled out a close win in this hypothetical. It’s hard to beat the Buckeyes twice in one year.

OHIO STATE 27, PENN STATE 24 

2017: NO. 9 PENN STATE AT NO. 8 AUBURN, JORDAN-HARE STADIUM

USC finished No. 8 in the final 2017 College Football Playoff Rankings, but because it won the PAC-12, it would have been one of four teams with a bye, along with Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia.

Reshuffling the final rankings and putting USC at No. 4 instead of Alabama, ‘Bama would have moved to 5, Ohio State to six, Wisconsin to 7 and Auburn to 8. Penn State would have stayed at 9, faced Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium and probably not won 41-12.

Penn State would have won 31-24 instead.

Penn State 31, Auburn 24

QUARTERFINAL: NO. 9 PENN STATE VS. NO. 1 CLEMSON, NEUTRAL SITE 

Penn State would have been in trouble in the second round. Clemson finished the regular season 11-1 and ranked first in the country.

Although Clemson ended up getting handled by Alabama in the Playoff semifinal, it still would have been the favorite over Penn State. The 2017 Penn State team was darn good, though, so it would have had a shot.

But Clemson was slightly better than Penn State in 2017, and the final score would have reflected that. In this fantasy, Penn State would have ended 2017 with three losses by a combined seven points.

Clemson 20, Penn State 17

2018: NO. 12 PENN STATE AT NO. 5 GEORGIA, SANFORD STADIUM

Penn State fans would have gotten a chance to see former commit and future Ohio State QB Justin Fields a year sooner. Georgia probably should have made it to the four-team Playoff in 2018, but blew a 14-point second-half lead in its SEC Championship Game against Alabama (remember that fake punt?) If Penn State played Georgia in the 2018 Playoff, it would have been the third all-time meeting between the two schools and a rubber match, with the teams splitting the first two games. Penn State fans remember one of those games quite fondly.

The 2018 Penn State team was good but not anything special. It went a modest 9-3 in the regular season and ended up losing to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. Although the season would have been good enough to make a 12-team playoff, it’s hard to imagine Penn State having much success in the tournament.

This is the only game in these Playoff years where Penn State would have gotten boat raced.

Georgia 38, Penn State 17

2019: NO. 10 PENN STATE AT NO. 7 BAYLOR, MCLANE STADIUM

People would have called it “The Matt Rhule Bowl.”

Rhule, a Penn State linebacker way back when, was in what ended up being his last season as Baylor’s head coach. It wouldn’t have been Rhule’s first time coaching against Penn State— he did so at Temple every year from 2014-16— but it certainly would have been more significant than any of the previous three matchups. It probably would have been a darn good game, too. Penn State went 10-2 in 2019, with both losses coming on the road against ranked opponents (Minnesota and Ohio State). Meanwhile, Baylor played well enough in 2019 to reach the Big 12 Championship Game and get Rhule a chance to be an NFL head coach, a chance he took after the season.

In this hypothetical, Rhule’s last game at Baylor would have been against his Alma Mater. A 48-yard TD pass from Sean Cliffordto KJ Hamler with 2:44 left would have been the difference.

Penn State 27, Baylor 21

QUARTERFINAL: NO. 10 PENN STATE VS. NO. 2 OHIO STATE, NEUTRAL SITE 

Ohio State outplayed Penn State in Columbus that year and won by double-digits.

It had a better team, and I think that would have shown again in the Playoff, although Penn State would have been right there in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State 35, Penn State 23

 

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