Let’s assume No. 2 Ohio State beats No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Penn State beats Michigan State. As mentioned earlier, and as underscored by the College Football Playoff committee’s next-to-next-to-last set of rankings, that would clear the way for the Big Ten to fill half the field of four.
If Penn State wins Saturday, Ohio State cannot play for the Big Ten title and would finish 11-1, with victories over Harbaugh, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 8 Oklahoma. Even without a conference championship, that’d be a playoff resume. With its second loss, Michigan would drop from consideration. The Big Ten champ — Penn State or Wisconsin, provided the Badgers don’t stumble over Minnesota on Saturday — would be positioned to claim the second playoff spot, provided …
Washington doesn’t win the Pac-12.
The Big 12 champ — either Oklahoma or No. 10 Oklahoma State; the two meet in Norman on Dec. 3 — will have to jump somebody from the Big Ten to crack the final four. The Cowboys are a fascinating case: Their Sept. 10 loss to Central Michigan came on a final play that, by rule, shouldn’t have happened.
Big 12 lobbyists, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops among them, insist OSU’s record should be viewed as 10-1, not 9-2. Kirby Hocutt said his committee views the Cowboys as 9-2 but is “aware” of what happened in September, which is the double-talk you’d expect from a committee chair, but if that body really considered the Central Michigan game a Pokes win, those Pokes would be higher than No. 10.
The point being: The committee still isn’t crazy about anybody from the Big 12. Oklahoma beat nobody of consequence in non-league play. (On the contrary, it lost by double figures to Houston and Ohio State.) Oklahoma State’s best out-of-conference win was over Pittsburgh, which isn’t ranked. West Virginia’s best non-Big-12 win was over BYU, which is 7-4.
(Aside: Pitt has beaten both Penn State and No. 4 Clemson. It’s not easy to be unranked when you’ve played three top-10 teams and taken down two of them, but that’s what happens when you lose a one-point game to North Carolina, a three-pointer to Virginia Tech and then get routed by Miami.)
Of the three ranked Big 12 teams, none made a major out-of-conference splash. It also hasn’t helped that TCU is 5-4, Texas 5-6 and Baylor 6-4. If we check Jeff Sagarin’s power rankings, we find that the Big 12 in toto ranks behind the SEC West, the Big Ten East, the ACC Coastal (!!!) and both divisions of the Pac-12.
(Also note that the Coastal, which is home to Georgia Tech, ranks ahead of the ACC Atlantic, which is home to Clemson, Louisville and Florida State, and way ahead of the SEC East, which is home to Georgia and which ranks behind every Power Five division and also the American West. Did I mention that I’m picking Tech over Georgia?)
Sorry, I digress. Back to the Pac-12: If our above Big Ten scenarios play out — Ohio State over Michigan, Penn State over Michigan State, Wisconsin over Minnesota — and if Clemson doesn’t lose one of its two remaining games, the only team that keep a second Big Tenner from the CFP is Washington. It’s No. 5. It plays No. 23 Washington State on Friday. Should the Huskies win, they’ll face either No. 9 Colorado or No. 12 USC for the Pac-12 title.
If the Huskies win out, they’ll have victories over four ranked teams. (No. 22 Utah and No. 24 Stanford are U-Dub’s significant wins to date.) If Penn State wins out, it will have victories over Ohio State, Wisconsin and No. 16 Nebraska. If Wisconsin wins out, it will have victories over Penn State and Nebraska. (LSU’s loss to Florida hurts the Badgers; the Tigers are now unranked.)
Given that Washington’s three non-conference wins were over Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, it wouldn’t surprise me if two-loss Penn State jumped the one-loss Huskies on Dec. 4. Two-loss Wisconsin would be a closer call, but the committee — by slotting four Big Ten teams into its top seven — clearly views the Big Ten as the conference with the most good teams. It would be hard to omit that conference’s champ from the playoff, would it not?
And it’s hard to shake the notion that Washington isn’t the Pac-12’s best team. The Huskies lost by 13 points at home to USC 10 days ago. The Trojans, who were 1-3 in September, have won seven in a row with a date at the Coliseum against Notre Dame upcoming. If you take away USC’s third loss, this would be a top 10 team, maybe even top five.
That loss came on a Friday night in Salt Lake City. The Trojans led Utah by 14 points. The Utes’ winning touchdown came with 16 seconds remaining after USC’s Clay Helton chose to punt on fourth-and-3 from the Utah 37. Know how Bill Hancock and his CFP folks like to say, “Every game counts?” Know how we media types sometimes mock that sentiment? Here’s one case where it applies.