Breaking Down The Odds: Penn State Football And The College Football Playoff
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this weekend, you’d know the unthinkable happened in college football that’s left the entire playoff picture shaken beyond all recognition.
Penn State eked out a win against Indiana 45-31, but nearly saw its New Year’s Six chances go up in flames. Realistically, the Lions needed a lot to go right in terms of higher-ranked teams slipping in the rankings — but losses of this magnitude rarely come multiple times on the same weekend. The Nittany Lions needed a perfect storm to hit, and they got it.
Pitt downed No. 2 Clemson on a game-winning field goal; No. 3 Michigan fell in the same manner in a hostile environment on the road against Iowa; No. 4 Washington suffered its first loss of the season (and tumbled in the Coaches Poll as a result) to No. 20 USC 26-13. Though No. 5 Louisville and No 6. Ohio State prevailed on Saturday, No. 8 and No. 9 both suffered losses as Texas A&M and Auburn dropped a pair of heartbreakers to likely erase any championship hopes. Such fluctuation at the top hasn’t occurred since 1985 when Jim Harbaugh quarterbacked the Wolverines in a last-second loss to Iowa.
What does this all mean for the Nittany Lions? Well, it means quite a bit. Where any thought of a College Football Playoff run prior to this weekend was dismissed as a pipe dream, it’s a very real possibility following Saturday’s chaotic turn of events. Now, before we explore Penn State’s chances, keep one important thing in mind — the Lions cannot lose. Assuming they cruise past Rutgers and Michigan State to close out the season, they need one important game to fall in their favor. That game is Michigan-Ohio State.
The tides have shifted since Michigan’s 49-10 dismantling of a diminished Penn State team. It seemed as though Michigan would emerge from the regular season unscathed, but last night’s shocker in Iowa changed that. Now both teams sit with one conference loss apiece. Although Michigan holds the tiebreaker of the Lions under current circumstances, if the Wolverines fall to Ohio State, that clinches the Big Ten East for Penn State thanks to its upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State a few weeks ago. Sure, it’s no guarantee that Michigan falls on Nov. 26, but the numbers sit in Penn State’s court. Penn State currently holds the the highest FPI odds of winning the East with a 46 percent chance to Michigan’s 43. Ohio State checks last with an 11 percent chance, while Wisconsin has the West locked up with a 94 percent chance to win if it takes care of business.
Things get very interesting if Michigan tops Ohio State on the final weekend. The Wolverines advance to the Big Ten Championship game to likely face the Badgers, and assuming they claim the title, they’ll be right back into the playoff picture. That’d leave Penn State and Ohio State as the only two-loss teams in in the East, with the Lions holding the tiebreaker over the Buckeyes. Via process of elimination, the Lions would be the best team in the Big Ten not competing for the College Football Playoff. Because the Rose Bowl isn’t a playoff site, Michigan wouldn’t be heading to Pasadena. It’s almost unthinkable that the Lions would have this sort of path to the Rose Bowl or a New Year’s Six bid in general, but that’s the reality of the situation. It’s safe to say Penn State fans everywhere will be rooting for the scarlet and gray going forward.
The path changes if the Lions were to win the Big Ten Championship game if propelled to Indianapolis after a Michigan loss. Penn State would have a compelling case for the committee to consider if claims the conference title. Given the volatility of Washington’s ranking after suffering its first loss, it’d be difficult to see the committee choose a Pac-12 team over a Big Ten champion. Still, it’s no guarantee, but is definitely feasible.
As James Franklin says, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers…