Despite the incredible distractions of the last couple of weeks (distractions that have taken us far beyond matters of sport), the Penn State Nittany Lions still have quite a bit to play for in their final two games of the regular season. They are one of three teams still eligible to win the Big Ten Leaders division (Purdue could still tie for the lead, but they would lose all tiebreakers), and while they actually hold a one-game lead over Wisconsin (two games over Purdue and Ohio State), they face an uphill battle. They finish the season at Wisconsin next weekend and at Ohio State this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. Eastern.
There are four remaining games that matter, then, when it comes to the division race: Penn State-Ohio State and Wisconsin-Illinois today, and Penn State-Wisconsin and (if Ohio State wins today) Michigan-Ohio State next week. Here are all the possible permutations of those two games; the two most likely scenarios are in bold.
|Penn State at
|Penn State at
|Ohio State||Illinois||Penn State||Michigan||Penn State|
|Ohio State||Illinois||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State|
|Ohio State||Illinois||Wisconsin||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|Ohio State||Wisconsin||Penn State||Michigan||Penn State|
|Ohio State||Wisconsin||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State|
|Ohio State||Wisconsin||Wisconsin||Ohio State||Wisconsin|
|Penn State||Illinois||Penn State||Michigan||Penn State|
|Penn State||Illinois||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State|
|Penn State||Illinois||Wisconsin||Michigan||Penn State|
|Penn State||Illinois||Wisconsin||Ohio State||Penn State|
|Penn State||Wisconsin||Penn State||Michigan||Penn State|
|Penn State||Wisconsin||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State|
|Penn State||Wisconsin||Wisconsin||Ohio State||Wisconsin|
For Ohio State to win the division, the Buckeyes need to win out and have Wisconsin both lose to Illinois and beat Penn State. If all scenarios above were equally likely, the Buckeyes would have a one-in-16 chance (6.3%), but since the scenario requires a reeling Illinois squad to knock off the Badgers, the chances are probably worse than that. Meanwhile, Penn State could be division champion by early evening tonight if they win and Wisconsin loses. The most likely arrangement, however, is that the division race comes down to the winner of PSU-Wisconsin next week — that is the case in 13 of the 16 scenarios above.
To the extent that Ohio State has a chance, however, it will come down to figuring out how to make one more big play than Penn State today. It will almost have to be a big play, as both defenses hold significant advantages over opposing offenses in this one. Ohio State's defense ranks in the top 20 of most advanced categories, while Penn State ranks in the top 10 in the same. Sustained drives are possible but unlikely; instead, points will likely come from either a single big play on offense, a turnover, or a huge special teams event.
It is difficult to ascertain if either team holds an edge here. Ohio State has gained 20 yards or more in a play 38 times this season (18 runs, 20 passes) while Penn State has allowed 27 of those plays (five runs, 22 passes); the Buckeyes' offense ranks 61st in PPP+, the primary Football Outsiders explosiveness measure, while Penn State's defense ranks third. On the flipside, Penn State has gained 20 yards or more 34 times (eight runs, 26 passes), and Ohio State has allowed 27 such plays (six runs, 21 passes); Penn State ranks 66th in Off. PPP+, and Ohio State ranks 13th in Def. PPP+. A long pass to either Ohio State's Devin Smith (five catches of 20+) or Penn State's Derek Moye (nine) are the most likely big plays (along with perhaps a long run by Ohio State's Braxton Miller or Boom Herron), but nothing is downright likely. Edge: Push.
For the season, Penn State has committed 17 turnovers (10 fumbles lost, seven interceptions) and pulled in 23 (nine fumbles, 14 interceptions). Their plus-six margin is almost identical to Ohio State's plus-five — the Buckeyes have lost 10 (six fumbles, four interceptions) and gained 15 (four fumbles, 11 interceptions). In other words, there is no discernible edge here as well. Penn State is more likely to both force and commit turnovers, but ... Edge: Push.
Here's where Ohio State pulls out a slight advantage. Both teams are capable of breaking a long kickoff return — OSU's Jordan Hall has a 90-yarder this year, while PSU's Chaz Powell has a 95-yard touchdown — and both teams have kickers who have made at least 80 percent of their field goals. Penn State is more likely to boom a touchback on kickoffs, but it has struggled with both blocked punts and letting punts roll into the end zone. Ohio State has the edge in Special Teams F/+ (they're 10th in Special Teams F/+, as compared to Penn State at 66th) primarily because of the field position the Buckeyes generate in the kicking game, and because they are just a little bit more likely to pull off a big play. Edge: Ohio State.
Overall, this is about as even a matchup as you can imagine, despite Penn State's two-game division lead. The official F/+ pick goes to Ohio State by 0.9, but in the end, the game will almost certainly come down to a single big play, maybe two — and it is impossible to predict who will make that play.