Four Games That Could Boost Penn State’s Playoff Odds
Update Nov. 25: Houston took care of Louisville last week, which means Washington State must take care of Washington today in the first ranked Apple Cup matchup since 2001.
With a completion percentage of 71.4, Washington State quarterback Luke Falk will be the difference-maker as the Cougars face a stingy Huskies defense. Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense should give Washington a reasonably stiff test, and Gabe Marks is the cog that helps the machine run for the Cougars with 12 receiving touchdowns and 74 grabs on the year. Washington State is known for its arial attack, but don’t discount Jamal Morrow and this team’s sneaky rushing attack.
No. 5 Washington is likely the final team standing between Penn State and a potential playoff spot (if the Lions advance to the Big Ten Championship game and emerge victorious). We’ll find out what happens at 3:30 p.m.
Penn State is riding high during a magical season that has it on the brink of something very special. If the Lions win out, they’re almost guaranteed a New Year’s Six Bowl. But thanks to a wild weekend that saw Michigan, Clemson, and Washington (then ranked No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 respectively) fall within hours of each other, the Lions are now in play for the College Football Playoff.
It seems simple on the surface — if Michigan loses one more game and Penn State wins out, the Lions win the Big Ten East. There, they’d have a chance to claim the conference title over likely West champion Wisconsin, where they’d present a compelling argument to the selection committee for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, Penn State is owed nothing. The committee could very well opt to put one-loss Louisville — who wouldn’t win the Atlantic division over Clemson, thus eliminating any chance of making it to the ACC Championship Game — in over a two-loss Penn State. It’s easy to say teams like Louisville, Washington, or Wisconsin are a lock to win out, but using that logic, Pitt, Iowa, and USC should’ve all lost last weekend too. Each team has a very losable game left on its schedule, and while it wouldn’t guarantee the Lions anything, it’s certainly feasible to think it’d bolster their odds.
Here are four games all Penn State fans should be keeping their eyes peeled for:
No. 5 Louisville @ Houston: Thursday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m.
This game is monumental for Penn State’s playoff chances even if the Lions could hear their names called without a Louisville loss. The Cardinals sit just outside the bubble at No. 5, but they’ve been giving the committee fits since the initial ranking was released. Part of figuring out the playoff puzzle is determining exactly what Louisville is: a good team bolstered by the best player in college football or a great team capable of giving Alabama a run for its money? We say this because even if Michigan falls and the Lions win their next two games to secure a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, there’s a good chance the committee could still select one-loss Louisville — whose only loss narrowly came at the hands of Clemson — over a Big Ten Champion in Penn State. Would it be entirely fair to select a hype-laden team over a conference champion? Not necessarily. That’s where Houston comes in.
Houston has a great chance to completely derail Louisville’s playoff hopes tomorrow night in a primetime showdown that could be an instant classic. Hopefully you haven’t been sleeping on the Cougars, who at one point rose to No. 6 in the polls after a 5-0 start. But this was no cakewalk 5-0 run; Houston took down consensus playoff contender Oklahoma 33-23 to kick off the year, establishing the Cougars as a legitimate threat. Their own playoff hopes have since ended after losses to Navy and SMU, but Houston can hang around with the best. Penn State needs Tom Hermann’s squad to bring its best tomorrow night. Quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is reportedly good to go meaning the Cougars will have one of the nation’s best players in its arsenal as they try and play the role of spoiler.
No. 4 Clemson vs South Carolina: Saturday, Nov. 26 TBD
South Carolina is a difficult team to figure out. The Gamecocks, at 5-5, are far from a complete football team. Troubling losses to Mississippi State and Georgia helped derail any early title hopes, while narrowly defeating a reasonably bad UMass team should’ve led to more concern, but the team’s been able to muster some positivity. Short on stars — aside from backup freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain, who could develop into the next great South Carolina signal-caller — the team was able to take down Tennessee in Columbia right before Halloween to inspire a glimmer of hope within its fanbase.
Now, Penn State fans need the Gamecocks to further dismantle Clemson’s title hopes and unseat the Tigers from their current playoff throne. Sure, the Gamecocks won’t be within friendly home confines, but the Tigers are not unconquerable in Death Valley. Pitt exposed weaknesses that N.C. State had earlier in the season, where it almost took a knife to Clemson’s playoff chances that would’ve required a serious recovery effort. Had it not been for a missed 28-yard kick at the end of regulation, the Wolfpack might’ve emerged victorious. That game was also played in Death Valley, and showed a side of Clemson fans hadn’t seen in 2016. Clemson is beatable, and I think the Gamecocks have another win left within them.
No. 5 Washington @ No. 23 Washington State: Friday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m.
This year’s Apple Cup means more now than it’s meant in its entire history. This isn’t just a playoff spot we’re talking about — Washington State might have two out of conference losses, but it sits a perfect 7-0 within the Pac-12 and could vie for a New Year’s Six bowl if it holds on to win the conference. Luke Falk and Mike Leach’s high-powered arial attack meets Heisman contending sophomore quarterback Jake Browning and his Washington Huskies in what might be an instant classic. Washington sits two spots ahead of the Lions, and pose a legitimate threat to claim one one of the final playoff spots over the Lions if it wins out. Washington has been labeled one of the top teams in the country after amassing nine consecutive victories to start the year. No. 20 USC played the role of spoiler, and made things very interesting down the stretch.
Washington State is a very good football team, and it’ll be playing at home in Pullman. Falk is one of the country’s best quarterbacks who isn’t talked about as much as he should, and if the Cougars can get past Colorado, all eyes will be on him to see if he can muster another upset. Out of all games listed here, I give the Cougars the best chance of pulling off an upset and shaking up the College Football Playoff picture.
No. 2 Ohio State vs No. 3 Michigan: Saturday, Nov. 26 at Noon
This game needs no introduction; Ohio State must take down the Wolverines. If the Buckeyes succeed and the Lions win their final two games, book those tickets to Indianapolis. Almost everything hinges on this game.