Where Do We Go From Here?
No more hypotheticals. No more “what if” scenarios. The Penn State Nittany Lions just clinched the Big Ten East with a 45-12 decimation of Michigan State. The Lions have a legitimate shot at taking down Wisconsin next weekend in Indianapolis, which begs the question — how possible is a College Football Playoff berth?
Well, thanks to Nate Silver’s scenario generator over at Fivethirtyeight.com, we’re able to pinpoint just how feasible a scenario that involves the Lions earning an elusive bid could be. The Big Ten is arguably the best conference in college football this season — not my words, just based on fact. The title of “Big Ten Champions” look pretty good on a resume, and if the Lions are able to take down the Badgers at Lucas Oil Stadium, they’d provide a compelling case for the selection committee to consider.
There’s just one rather large obstacle standing in the way: Washington.
Statistically speaking, the Huskies are the only remaining team (besides Wisconsin, obviously) separating Penn State from the College Football Playoff. So, let’s talk scenarios.
(Keep in mind I’ve kept all scenarios reflecting a Penn State victory over Wisconsin. It’s pretty obvious the Lions won’t be going to the Playoff if the Badgers win on Saturday. Also, there’s no playoff if Washington wins, either).
Dream Scenario (Based On Washington)
Here we have one of the best outcomes for the Nittany Lions. A few factors play into their favor, and all of them have to do with strength of conference. We’re assuming that Colorado beats Utah, which would clinch its berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Washington. Here’s the thing — the Pac-12 isn’t a good conference. It features six teams below .500 versus four in the Big Ten, and only boasts two teams with one or two total losses (Washington and Colorado) versus four in the Big Ten (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin).
The committee simply would not pick a Pac-12 Champion over a Big Ten Champion. The same rule applies to the Big 12 — a conference that does not have a championship game. So, even if the Sooners fall to Oklahoma State — we’re being optimistic here — the Cowboys wouldn’t boast a strong enough record to entice the committee. It’s interesting to consider that the Cowboys sit where they do only because they lost to Central Michigan in week two on a play Big 12 officials said shouldn’t have happened.
This scenario could occur, but there are more realistic scenarios that still propel Penn State into the group of four Playoff-bound teams.
Dream Scenario (Based On Clemson)
This one’s interesting. Where a Washington loss paired with an Oklahoma loss gives the Lions 60 percent odds, a Clemson loss paired with an Oklahoma victory actually gives Penn State even more favorable odds.
Here we have one of the most realistic playoff scenarios assuming the Lions beat Wisconsin, Washington loses, and all favored teams win their respective games. Again, the strength of conference rule applies here. The selection committee simply would not give any team but a Big Ten Champion the Playoff nod. This notion is laid out pretty clearly here.
Even though this scenario has Oklahoma and Colorado winning each program’s respective conference, the Big Ten shines brighter. Even though this prediction gives the Lions less than 50 percent odds, they’re still the favored team.
There’s plenty that could still happen, but if these scenarios play out — and keep in mind all of which are pretty reasonable — the Lions can punch their ticket to the College Football Playoff. For real.
Anyway, I know how most of us are feeling after wracking our brains with statistics and scenarios.