Neither Penn State nor Wisconsin seem to care, at least right now, what kind of an impact Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game will have on the College Football Playoff.
“I’m just worried about our game. I’m not worried about the playoffs or anything like that,” Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley said on a Monday conference call. “All that other stuff we’ll let play out on its own.”
“We can’t control a committee or the decisions they make,” Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton added. “We’ll just try to focus on the game and playing our best football, and put ourselves in the position to be talked about.”
Of course, that’s all both fan bases, and most of the college football nation, are talking about: can an 11-2 Big Ten champion make the College Football Playoff, and in Penn State’s case specifically, can the Nittany Lions reach the four-team tournament after a 2-2 start?
The answer, in short, is yes. Penn State can reach the College Football Playoff.
But what has to happen for that to become reality? Let’s assess the situation.
Note: All rankings reflect last week’s College Football Playoff rankings.
Penn State’s standing
Before we get into hypotheticals, understanding how the College Football Playoff committee views Penn State is critical.
In last week’s ranking, Penn State came in at No. 7, while Ohio State was No. 2.
After the rankings were released, College Football Playoff committee chair Kirby Hocutt held a teleconference with reporters, reiterating what he said on ESPN’s reveal show: there was little separation between No. 2 and 5 (Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson and Washington), and another discussion about the teams slotted between No. 7 and 10 (Penn State, Oklahoma, Colorado, Oklahoma State).
But ultimately, there was a sizable gap separating those two groups.
When asked specifically in the teleconference about Ohio State and Penn State, he had the following to say: “Does the selection committee see a small margin of separation this week between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State? We do not.”
A key phrase there could be “this week” — Hocutt and the committee can change their mind any given week.
However, Hocutt’s statement had to be a red flag for those making the argument that, if Penn State defeats Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions should get in over Ohio State because of the Nittany Lions’ head-to-head victory on Oct. 22.
The committee clearly valued the Buckeyes higher than the Nittany Lions, and that was before Ohio State defeated No. 3 Michigan.
If Penn State’s head-to-head win over Ohio State was going to decide who goes to the College Football Playoff, you’d think it would have already made that kind of noticeable impact. In other words, why should people think that Penn State’s 24-21 upset is going to put it in over the Buckeyes next week, if the committee valued Ohio State so high with that win already in mind last week?
In my opinion, arguing that Penn State should get in ahead of Ohio State is a lost cause.
The Buckeyes have wins over three teams in the rankings’ recent top-8 (Michigan, Wisconsin, Oklahoma).
They have one loss, and if Alabama lost to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, the Buckeyes might’ve rolled in at No. 1 in Tuesday’s new College Football Playoff rankings.
They’re not going anywhere.
ACC Championship game
So if you assume that Alabama (12-0, facing 8-3 Florida in SEC Championship game) and Ohio State are locks, that leaves two spots up for grabs.
With Michigan losing in a classic to Ohio State, expect the Wolverines to fall to No. 5, while Clemson (No. 4 last week) will likely move up to No. 3.
If Clemson (11-1) beats Virginia Tech (9-3) in the ACC Championship game Saturday, the Tigers should be in no problem.
Clemson’s lone loss is to Pittsburgh on a field goal in the final seconds.
Otherwise, the Tigers have regular-season wins at Auburn, against Louisville, and at Florida State. With a conference championship win over the Hokies, Clemson would have six wins against teams now with eight wins or more.
If Clemson lost to Virginia Tech and Penn State beat Wisconsin handily, the Nittany Lions would have a chance to jump the Tigers. Both teams would share a common defeat (Pitt), while Penn State’s loss at Michigan (Nittany Lions were 18.5-point underdogs) would be viewed as “better” than Clemson’s slip-up against the Hokies (Tigers are 10-point favorites).
But if Clemson takes care of business against Virginia Tech, the Tigers should reach the College Football Playoff without issue.
Pac-12 Championship game
This is the game Penn State fans should be watching closely.
No. 5 Washington, which will likely move up to No. 4 in Tuesday’s rankings, face No. 9 Colorado in the Pac-12 title game on Friday night.
This game presents a few different variables that could affect the Nittany Lions.
If Washington (11-1) defeats Colorado (10-2), it should slide in at No. 4 in the final rankings. The committee classified Washington among those No. 2 to 5 teams last week, and a win against the surging Buffs would only bolster the Huskies’ resume.
Still, an 11-2 Penn State would have a slim chance to jump a 12-1 Washington. The Nittany Lions would have the better wins (No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Wisconsin), and with Washington State and Utah expected to drop out of the new rankings, Washington’s only win to really boast would be over Colorado.
Now, if Washington loses to Colorado, an 11-2 Penn State would have a great shot to leap the Huskies.
But a Washington loss would obviously put Colorado at 11-2.
Would the committee select the Pac-12 champion over the Big Ten champion if both had the same record?
Probably not. The Big Ten has been college football’s best conference this season, so Penn State would likely be valued higher.
Plus, Colorado would have to jump a couple other teams to reach the playoff...
Oklahoma, Michigan looming
No. 8 Oklahoma faces No. 10 Oklahoma State on Saturday for the Big 12 title, and a win for the Sooners would make things interesting.
Oklahoma is obviously ranked behind Penn State and didn’t jump the Nittany Lions after blowing out West Virginia a week ago, so putting them ahead of an 11-2 Big Ten champion would be difficult for the committee to do.
The Wolverines are hanging around, too, at 10-2.
The Nittany Lions’ 49-10 loss in Ann Arbor could hang over their heads, if Washington and/or Clemson lose and the committee is deciding between Penn State and Michigan.
The Wolverines could cause headaches for the Nittany Lions, but I believe the committee would take an 11-2 Big Ten champ over Michigan despite the head-to-head.
Unless it’s going to leap a Pac-12 champion Washington, Penn State will need help to reach the College Football Playoff.
The most likely scenario for the Nittany Lions to get in would be a Husky loss to Colorado.
If Clemson and Washington lose, both Penn State and Michigan could get in, which would be wild for not just one conference, but one division to represent 75 percent of the playoff.
First, Penn State has to beat Wisconsin on Saturday, which won’t be easy. The Badgers are three-point favorites to win the Big Ten Championship.
But if the Nittany Lions are victorious, move to 11-2 with two huge wins, and Colorado or Virginia Tech help them out, it’ll be hard for the College Football Playoff selection committee to deny Penn State.