Penn State’s Path To The College Football Playoff
The surprise of the night came at the announcement of 2016’s first College Football Playoff rankings where Penn State was slotted at No. 12.
Without being able to finish better than No. 20 in any of the other major polls, it looked as if Penn State’s shot at a College Football Playoff spot was long gone. But with an impressive “quality of wins” from the Nittany Lions, according to College Football Playoff chairman Kirby Hocutt, Penn State has at least some chance of grabbing one of those four playoff spots.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a major longshot for Penn State to end up in one of the semifinals. But with some help from the teams ahead of them, the Nittany Lions still have an outside chance (read: very,very slim possibility) of maybe facing an Alabama or Clemson with a spot in the National Championship game on the line.
There are many routes for Penn State to get to a top-four spot, but below we set up a scenario that’s likely its best chance at this point to get to the College Football Playoff. The one requirement of any route to the playoff for Penn State is it must win out, which is far from guaranteed with a couple tough tests ahead for the Nittany Lions.
November 8 — No. 11
There isn’t much of a shift in the rankings from the previous week. Penn State moves up one spot because either Nebraska or Ohio State will lose. For the model above, we predicted Ohio State will use its home-field advantage and take down the Huskers. For as good of a win as a Penn State victory over Iowa would be, it’s not a significantly more impressive win than than that of the teams ahead, so Penn State won’t jump any team other than Nebraska.
November 15 — No. 11
There’s always potential for an upset, but we didn’t predict any team ahead of Penn State in the rankings to go down. On the flip side, Penn State plays a .500 Indiana team, so it’s unlikely a win over the Hoosiers will be enough for the Nittany Lions to jump one of the teams ahead of them.
November 22 — No. 9
Some decent upward movement for the Nittany Lions this week. Penn State will have to beat Rutgers and move to 9-2. In theory, the model has Penn State jumping Florida and Louisville. We’re predicting a Florida loss on the road to LSU. The Louisville loss is likely the biggest upset Penn State needs to happen for this to work. The Cardinals travel to Houston for a matchup with the Cougars. Houston has struggled toward the middle of the season, but the 7-2 Cougars did upset Oklahoma earlier in the year and will have home-field advantage against Louisville.
November 29 — No. 5
This is the big jump for the Nittany Lions. A number of teams ahead of them have crucial battles and they will be facing Michigan State at home to reach its first 10-win season since 2009. Lets start with the biggest stretch — Washington State over Washington. Washington State is undefeated currently in PAC-12 play and will be hosting its rivals, so an upset here isn’t all that unlikely. Texas A&M will host LSU, but the Tigers are still a dangerous team and could potentially knock the Aggies out of a playoff spot. Ohio State will host Michigan and if Michigan is still undefeated at this point, the Nittany Lions will need the Wolverines to win for any shot at getting into the playoff. The last team Penn State would jump to get to No. 5 is Auburn, who will travel to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 1 Alabama.
December 4 — No. 4
Penn State isn’t slated to play during conference championship week unless Michigan loses twice, and we predicted the Wolverines to win out. The last team Penn State has to jump to reach a College Football Playoff spot is Wisconsin, who will play in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan if the Badgers win out and Nebraska loses once. If Michigan can replicate its win from earlier in the season against Wisconsin, Penn State would reach the all-important No. 4 spot and make the playoff.