Penn State vs. Minnesota has plenty of implications for Big Ten, CFP
MINNEAPOLIS — The college football spotlight this weekend has been aimed at Alabama, where LSU’s visit will mark the first regular-season meeting of the top two teams in the Associated Press poll since those same teams played eight years ago.
There is quite the undercard on the schedule, too. Another matchup of unbeaten teams will be staged — believe it or not — in Minnesota, where No. 5 Penn State visits. No. 13 Minnesota will take part in a game with both sides ranked in the top 15 for the first time in 15 years.
The outcome will have a significant impact on the Big Ten championship chase. The Nittany Lions (8-0, 5-0, No. 4 CFP) are tied with Ohio State for first place in the East Division two weeks ahead of a showdown against the Buckeyes, and the Golden Gophers (8-0, 5-0, No. 17 CFP) have a two-game lead on Iowa and Wisconsin in the West Division with the Hawkeyes and Badgers facing each other Saturday.
The College Football Playoff field will be influenced, too, with Penn State landing in the top four in the first edition of the rankings. True to form for their profession, however, coaches PJ Fleck and James Franklin have taken the one-game-at-a-time mentality to the extreme, insisting on the isolated goal of going 1-0 this week.
“It just takes a lot of stress off you,” Penn State running back Journey Brown said. “You don’t have to worry about the future. You don’t have to worry about what happened before. You focus on what’s coming up.”
The Nittany Lions, whose last national championship was in 1986, have yet to be selected for the four-team playoff. They won the Big Ten title in 2016, though, presenting the Gophers a program to strive for.
“We’re on our way to building that in terms of restoring our tradition from the past to the present,” Fleck said, later adding: “You earned the right for a big game because of what you’ve done. The only way to continue to have that is keep having success in these big games, big moments.”
Minnesota declared a sellout of its 50,850-seat facility, the first capacity crowd in 27 games since the 2015 season finale against Wisconsin (52,850).
Despite his status at a prominent program, Franklin’s name often lands on the speculative lists of candidates for vacancies — real or expected — that emerge with other powers around the country. Florida State became the latest example after the recent firing there. Franklin slyly steered the subject at his news conference this week toward his counterpart and friend, Fleck, who also surfaced as a person of interest for the Seminoles.
“I’ve also heard P.J.’s name mentioned a bunch, so you guys could spend a lot of time calling him and talking to him,” Franklin said.
Fleck signed a contract extension through 2026 about two hours later.
Penn State’s starting front four will be down one as junior defensive tackle Antonio Shelton serves a one-game suspension. He spit at a Michigan State player in the fourth quarter Oct. 26 at Michigan State. He was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and ejected from the game. Sophomore P.J. Mustipher is listed as the starter for this week.
But it might be the other side of the ball where Penn State will need to do its best work.
Minnesota has outscored conference foes 206-72 and posted 28 points or more in all eight games, the first such streak by the Gophers since 1904. Penn State has allowed just 77 points, the second-fewest in the FBS.