For the first time this century, the Nittany Lions are the No. 2 in the AP Poll.
To reach that milestone, James Franklin’s squad had to outlast a number of teams that started ahead of it in the preseason poll — College Football Playoff contender Florida State, Rose Bowl winner USC, Big Ten favorite Ohio State, and reigning national champion Clemson.
To reach the top spot, which it hasn’t secured in 20 years, Penn State needs to surpass one more hurdle: the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The easiest way, and possibly the only way, for the Nittany Lions to become the No. 1 ranked team in the nation is for Alabama to lose.
That’s a lot easier said than done when dealing with a team that’s won every regular season game since September 19, 2015 and is facing the most forgiving SEC competition in years.
Through seven games, the Crimson Tide has faced one ranked opponent, Florida State, which is now 2-3 and no longer in the top 25. The next four games on Alabama’s schedule feature just one ranked opponent and three home contests.
The regular season finale, an Iron Bowl rivalry matchup on the road at No. 21 Auburn, might be the toughest game before postseason play.
Alabama’s Remaining Schedule
October 21 | home vs. Tennessee (3-3, 0-3 SEC)
November 4 | home vs. No. 24 LSU (5-2, 2-1 SEC)
November 11 | away at Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 SEC)
November 18 | home vs. Mercer (FCS*)
November 25 | away at No. 21 Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC)
Alabama’s on course to square off with No. 3 Georgia in the SEC Championship game, which would be a challenge for the Crimson Tide, especially on a pseudo-home field for the Bulldogs in Atlanta.
Can The Nittany Lions Jump To No. 1?
It might not take a 13-0 record and hope that the Crimson Tide actually falls for the Nittany Lions to become the nation’s top-ranked team.
Penn State’s upcoming slate is among the most difficult schedules in the nation — hosting No. 19 Michigan this Saturday before heading on the road the next two weekends for clashes with No. 6 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State.
The greatest chance for the Nittany Lions to make their move would come following their matchup with the Buckeyes.
If Penn State were to defeat the Wolverines and then secure its marquee win of the season — a victory away from home against a top 10 team — that would pose an interesting question for AP Poll voters, especially with Alabama on a bye week forfeiting a chance to prove itself.
It works out conveniently enough that the first College Football Playoff ranking will also be released the Tuesday following the Ohio State game.
Last year, Penn State made its point prior to the release of the first CFP ranking with a win over Ohio State that helped it jump eight spots higher than its AP Poll ranking from just two days before. CFP chairman Kirby Hocutt said the selection committee factored in the Nittany Lions’ “quality of wins,” which is a case that could be made once again in Penn State’s favor if it does take down Michigan and Ohio State these next two weeks.
If Penn State were to win those two games and still land at No. 2, it probably isn’t moving up unless Alabama falls in the next few weeks.
The Michigan State game would be another chance for Penn State to prove itself on the road against a top 25 opponent, but the Crimson Tide’s matchup for that week isn’t unimpressive either — a ranked clash with the LSU Tigers. Down the stretch, the Nittany Lions face, well, not the toughest trio of games — Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland.
Regardless of the slates for both teams, this weekend showed us anything can happen in the world of college football. To be fair, it doesn’t really matter whether the Nittany Lions have the ranking during the regular season or not.
If Penn State keeps winning from now through January, it could have more than just a top spot in the poll.