Penn State's 24-21 win over Ohio State on Saturday night was one of the most stunning upsets in recent Big Ten history. But maybe we shouldn't have been totally shocked.
Many people, including yours truly, overlooked what a daunting two-week trial the Buckeyes were facing. They had to navigate back-to-back night games at Camp Randall Stadium and at Beaver Stadium, arguably the two toughest road venues in the league (excluding the Horseshoe). Both Wisconsin and Penn State had bye weeks before playing Ohio State, allowing them to get healthy and install new game-plan wrinkles. The Nittany Lions hadn't looked too formidable earlier this year, but they are always jacked up for a "White Out" game (indeed, in 2014 they nearly beat the eventual national champion Buckeyes before losing in overtime).
It's a testament to the powerhouse Urban Meyer has built in Columbus that a loss in State College appeared unthinkable. No Big Ten team other than Michigan State had beaten the Buckeyes in Meyer's tenure, and his Ohio State teams had never lost a true road game.
Welcome, perhaps, to a different era in the Big Ten. If we're going to praise the conference for its newfound depth -- four league teams are in the top 11 of this week's polls, while Penn State also cracked the top 25 -- then we'll have to be prepared for a few more losses by the top dogs. Especially given the nine-game league schedule.
Guess what? That depth may be the very thing that saves Ohio State's playoff chances. A three-point road loss to a team that's now considered top-25 worthy? That's not much of a black mark on the résumé. The Buckeyes, or whoever wins the conference title, should benefit from the overall strength of the Big Ten, and a one-loss champion still has an excellent chance of making the field.
Compare the Big Ten to the Big 12, which has two undefeated teams -- West Virginia and Baylor -- but zero margin for error. Ohio State may now want to root hard for a team it vanquished easily earlier this year: Oklahoma, which will play the Mountaineers and the Bears. The Buckeyes themselves can't just cruise into the Michigan game. They've got red-hot Northwestern this week, followed by No. 7 Nebraska.
Penn State's win is potentially a good thing for the near- and long-term future of the conference. In the short view, it gives No. 2 Michigan another top-25 win -- catnip for the the selection committee -- on the ledger. The Wolverines' schedule in the first eight weeks was roundly viewed as soft, but now Jim Harbaugh's team can say it has toppled No. 11 Wisconsin, No. 23 Colorado and the No. 24 Nittany Lions, by a 49-10 score in the latter case.
It also must be pointed out that all those games were at home, as Michigan's only road game thus far came at Rutgers. The way Michigan State has utterly collapsed, maybe this week's game in East Lansing won't e that much harder than the trip to Piscataway.
But as the Spartans have reached a nadir under Mark Dantonio, Penn State has helped replace some of that missing juice with a 5-2 record that could get even prettier thanks to a highly manageable remaining schedule. The slew of recruits at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night had to come away impressed, and we may look back on the Ohio State win as the start of a Nittany Lions resurgence. If so, the East Division could soon become even more loaded.
That's what it takes to become a truly great league. The SEC adulation can be grating, but there's a reason it feels like there's a hyped conference matchup almost every week in the South. That conference has been deep for the past decade-plus. Even mighty Alabama has lost a conference game every season since 2010 (though that might change this year, given how scary the Crimson Tide look).
The more good teams the Big Ten can produce, the higher its profile and better its playoff chances will be. It may also create a few more unexpected results, as Ohio State learned the hard way on Saturday night.