Sports

Big Ten holds the key to college football playoff clarity, chaos

Heading into the final weekend of the College Football regular season, there are a number of known facts. Lamar Jackson will win the Heisman Trophy. Alabama will be in the College Football playoff. Charlie Strong will not. However, the biggest unknown remains which four teams will find themselves in the College Football playoff come New Year’s Eve. With one final slate of games to be played, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oklahoma State all still have a chance, albeit an outside one in some cases, of suiting up in either the Peach or Fiesta Bowls, which serve as the CFP Semifinals on December 31.

While terrific, important games will undoubtedly be played in the Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 this weekend, the Big Ten holds the key to the playoff. For the selection committee, all eyes will be on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. when the Penn State Nittany Lions square off against the Wisconsin Badgers.

Last weekend proved a pivotal moment in the race as Ohio State defeated Michigan at the Horseshoe in a double overtime thriller. Their tilt was all but an elimination game; both knew that a loss would almost certainly rule them out of contention for the playoff. However, Ohio State’s victory coupled with Penn State’s triumph over Michigan State later in the afternoon gave the selection committee quite a conundrum. Ohio State, who is currently ranked second, will not be playing in the Big Ten Championship Game this Saturday. The winner of the Big Ten will be either Wisconsin or Penn State, who both have two losses to the Buckeyes’ one. Further complicating matters is the fact that Ohio State knocked off Wisconsin when they met in Madison on October 15, but fell to the Nittany Lions a week later. The question thus becomes: which Big Ten teams will make it, and how many will?

Ohio State already boasts the most impressive resume of any team in the country not named Alabama. The Buckeyes have beaten Wisconsin and Oklahoma (currently #6 and #10 in the CFP) on the road in addition to knocking off #5 Michigan and then-Top 10 Nebraska at home. They have but one loss, in Happy Valley, when a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown with less than five minutes on the clock gave Penn State their biggest victory since the days of Joe Paterno. That loss means they are left out of the Big Ten Championship Game, as Penn State holds the tiebreaker by virtue of its victory.

All season long, the CFP Committee has ranked Ohio State significantly ahead of Penn State. The Buckeyes’ resume speaks for itself, and outside of defeating Urban Meyer’s team, Penn State has not beaten any ranked team. In Week 2, the Nittany Lions also lost to Pittsburgh, a team which has four losses on the year and is unranked. However, they could well beat Wisconsin on Saturday night, which would give them a second win over a Top 10 team and make them a conference champion, something the committee claims to value above all else. If they decide to only take one Big Ten team, would they value Penn State’s conference championship and head-to-head victory over Ohio State, or the Buckeyes’ resume on the whole?

One team consistently forgotten about as people focus on the Big Ten is Wisconsin. The Badgers, who were projected to finish near the bottom half of the conference at the season’s inception, beat LSU, Michigan State and Nebraska while all were ranked in the Top 10. Their losses came to Michigan, where they fell by just a touchdown on the road, and to Ohio State, who came back from a double-digit second half deficit to win an overtime thriller. The Badgers have been highly ranked all season, suggesting the committee quite likes them, and played one of the toughest schedules of any playoff contender. They currently sit sixth in the CFP Rankings, and it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t rise after adding a Big Ten title to their resume. However, the prospect of Wisconsin lifting the Stagg Championship Trophy on Saturday again begs the question of whether or not the committee would put them into the playoff ahead of Ohio State. Given the seasons put together by Alabama, Clemson and Washington, it’s difficult to imagine any of those teams missing out on the playoff if they win the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 titles respectively this weekend, which would limit the Big Ten to just one representative.

However, if Clemson was to fall to Virginia Tech and/or Washington was to fall to Colorado, that could open the door to two or even three Big Ten teams making the playoff. A Clemson or Washington loss all but guarantees that the Big Ten Champion and Ohio State would advance to the playoff, while losses from both Clemson and Washington could mean there’s a way for Michigan to still sneak in. The Wolverines, who lost controversially to Ohio State on Saturday, have two losses and finished third in their division but do have three victories over Top 10 teams in Colorado, Wisconsin and Penn State. The committee clearly still rates them highly, given that they are ranked fifth this week, so it seems remiss to rule them out of the playoff reckoning.

With the Big Ten and the playoff as a whole, there are far more questions than answers right now. However, come Saturday night, the picture should be much clearer, and watching it clear up should be incredibly enjoyable. Here’s to one final weekend of College Football chaos. Bring on the weekend.

December 2, 2016

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