STATE COLLEGE — Penn State made its College Football Playoff rankings debut this season in a big way as the Nittany Lions checked in at No. 4 in the first rankings of the year.
It is the first time Penn State has been in the top four of the rankings since the College Football Playoff began in 2014. Penn State ended the season ranked fifth in 2016 — the year it won the Big Ten title — and went to the Rose Bowl that season. The rankings were released Tuesday night on ESPN.
Big Ten member Ohio State (8-0) topped the list at No. 1, while the SEC’s Alabama (8-0) and LSU (8-0) followed. Defending national champion Clemson (9-0), an ACC member, is No. 5.
“We had a lengthy discussion about Penn State and Clemson, two really, really good teams, both strong defensively,” College Football Playoff selection committee chair Rob Mullens said during a teleconference Tuesday night. “In the end, what it came down to — and again, much debate — Penn State has marquee wins against 14th-ranked Michigan and a road win at 18th-ranked Iowa. In addition, they have a non-conference win over Pitt, which is a pretty good win at this point.”
The final College Football Playoff rankings will be released on Dec. 8. The top four teams will be rewarded a berth in the College Football Playoff Semifinals (the Peach and Fiesta bowls). Those winners will play in the College Football Playoff National Championship on January 13, 2020, in New Orleans.
Penn State’s eight opponents this season have a combined record of 38-32, and three are bowl eligible. Mullens said strength of schedule weighed in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
“Penn State is No. 4 because of its strong play, which includes wins over Michigan and Iowa,” he said. “Penn State’s strength of schedule gave it an edge over an impressive Clemson, which we ranked No. 5.”
While Penn State’s position in the rankings elicited widespread praise from fans on social media, coach James Franklin reinforced his focus this week as his team prepares for its contest at Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are ranked No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota, Minnesota!!!!!!!,” Franklin tweeted just minutes after the College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled.
Franklin’s Tuesday’s night tweet was consistent with his message earlier in the day when he was asked if he felt the desire or the need to promote Penn State football ahead of the College Football Playoff committee’s first rankings.
“We are completely focused on Minnesota,” Franklin said. “Preseason rankings mean nothing. Middle-of-the-season rankings mean nothing. At the end of the season, people will count up where we’re at and where they have us and tell us where we’re going to go, and we’ll be excited about going there.”
Franklin said he didn’t watch Tuesday’s rankings show. Instead, he had just finished watching film in his office that evening when an “explosion of noise” caught him off guard. Penn State’s football managers were washing uniforms nearby and heartily voiced their approval upon learning the Nittany Lions’ initial ranking.
“I didn’t even know — I’m not saying I didn’t know the show was on, but I wasn’t watching it and didn’t know what happened at the time,” Franklin said Wednesday. “If the players watch it, great. That’s fine. But again, we’re focused on Minnesota, and trying to find a way to be 1-0. And any energy we spend on other things takes away from that.”
Penn State punter Blake Gillikin said while Penn State players are aware of the team’s national profile, they try to shield themselves from the buzz. For Gillikin and his teammates, the only numbers that matter are the ones on the scoreboard at the end of each game.
“It goes back to our 1-0 mantra every single week,” Gillikin said. “It’s great to be ranked No. 4 and to have that kind of respect on the national scale, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t win this week and don’t keep winning. That’s what it comes down to. If we don’t win this week, then that No. 4 ranking doesn’t matter at all.”