Big Ten East became beast of college football this season

With four teams ranked inside the College Football Playoff rankings’ top-seven, it’s tough to argue against James Franklin’s thinking.

The Penn State coach sat at the Lucas Oil Stadium podium Friday ahead of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game and lauded the conference this season.

With the Nittany Lions (10-2, 8-1) and Wisconsin (10-2, 7-2) playing for the title while Michigan (10-2) and Ohio State (11-1) sit at home and watch, the conference’s top dogs this year have carried the banner and generated plenty of buzz.

“I’d make the argument right now that the Big Ten, and specifically the Big Ten East, is the best conference in all of college football,” Franklin said. “That’s no disrespect to any conference all across the country. They’re great, but we’ve got a pretty good thing going in our conference.”

Franklin may have a point. The Southeastern Conference, normally college football’s juggernaut, has No. 1 Alabama, but not much outside of the Crimson Tide. The Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12 have a team each in the top-four, but again, not much depth behind it.

We’ll see if an 11-2 Big Ten champion, whether it’s Penn State or Wisconsin, gets into the four-team playoff, which would further demonstrate the widespread respect of the conference this season.

Barkley update

After sustaining a right foot injury that caused him to exit Penn State’s regular-season finale against Michigan State, running back Saquon Barkley will play Saturday night, Franklin confirmed Friday.

The coach, who said Sunday that he was confident Barkley would be ready, also noted during BTN Live’s Tuesday award show that the tailback could’ve returned in last weekend’s matchup with the Spartans.

“He’s been drinking a lot of milk all week and orange juice and vitamin C,” Franklin joked Friday. “We flew in Mr. Miyagi, hit him on the ankle with the hands.”

Franklin followed up with a more serious update, saying he’s not playing any games when it comes to Barkley’s availability.

“Honestly, I know a lot of times coaches get up and say that and it’s a smoke screen,” Franklin said. “But he’s practiced all week long. He looks great.”

Chryst compliments

When asked what he admired about Penn State’s season, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst was straight-forward.

“What I admire about their team this year is I think it’s a team that’s continually gotten better,” Chryst said of the Nittany Lions, who are on an eight-game winning streak. “I think as a coach, one of the things you strive for and hope for and want is that your team is playing its best football at the end of the year. I don’t know. It looks like to me that they are. I think it’s a team that plays really hard. Looks like they’re playing with confidence. Looks like they like playing.”

Franklin, in turn, gave props to the Badgers.

“Got tremendous respect for the University of Wisconsin,” Franklin said. “Got tremendous respect for coach Chryst, a guy that’s got a great reputation, his entire career. Then obviously coach (Barry) Alvarez, the consistency they’ve had there has been remarkable.”

On the recruiting trail

Chryst, in his second season as the Badgers’ head coach, left his post as Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator after the 2011 season to become Pittsburgh’s head coach.

Chryst spent three years at the helm in western Pennsylvania, leading the Panthers to a 19-19 combined record.

In his time there, Chryst came across James Franklin a few times, once at a clinic and a few times in recruiting.

Of course, there were a few recruits the two coaches battled each other on. Chryst said there are a handful of players on Penn State’s roster that he went after as high school prospects.

“I obviously didn’t do a good enough job in recruiting,” Chryst said of those players, “because they didn’t come to Pitt.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9