After a chaotic week of college football, including losses by half of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s Top 10, we’re kind of in the same place we started. Clemson still controls its own Playoff destiny. Michigan still controls its own Playoff destiny. Washington is in a stickier situation, but also probably still controls its own destiny if it wins out. Last week, it looked like the Huskies could have been trumped by an 11-1 Alabama or Michigan that didn’t win its division, but those scenarios are pretty much gone by now. Which brings us to the one team that could easily be in the Playoff even without winning its own division.
In its loss to Iowa, Michigan probably did more damage to Ohio State’s Playoff hopes than it did to its own. The team most likely to win the Big Ten East, as of right now, is Penn State. Penn State, in terms of Playoff resumes, really doesn’t have one. The Nittany Lions have two ugly losses — one because it was to a bad team (Pittburgh) and one because it was a blowout (Michigan). Penn State has exactly one win of any note, that being the close victory over Ohio State. If we include a Big Ten Championship Game win over Wisconsin, Penn State would have two ranked wins and only seven wins over teams with winning records, a criteria the committee has mentioned as meaningful this year.
If Ohio State finishes at 11-1, the Buckeyes would have four ranked wins, all over teams in the Top 15 (maybe Nebraska ends up slightly outside of that). Three of those wins would probably be over Top 10 teams. The Buckeyes would only have one loss, a tough road battle against Penn State, and eight wins over teams with winning records. Penn State jumping Ohio State would be very surprising, to say the least. Or, to put it more simply: if the committee doesn’t have Penn State ahead of Ohio State right now, what about adding a Buckeye win over Michigan and a Penn State win over Wisconsin suddenly shifts that balance?
Most importantly, though, is where the Buckeyes will sit in the national mindset. Ohio State is currently a consensus No. 2 in the polls. The Buckeyes, if they don’t lose to Michigan, will stay that way. If Alabama drops a game, we are looking at Ohio State being the No. 1 team in the country. The Buckeyes pass the eye test with the voters and fans. They have an undeniably strong resume. No one expects split champions or a lack of consensus in the Playoff era, but the committee has to know that leaving out a consensus No. 1 or No. 2 team runs an unacceptable risk of that happening. “Undisputed champion” is the name of this experiment in college football. Claims for split titles are what the CFB world has been desperately trying to remove since before the BCS started. I have said since before the CFP started that the committee can’t play around with things that could potentially cause a split title. Leaving out a consensus No. 1 or No. 2 team just runs an unnecessary risk, even if that team isn’t a conference champion.
Only wanting conference champions in the Playoff has always been an unfortunate fallacy. Two years ago, before the selection committee even released its first-ever rankings, I pointed out the major problems with this fallacy. Leaving out a Top 2 team in favor of another team, just because it’s a conference champion, flies in the face of the claim that “every game matters.” This could leave the committee in an awkward position if Louisville becomes a Top 2 team by December 4th. On the one hand, Louisville has the weakest Playoff resume of any contender. On the other hand, leaving out a consensus Top 2 team risks removing the CFP’s credibility in the eyes of college football fans.
Week 11 CFP Implications: Teams Remaining in College Football Playoff Contention
Last week, there were 14 teams remaining in Playoff contention. With three eliminations this week (Minnesota, Texas A&M, and Auburn), we are down to just 11 teams remaining with Playoff hopes. As I’ve mentioned for a while now, the remaining contenders were significantly ahead of the rest of the country. That effectively ended this week when three of the committee’s Top 4 went down this week. The wiggle room is gone for those teams. And it was a big week for our #TeamChaos participants, so West Virginia, Florida, and Louisville have to feel better about their chances than they did a week ago. And I know I haven’t eliminated Western Michigan (and won’t until the Broncos lose), but it doesn’t have a shot at the Playoff this season unless there’s a ton more chaos, and even that won’t be enough.
ACC: Clemson, Louisville
Big 12: Oklahoma, West Virginia
Big Ten: Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Conference USA: None
MAC: Western Michigan
Mountain West: None
SEC: Florida, Alabama
Sun Belt: None
I thought long and hard about “un-eliminating” Penn State. Are the Nittany Lions really in the Playoff chase? Yes and no. As I’ve mentioned throughout the season, insane chaos scenarios could always un-eliminate teams. We could end up with the whole country at 6-6, after all. My standard for elimination has always been that if there is a reasonably not-insane scenario that allows a team into the Playoff, that team won’t be eliminated. Does Penn State have such a scenario?
Right now, the Nittany Lions are the clear No. 4 team in the Big Ten. They have beaten Ohio State for their lone quality win of the season. Without a Big Ten title, that just won’t be anywhere near the Playoff. Penn State earning a Big Ten title would mean that Ohio State beats Michigan, and then Penn State gets a second quality win by beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. The real problem for Penn State is that that is not quite enough. Penn State would have two quality wins (and two losses, one of them not good) to go against Ohio State’s four quality wins. Even if head-to-head overcomes that (and I’m highly skeptical that it would; remember that a much smaller resume disparity in 2014 kept TCU ahead of Baylor), Penn State would still have a Michigan problem. The Wolverines would have a similar resume in terms of losses (one very good one and one bad one), but would also have more quality wins (three as opposed to two) and a head-to-head blowout victory. If the committee respects a three-point home win enough to jump Penn State over Ohio State, then it would take a lot of convoluted logic to not take Michigan over Penn State.
So for Penn State to make the Playoff, it needs Ohio State to beat Michigan. After that, it needs the committee to be willing to put two Big Ten teams in the Playoff. On top of that, it needs the committee to make it, and not a Michigan team that beat it 49-10. That will only happen if Washington or Clemson loses another game. Additionally, 11-1 West Virginia is ahead of Penn State in Playoff pecking order, so Penn State needs the Mountaineers to lose again. A scenario is there for Penn State, but it’s a pretty far-fetched one. I will probably have to un-eliminate the Nittany Lions before the season ends, but I’m not willing to do it yet.
I know that some people also have Utah still alive. I’m nowhere near ready to un-eliminate the Utes yet, though. The win over USC is looking better and they could close with wins over Colorado and Washington. Still, they’re far behind the field. It would take a lot more chaos before Utah comes back in the picture.
Two Big Ten teams in the Playoff?
We are finally at crunch time in the season, and that pesky question that has been on the fringe of conversation all year is finally here. Does any conference have a path to get two teams in the Playoff? Who has the best chance? What would it take for this to happen?
If you saw the list of teams still alive above, you will see that four of the five Power 5 conferences still have two or more teams left alive. Oklahoma and West Virginia play this week, though, and the loser of that game will be eliminated. The SEC has two teams still alive. Even though Florida doesn’t have much of a resume, at all, right now, the Gators will close the season with LSU, Florida State, and Alabama. Win all three of those and we may have to consider two SEC teams (Florida and Alabama) for Playoff spots; but the odds of Florida winning all three are incredibly low. The ACC also has two teams left alive. As I’ve said before, Louisville’s resume is very weak. It’s hard to see the Cardinals earning a Playoff berth without a conference champion unless there is serious chaos across the board, but those scenarios became much more realistic this week.
The one conference that really stands to be in contention to get two teams in is the Big Ten. Ironically enough, the most nerve-wracking scenario for the conference is also the one with the most upside. If Ohio State beats Michigan and Wisconsin beats Penn State in the championship game, it’s hard to imagine that either Wisconsin or Ohio State will be lower than No. 5. This means that we are just one more loss from Washington and West Virginia (or Clemson and Louisville instead of Washington) away from those two being in the Top 4. As mentioned above, seeing 11-1 Ohio State left out in favor of 11-2 Wisconsin or Penn State would be shocking. As long as the Big Ten champion is a better candidate than the Big 12 and Pac-12 champion, the Big Ten is in excellent position to put two teams in. We’re really just one more Washington loss away from that happening.
What to look for in Week 12
This week has major implications throughout the weekend, starting with two important Thursday night games. Louisville/Houston is no longer the major Playoff-deciding game that we once thought it would be, but it is a chance for Louisville’s second-biggest win of the season. A Houston win would take Louisville out of the Playoff picture and would seriously help Navy’s chances of getting the Group of 5 New Years’ 6 slot if Western Michigan and the Mountain West champion both slip up. Also on Thursday night, Troy will take on Arkansas State for the lead in the Sun Belt. Troy enters the game as the Sun Belt’s first-ever ranked team, but Arkansas State has not lost a conference game since November 2014.
Saturday’s two big games are Washington State/Colorado — which will affect the Pac-12 South race and the number of quality opponents that Washington will have on its schedule — and Oklahoma/West Virginia, which is a CFP elimination game and will help determine control of the Big 12. In another Big 12 battle, Oklahoma State visits TCU. A TCU upset win, which is not too unlikely, would remove a potential ranked win from Oklahoma and make West Virginia’s loss look worse.
Nebraska hosts Maryland in a game that the Terrapins need a win for bowl eligibility. Also, there are concerns about Tommy Armstrong’s health. A Nebraska loss here could really hurt the resumes of Ohio State and Wisconsin. The SEC looks like it’s running out of teams to compete in NY6 games — the Florida/LSU game could mean a Sugar Bowl berth for the winner, quite possibly the SEC’s only other NY6 team (after Alabama, of course). Also, keep an eye on the Mountain West, when San Diego State visits Wyoming. The Cowboys already knocked off Boise State in Laramie, and this will be the best chance any MWC team has to beat San Diego State before the conference championship game.