The Big Ten Championship pitted No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 6 Wisconsin in Indianapolis on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions won an emotional thriller, 38-31, coming back from 21 down.
But will PSU even make the Playoff, let alone rank ahead of Ohio State, which didn’t even win the Big Ten East?
11-1 OSU entered the weekend at No. 2, well ahead of Penn State. If the season ended before the conference title game, the Buckeyes would’ve been in.
While we shouldn’t rule PSU out of the running, especially since it has 11 wins and a conference title against a solid schedule, it’s also clear that something totally unforeseen would have to happen for the Buckeyes to fall out of the top four.
If three spots go to Alabama, Clemson, and Washington, the choice for a fourth spot will come down to the Big Ten. And based on everything we’ve learned about the Playoff committee so far, OSU would be the choice.
The committee can always change things, though. All we can go by is what it’s said and done to this point.
First, let’s look at each of the four things the committee has officially stated it uses as hair-splitters.
It’s had this list of four things on its website for years: “When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered.”
1. Conference titles
Penn State has one. Ohio State does not.
Penn State 1, Ohio State 0
Penn State beat Ohio State.
Penn State 2, Ohio State 0
3. Strength of schedule
Penn State is 2-2 against the current top 25 and 7-2 against bowl teams.
OSU is 3-1 against the top nine and 8-1 against bowl teams.
Those are super basic ways to measure SOS, but they’re ones the committee has cited.
PSU’s schedule improved elsewhere on Saturday, with unranked Temple beating Navy to win the American. But Ohio State’s improved even more, with Oklahoma winning the Big 12.
If you like advanced numbers, ESPN ranks Ohio State 11 spots ahead of PSU in its SOS metric and No. 2 in the country in Strength of Record, which aims to guess how much better a team did against its schedule than an average team would’ve. Sagarin ranks OSU’s schedule nine spots ahead of PSU’s. SRS says OSU had the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team, with Penn State third just within the conference. And so on.
Will the Big Ten Championship improve PSU’s SOS in the advanced metrics? Sure. But as the raw records actually used by the committee show, it won’t change anything enough to overtake OSU’s advantage.
Penn State 2, Ohio State 1
4. Performance against common opponents
PSU went 5-1 against teams OSU’s played. But Ohio State went 6-0 and has a 71-point advantage in scoring margin against common opponents, thanks to a 62-3 beatdown (yes, OSU had two of those) of Maryland and a 49-10 Penn State loss to Michigan.
Penn State 2, Ohio State 2
Penn State can more or less tie OSU in the criteria. But will the criteria even matter?
Tuesday night, committee chairman and Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt told ESPN’s Rece Davis that Ohio State entered the weekend five spots ahead of Penn State because the committee feels the team’s seasons are just not close in overall quality.
Even if the committee sees a reason to change that specific opinion after the Big Ten Championship, PSU’s conference title and head-to-head win still might not be enough to get it past Ohio State. (Plus, if head-to-head were the main thing, PSU would remain behind current No. 5 Michigan, to whom it lost by 39.)
Also, Penn State has by far the two worst losses of any of these three teams, having that huge Michigan loss and losing at current No. 25 Pitt by three. Without one of those, PSU would be win-and-in.
The committee’s self-assigned job is to pick the four “best” teams.
By any full-season metric, OSU is one of them.
Vegas, FPI, FEI, Sagarin, the AP Poll, and the full Massey Composite have said No. 2. S&P+ has said No. 3.
PSU and UW have ranked around where the committee has them entering the weekend.
This all means the Playoff committee’s only two real controversies (ever) could both go in favor of Ohio State.
The 2014 move was defensible at the time, upon comparing OSU’s schedule to Baylor’s or TCU’s, and the Buckeyes backed it up by beating Alabama and Oregon.
The 12 FBS teams Ohio State beat averaged 6.67 victories; Baylor's 10 averaged 5.5 and TCU's 10 averaged 5.4— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) December 7, 2014
Ohio State's 59-0 victory against Wisconsin checks in as the single best game of the year according to the SRS, narrowly edging Bama/A&M.— Football Perspective (@fbgchase) December 7, 2014
The 2015 field was free of controversy.
It just so happens that these two moves would benefit a team with a national following, star players, and a star head coach, making better product for ESPN, a Playoff partner.
It also just so happens that the committee would be following the only rules it’s publicly presented, laid out years before anyone knew a popular team would be in these predicaments.