Jim Harbaugh may have the best Michigan team in a generation, but the Wolverines will not finish the 2016 season undefeated. After falling from the ranks of the unbeaten on a field goal as time expired in Iowa, Michigan will now look to try to rebound from the loss next week against a plucky Indiana team.
Speaking of the Hoosiers, Kevin Wilson and co. were again unable to find their signature win, coming up short against Penn State, 45-31. In doing so, coupled with Michigan’s loss, Ohio State finds themselves in a somewhat precarious situation.
Despite continuing to shake off a midseason funk that saw them blow a should’ve-won game at Penn State, Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes no longer control their Big Ten destiny. If Ohio State wins out and Penn State wins out – the Nittany Lions travel to Rutgers then finish the season hosting Michigan State — James Franklin and the Nittany Lions (and not OSU) would be the Big Ten East Division champions.
This is certainly less than ideal for Ohio State’s playoff aspirations. No non-conference champion has ever made the College Football Playoff in all two years of its existence.
On the other hand, if Ohio State doesn’t handle their business against Michigan State and Michigan in each of the next two weeks, what difference does any of it make?
Assuming that the Buckeyes’ momentum continues the way it’s been going the last two weeks and Michigan’s exposed some sort of flaw in the Death Star during their loss to Iowa, here’s what we need to be mindful of as we continue forward towards the college football regular season’s climax:
Penn State losing would make everything easier for everyone
It doesn’t even have to be at Rutgers and/or versus Michigan State. Wisconsin, currently in cruise control in the Big Ten West — the Badgers have just a road trip to Purdue and a date with Minnesota to go — is more than capable of beating PSU on a neutral field.
While an 11-2 Badgers team with a win over LSU would be impressive in its own right, it seems pretty unlikely the College Football Playoff selection committee would so rigidly cling to a but two-year old tradition that they’d put Wisconsin in over an ostensibly 11-1 team that already beat them.
If anything, both teams could get in with enough chaos.
It’s almost impossible to claim to know definitively how the committee would handle an 11-2 Penn State against an 11-1 Ohio State
Precedent remains a bit of a bad word here. The College Football Playoff selection committee has never done a lot of things until they do. The committee could very conceivably take a more impressive total body of work of a one-loss team non-conference champion over a two-loss champion who beat them heads up.
Is this that edge case? It’s tough to say.
Based on all the talking points we heard from former committee chair Jeff Long, conference championships when all other things are equal are huge. But Long’s two years on the committee have come and gone. And how equal those other things are remains paramount in this particular case.
Alabama seems like a mortal lock. But who else are fighting for the other 3 playoff spots?
As mentioned re: the Wisconsin-Big-Ten-champs scenario, it’s not out of the question that two Big Ten teams could get in.
In terms of the field’s current potential makeup, Alabama is a virtual lock. After their de facto bye week against FCS Chattanooga, ‘Bama could lose any game between now and the committee’s final picks and still probably be in.
Even with an upset loss to Pitt earlier today, Clemson just needs to beat Wake Forest next Saturday to clinch a berth in the ACC title game. A loss would send one-loss Louisville to Orlando, where they would likely face Virginia Tech, who is in pole position in the coastal division.
Washington remains the lone other potential one-loss conference champion, though after losing their first to USC at home Saturday while feeling the impact of a string of bad injury luck, it remains to be seen if they can stay healthy enough to win out. UW still has a game against Arizona State, a road trip to face rivals Washington State, and a possible Pac-12 championship game yet to come.
If the Pac-12 winds up functionally eliminating itself from consideration, you could see one-loss Louisville under consideration against a one-loss Ohio State, two-loss Big Ten champ Penn State, and perhaps even two-loss Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
Numbers never lie?
Nate Silver’s statistical analysis vertical FiveThirtyEight took its fair share of lumps for joining everyone else in missing predicting this most recent presidential election, but it did have one model that was closer than just about all of its peers.
The site also missed correctly projecting the Cubs to end a hundred and eight years of futility en route to a World Series title at the start of the baseball playoffs. So while your mileage may vary, here’s how their calculations have the College Football Playoff potentially shaking out:
The math would seem to point towards a final four of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington with Louisville, Penn State, and Oklahoma just on the outside looking in.
The human element makes predicting voter behavior challenging at best, and with the prospects of an Ohio State-vs-Wisconsin-2014-title-game like performance from any of the contenders, projections can only go so far until we have complete data.
So just how nervous as an Ohio State fan should I be that the Buckeyes will win out yet somehow be left out in the cold?
You should recognize that the possibility exists, but you should also not listen to any Chicken Little reporters or bloggers whose lack of imagination has them inclined to think you should spend the next three weeks praying for a rigorous parlay of losses.
FiveThirtyEight’s “80%” seems Pollyannaish, but saying Ohio State fans should feel about 60, 65% confident about their playoff chances should the Buckeyes win out regardless of everything else doesn’t seem wrong.
If everything comes to pass—Ohio State beats Michigan again, but Penn State does enough reputation restoration to somehow keep the Buckeyes out of the playoff—OSU has no one to blame but themselves. At the very least, Ohio State faithful will be able to take pleasure in Jim Harbaugh having never finished better than third in his own division in two years at the helm at his alma mater. And a win over Michigan would be a pretty decent consolation prize when everything’s said and done.