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What needs to happen to keep Ohio State in the playoff

All signs point to the Buckeyes in the playoff, but a Penn State blowout could knock them out.

Ohio State, currently ranked second in the current College Football Playoff rankings, is probably headed to the playoff after conference championship weekend, despite not winning the Big Ten Easts, let alone the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are considered a playoff lock due to the numbers (quality wins and advanced stats) and the committee’s explanations of their selection criteria and the rationale behind their current rankings.

But it’s possible that a blowout win by either Wisconsin or Penn State could tilt the balance in favor of the new Big Ten Champions over Ohio State, assuming Clemson, Washington, and Oklahoma all win as well. A blowout win by either the Badgers or Nittany Lions might give the committee enough evidence that they’re as good as the Buckeyes (and better than Michigan, too).

I don’t think a narrow win will be enough for either team to jump the Buckeyes, and further, I’d argue that only a blowout Penn State win threatens Ohio State — an unlikely Wisconsin blowout still wouldn’t be enough.

Why a Penn State blowout is the worst-case scenario for Ohio State

As Stewart Mandel explains,

He then lists each team’s selling points: A Penn State win would give the Nittany Lions the head-to-head over OSU, a conference championship, a 2-1 record against the top ten, and a 3-2 record against the top 25. Ohio State is 3-1 against the top ten, 4-1 vs. the top 25, lost the head-to-head against Penn State, but has the head-to-head against Wisconsin. A Big Ten champion Wisconsin team would be 1-2 vs. the top ten, and 4-2 vs. the top 25, but would have lost head-to-head against both teams the Badgers would have to jump (Ohio State and Michigan). Penn State would need to jump a Michigan team that beat them by 39 points (which could be problematic) and an Ohio State team that they beat at home by only 3 points.

Ohio State’s worst case scenario for the Big Ten Championship is if Penn State has a huge win (i.e., >17 points or so) because it not only gives the Nittany Lions the conference championship, a head-to-head win over the Buckeyes, and another top-10 win, but also a blowout win over a common opponent (Wisconsin) who the Buckeyes only beat in overtime. That might be enough (though it’d still be unlikely) to convince the committee that Ohio State and Penn State had similar resumes.

Your rooting interests this weekend are:

  1. A loss by either Washington or Clemson (there is almost no scenario where Ohio State is left out if either of these teams lose)
  2. A close Wisconsin win (or a close Penn State win, but that’s definitely less ideal)
  3. Oklahoma over Oklahoma State (a Cowboys win hurts the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule)
  4. An Alabama loss (very unlikely, but this scenario might further decrease the likelihood of conference championships being the defining metric for playoff inclusion. There is no way Alabama gets left out, even without an SEC championship)

So how will the Big Ten Championship play out?

The good news is that this is very likely to be an extremely close game. S&P+ currently gives Wisconsin a 51% chance of winning, and by a .3 point margin (24.5-24.2). F/+ likes Wisconsin by just over a point as well.

With such a close projected margin, turnovers, field position, and taking advantage of scoring opportunities will be all the more important. Here’s the bullet point summary of how the advanced stats suggest the game will go:

  • Wisconsin may have trouble running running on the Nittany Lions’ front seven. At 53rd in overall rushing S&P+, 51st in adjusted line yards, and 111th in opportunity rate, Wisconsin has had trouble consistently running the ball well this season. Penn State has gotten better as their linebackers have gotten healthier, now ranking 18th in rushing S&P+ and 15th in adjusted line yards.
  • That puts a lot of pressure on Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston to have a big day against the 28th ranked S&P+ pass defense. Surprisingly, the Badgers are 12th in passing S&P+ themselves, mostly due to decent efficiency (37th in success rate, just 96th in IsoPPP). The key will be on passing downs: Wisconsin is efficient on passing downs while Penn State’s defense is decently worse on passing downs. But Houston or Hornibrook will likely have some problems with the Penn State pass rush in those situations — they allow sacks on nearly a tenth of passing downs attempts (101), while that’s about the same rate that Penn State gets sacks on passing downs (19th).
  • If you’re looking for an easy, non-advanced stats metric to watch to get a read on this game, just check Wisconsin’s third down conversion percentage (they average 34.7% against ranked teams this year and are 20th overall in third down S&P+).
  • Wisconsin plays excellent field position football (18th and 28th) but struggles to finish drives, averaging just 4.3 points per scoring opportunity (86th). Penn State’s defense is 31st here.
  • The Nittany Lions’ offense has really gotten going since the Ohio State game. Trace McSorley averages over eight yards per attempt as they’re led by extreme explosiveness — 4th overall in passing IsoPPP and 3rd in overall passing S&P+. The Badgers are 9th in passing S&P+ defense. The key will be preventing explosive pass plays, especially on passing downs, where they’re the most explosive in the country.
  • Look for the Badgers to pick up a high number of tackles for loss. They rank 34th in stuff rate, but Penn State is 119th in stuff rate on offense, allowing a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage on almost a quarter of runs.
  • Finally, this game likely won’t be decided until the fourth quarter. Even if Wisconsin enters half time with a lead, Penn State’s offense goes from 57th and 44th in offensive S&P+ in the first half to 4th and 2nd in the second half. Wisconsin’s defense, on average, is good no matter what quarter it is.

All of this adds up to what’s likely to be a very close game. If Penn State can rip off explosive passes, then I doubt Wisconsin will be able to keep up. The Badgers will have to count on converting third downs behind Hornibrook and Houston. Neither run game will be all that efficient.