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Ohio State might be the Big Ten’s best team, but Wisconsin and Penn State have easier paths to an undefeated season

Here are the games most likely to determine the 2017 College Football Playoff.

Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The past five national champions have all ranked in the top four of the S&P+ preseason projections.

Ohio State ranks third in the S&P+ 2017 season projections — but how tough is Ohio State’s schedule relative to other top teams?

To get a sense for that, I decided to look at the Big Ten and College Football Playoff contenders’ toss-up games, which are any in which the Buckeyes have between a 35% and 65% win probability according to the S&P+ win probabilities. According to the S&P+ win projections, neither team should be favored by more than a touchdown with a win probability between 35% and 65%.

This obviously doesn’t determine which teams are necessarily better than the others, but it does give a sense of which are most likely to go undefeated during the regular season.

Recently Bill C. looked at this question and found that Wisconsin might have the easiest path to an undefeated regular season — looking at toss-up games is just another way of answering that same question.

Below are the toss-up games for each contender, along with their expected win percentages. Note: I included near toss-up games from 66-68% too, since there were a fairly high number of those.

Toss-up games

Ohio State Penn State Michigan Wisconsin Alabama Florida State Oklahoma LSU Clemson USC
Ohio State Penn State Michigan Wisconsin Alabama Florida State Oklahoma LSU Clemson USC
Oklahoma (63%) Michigan (59%) Florida (55%) Michigan (53%) Florida State (68%) Alabama (32%) Ohio State (37%) Florida (57%) Auburn (61%) Stanford (63%)
Michigan (58%) Ohio State (34%) Penn State (41%) Clemson (52%) Texas (68%) Auburn (63%) Louisville (54%) Note Dame (61%)
Penn State (66%) Wisconsin (47%) Florida (62%) Oklahoma State (67%) Alabama (22%) Florida State (48%)
Ohio State (42%)

Alabama and Wisconsin have the clearest paths to an undefeated regular season, with each team only playing one toss-up game each -- and that’s if you include Florida State for Alabama (at a 68% win probability). Alabama’s schedule is even better considering that a Week 1 loss to FSU would barely factor in to the Playoff Committee’s decision making by the end of the season. While you could imagine a loss to FSU, LSU and Auburn will both be tough; Alabama’s S&P+ advantage over those teams is pretty drastic based on the preseason projections. Unless the Tide’s new offensive coordinator doesn’t work out, expect more of the same dominance from Alabama this year.

Both Penn State and Wisconsin have roughly 10-2 floors (maybe 9-3), while Michigan faces four toss-up games, including three where they’re not currently favored in the S&P+. Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin are likely all about the same quality-wise, though.

Outside the Big Ten and Alabama, USC probably has the easiest path, with toss-up games against only Stanford and Notre Dame. Oklahoma technically only has one toss-up game against Ohio State, but Oklahoma State and Texas are close enough at 67% and 68% (and they’re both rivalry games) that I decided to include them.

Ohio State actually has a pretty difficult schedule, with rivals Michigan and Penn State, along with Oklahoma at the beginning of the year. Add in probable Big Ten West winner Wisconsin in a potential Big Ten Championship, and there’s no doubt that the Buckeyes will be tested plenty before bowl season.