Around 4:00 p.m. Saturday, all this talk from myself and many others about the different College Football Playoff scenarios that may or may not involve Wisconsin looked like it could be for naught.
The Badgers came out extremely flat against archrival Minnesota, allowing the Gophers to build up a 17-7 halftime lead that left the state of Wisconsin holding its breath.
Luckily for Wisconsin fans, Minnesota imploded, thanks in large part to quarterback Mitch Leidner completing more passes to the Badgers defense (four) than to his own receivers (two) in the second half. Wisconsin escaped Camp Randall Stadium with Paul Bunyan’s Axe still in tow and now looks ahead at a matchup with Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game (just like everyone predicted at the start of the year) with potentially more on the line than just a conference title.
I don’t think anyone would argue the fact that the Nittany Lions are the most favorable draw that the Badgers could’ve hoped for in the championship game. A matchup between Wisconsin and Penn State feels like it’s essentially a coin flip or might slightly favor the Badgers, while UW would have definitely been the underdog against either Michigan or Ohio State. But even though a game against the Nittany Lions may give the Badgers better odds at winning a Big Ten title, their path to a spot in the College Football Playoff became further muddied by Ohio State’s double overtime victory against Michigan.
The Wolverines would have been a tougher matchup for the Badgers in Indianapolis, and yet their path to a playoff berth would’ve been quite clear: beat Michigan and they’re in the top four. Instead, we’re now looking at a possible scenario where Ohio State could be a lock for the College Football Playoff while the Wisconsin-Penn State winner may need some help in order to make it. That might seem odd at first glance and wouldn’t sit well with many UW or PSU fans, but the logic behind it is actually fairly sound.
Ohio State is currently 11-1 and owns wins over Michigan, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, teams ranked No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7, respectively, in the latest AP poll. The Buckeyes’ only loss came to No. 8 Penn State, which, like their wins over the Badgers and the Sooners, came on the road. Granted, for the second straight year, their lone regular-season defeat has resulted in them missing out on the Big Ten Championship game. Nevertheless, that résumé stacks up with any other team in the country.
There seems to be a belief among a lot of people that winning a conference championship is essentially a prerequisite to earning a spot in the College Football Playoff. Or, at the very least, they think conference titles are this huge overriding factor that trumps other things like strength of schedule, non-conference games, head-to-head and overall records. However, there really is no basis to this line of thinking. Conference championships clearly matter, but they aren’t the sole determining factor when evaluating teams.
It’s true that every team included in the first two years of the College Football Playoff had a conference championship to its credit, though that’s hardly a big enough sample size to draw any definitive conclusions on how the CFP committee views the importance of conference titles. The fact of the matter is that the committee has never had to consider a one-loss, non-conference champion with a résumé as strong as Ohio State’s and put it up against a two-loss conference champion.
I’ve seen others pitch this thought experiment: Would Notre Dame, who can’t be a conference champion by virtue of its status as a FBS independent, get left out if it had the exact same résumé as Ohio State? The answer to that is a resounding “hell no.” The job of the committee is to pick the four best teams in the country for the playoff. It’s hard to argue that the Buckeyes aren’t among the four best and don’tt have the résumé to back it up, conference champions or not.
In its official protocol, the committee places emphasis on conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition as factors to consider, with the caveat that they “must be specifically applied as tiebreakers between teams that look similar.”
And this is where the million-dollar question is: Does the committee consider Wisconsin or Penn State to be a team of “similar pedigree” as Ohio State?
As mentioned, the Buckeyes sit at 11-1 and boast perhaps the strongest résumé of any team in the country not named Alabama. They won’t have a conference championship to their name, but is that really enough to keep them out of the playoff? Penn State is a slightly more interesting case given its win against Ohio State. However, it’s hard to make an argument that the Badgers should leapfrog the Buckeyes if they beat the Nittany Lions. Outside of having a Big Ten title, Ohio State has the advantage over Wisconsin in just about every other area of consideration.
Including a non-conference champion would be unprecedented—again, only two years to work off—for the CFP committee. So would including a two-loss conference champion, even if they do come from a conference that’s widely considered to be the best in college football this year.
Perhaps Wisconsin/Penn State and Ohio State both get in over a 12-1 Washington team with a weaker strength of schedule. Maybe they need either the Huskies or Clemson to lose to set up a playoff with two Big Ten teams. And perhaps I’m dead wrong about how much the CFP committee values conference championships and either the Badgers or the Nittany Lions get in over Ohio State.
None of us can say we know for sure what the committee will decide to do if there aren’t any upsets this weekend. All we can say with any degree of certainty is that there will likely be some controversy over which teams get to join eventual national champion Alabama in this year’s College Football Playoff.