Run for the Roses?: A Comparison of Penn State and Wisconsin

By John Morgan on December 6, 2019 at 10:02 am
Dec 3, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst (left) talks with Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (right) prior to the Big Ten Championship college football game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Championship has yet to be played and the waiting game continues for Penn State. This entire article is based on the assumption Ohio State beats Wisconsin on Saturday, but we wanted to take a look at who will be the Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl. In this scenario, Ohio State is headed to the playoff with only some debate on their ultimate seed. Penn State is 10-2 and Wisconsin would have dropped to 10-3. Both teams have valid arguments, but let’s compare the two.

2019 Penn State Schedule and Results
Opponent Result Score
Idaho W 79-0
Buffalo W 45-13
Pitt W 17-10
@ Maryland W 59-0
Purdue W 35-7
@ Iowa W 17-12
Michigan W 28-21
@ Michigan State W 28-7
@ Minnesota L 31-26
Indiana W 34-27
@ Ohio State L 28-17
Rutgers W 27-6
2109 Wisconsin Badgers Schedule and Results
@ South Florida W 49-10
Central Michigan W 61-0
Michigan W 35-14
Northwestern W 24-15
Kent State W 48-0
Michigan State W 38-0
@ Illinois L 24-23
@ Ohio State L 38-7
Iowa W 24-22
@ Nebraska W 37-21
Purdue W 45-24
@ Minnesota W 38-17

The Badgers are slighted for playing in the easier of the two Big Ten conference, but as you can see, they got a really tough crossover draw this season. Michigan State struggling was a break, but they got both Michigan and Ohio State. Conversely, Penn State had Iowa, Purdue and Minnesota as their crossover games and went 2-1.

Common Opponents

Penn State and Wisconsin had six common opponents this season in which the Nittany Lions went 4-2 and Wisconsin went 5-1. Penn State outscored their opponents 151-106 and the Badgers outscored their opponents 187-114. The biggest factor here is that the difference in the record of common opponents, the Badgers came away with a win where the Nittany Lions did not.

Other Factors

Now that I have boosted Wisconsin’s argument of why they are a more worthy Rose Bowl candidate than Penn State, it’s time to take a breath. Like anything with college football, it’s never apples to apples, so lets go a little more in depth on the other factors the College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl committees will have to consider.


Between the two teams, only Penn State faced a Power Five team in their out of conference schedule. Wisconsin’s three non-conference teams finished a combined 18-18, led by 8-4 Central Michigan, who plays in Saturday's MAC title game. Penn State’s non-conference opponents finished 19-17 so there’s not much a difference on the surface. The lone Power Five game came vs. Pitt. Though the Panthers stumbled down the stretch as only they can, they were a team that featured the 11th ranked defense in the nation. Penn State also beat Buffalo 45-13 and though the Bulls finished 7-5, they beat the Badgers best OOC opponent CMU 43-20.

Strength of Schedule

Wisconsin plays in the Big Ten West, it’s assumed that they have an easy schedule, but as stated above with six common opponents, that’s not the case this season. In many of the rankings, Wisconsin is slightly ahead of Penn State in that category, even without a Power Five non-conference game. Roar Lions Roar has always leaned towards the SP+ rankings, which incorporate strength of schedule and currently the Nittany Lions edge out the Badgers there.

Wisconsin’s schedule was setup favorably with Michigan in September, Ohio State in October followed by a bye before Iowa. They closed with games against Nebraska, Purdue and a rivalry game against Minnesota.

On the other hand, Penn State had a stretch of at Iowa, home against Michigan and at Michigan State in consecutive weeks. After an off week, the Lions faced Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio State. 

Two Losses vs. Three Losses

This is ultimately what it may come down to if Ohio State beats Wisconsin on Saturday night. When you look at everything above, it’s very even and in terms of wins, Wisconsin has an edge with the win over Minnesota. The committee has a history of glossing over losses, preferring to reward quality wins. In this case, however, it may get a little blurry. Wisconsin fans will argue they shouldn’t be penalized for losing to Ohio State again, which is fair. What cannot be explained is Wisconsin’s loss to 6-6 Illinois which has seemingly been swept under the rug. Much like Penn State against Minnesota, the Badgers played a sloppy game and it caught up to them though the difference in opponent is glaring. Regardless, the quality of opponent cannot be disputed.

Now what?

I wrote the unofficial rooting guide for Penn State fans heading into this weekend and what bowl scenarios were alive. A few weeks back, I was convinced that a third loss would kill any hope of Wisconsin getting to the Rose Bowl, but now I have some doubts. It may now fall, on dare I say, the dreaded “eye test". If Ohio State wins convincingly, it may be enough to drop Wisconsin three spots and behind Penn State. That would still not guarantee the “Grandaddy of Them All” for the Nittany Lions, but it stands to reason the rankings will align with the bowl games.

It’s quite the Catch 22 for Penn State fans. If you are set on the Rose Bowl, you would probably want to see all of the favorites win, especially LSU. That could hurt Penn State’s chances at the Cotton or Orange Bowl, but let me explain. If Utah, Oklahoma and LSU win, it erodes Ohio State’s margin for error, and could give the committee the ammunition needed to move LSU to the top spot. Ohio State is going to know the stakes going into their game, and will do whatever they can to try and avoid Clemson in the semifinals. In 2014, Ohio State was on the outside looking in heading into the Big Ten Championship game before posting a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. The rest is history, as the Buckeyes went on to win the National Championship.

Both Penn State and Wisconsin are worthy of a New Years’ Six Bowl, but because the ACC gets a free spot with Virginia (assuming Clemson gets into the playoff), the fallout is drastic. We'll find out just how ti all shakes out on Sunday afternoon.

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