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Projecting answers to 4 questions about the Big Ten Championship race

Yeah, it’s gonna be Wisconsin vs. the Ohio State-Michigan State winner, but that’s just one part.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There are two ways to look at the Big Ten East race at this point:

  1. Five teams still have a shot at the title! Chaos potential: high!
  2. The winner of Saturday’s Michigan State at Ohio State game won’t clinch the title but will have a better than 95 percent chance of doing so within a couple of weeks.

The latter is a lot less fun but a lot more pertinent. And it’s still more exciting than the state of the Big Ten West race, which is: things could get interesting if Wisconsin loses out ... but there’s a 1 percent chance of Wisconsin losing out.

At this point, there are basically four questions left. Let’s address each one, beginning with the most pressing.

1. First things first: Does Rutgers still have a chance?

Yes! Current S&P+ win projections give Chris Ash’s Scarlet Knights a massive 0.0004 percent chance of winning the Big Ten East. Here’s what would need to happen:

  • Rutgers wins at Penn State, at Indiana, and at home against Michigan State. Easy!
  • Michigan State upsets Ohio State in Columbus, then loses at home to Maryland before biffing in Piscataway. Feasible!
  • Ohio State loses not only to Michigan State, but also to Illinois at home and Michigan on the road. Hey, play like they did in Iowa City, and they might never win again, am I right?

There’s your Rutgers rooting guide. It’s as good as done already.

2. What are the East odds for everybody else?

As things currently stand, here are your odds, based on those same S&P+ win projections:

  1. Ohio State 77.3 percent
  2. Michigan State 21.3 percent
  3. Michigan 0.9 percent
  4. Penn State 0.5 percent
  5. Rutgers 0.0004 percent

That seems like a comfortable spot for Ohio State to be in, but it’s temporary. One game will flip the odds pretty dramatically.

East odds if Ohio State beats Michigan State on Saturday:

  1. Ohio State 98 percent
  2. Michigan 1.2 percent
  3. Michigan State 0.5 percent
  4. Penn State 0.3 percent

East odds if Michigan State beats Ohio State:

  1. Michigan State 94.7 percent
  2. Ohio State 3.9 percent
  3. Penn State 1.2 percent
  4. Michigan 0.2 percent
  5. Rutgers 0.002 percent!

When Penn State’s Saquon Barkley told MSU players, “we’re playing for a [Big Ten East] championship right now,” he was only partially right. The loser was going to be all but eliminated from the race (and as you see, Penn State basically was), but MSU’s win got the Spartans a title shot.

Current odds seem to favor Ohio State, but by about 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, we’ll know most of what we need to know.

3. Who wins in Columbus on Saturday?

On paper, Ohio State. S&P+ gives the Buckeyes a 78 percent chance of winning, with a projected margin of 13.5 points.

S&P+ still really likes Ohio State overall — the upside the Buckeyes have shown in seven wins dwarves that of virtually anybody else, enough to offset one mediocre performance (against Oklahoma) and one miserable one (against Iowa). They still rank second in S&P+ despite their ratings falling quite a bit.

That may seem strange, but realize this: Vegas, which also uses computers, likes the Buckeyes even more. Ohio State is a 15.5-point favorite over the Spartans.

MSU is good, but did need some turnovers luck to get by Michigan and Penn State. Based on national averages for fumble recovery rates and the ratio of interceptions to passes broken up, the Spartans’ expected turnover margin in those two huge wins was plus-zero. In real life, it was plus-seven. The average turnover is worth about five points’ worth of field position lost (by the offense) and gained (by the defense), so this discrepancy was worth around 35 points to the Spartans, who won these games by a combined seven.

(The turnovers god was far less kind to Sparty in a tight win over Minnesota and an overtime loss to Northwestern. I’m pretty sure that’s a trade State was willing to make.)

One thing we can be pretty sure of: the best version of Michigan State will show up in Columbus. The Spartans are 3-3 against Ohio State since 2011. They knocked the Buckeyes out of the national title race in both 2013 and 2015, and they nearly pulled off two other momentous upsets:

  • In 2012, an eventual seven-win MSU fell by just one point, 17-16, to a Buckeye team that finished 12-0.
  • In 2016, Dantonio’s worst squad (one that would finish 3-9) fell by a 17-16 margin to an Ohio State that went 11-2 and reached the Playoff.

Sparty tends to show up against Brutus. And it’s impossible to know Ohio State’s mindset after what might have been the most inept loss of Urban Meyer’s career. On paper, this one’s easy to project. We’ll see what happens in Ohio Stadium.

4. Is the Big Ten getting a team in the Playoff?

In terms of average S&P+, the Big Ten is, by a small margin, the best conference in the country. But because conference quality doesn’t matter quite as much as strict wins and losses, Saturday’s events — Ohio State’s loss to Iowa and Penn State’s loss to Michigan State — greatly reduced the odds that a Big Ten team gets one of the four Playoff bids.

Here are the scenarios in which the Big Ten still gets a team in:

Wisconsin wins out

Yes, the Badgers are currently outside the top four. Yes, they would get in anyway if they win out. There are some scenarios in which that gets a hair less certain, but it would be a travesty if an unbeaten power conference team got eliminated from the national title race without losing.

So what are the odds of Wisconsin winning out? Here are the Badgers’ remaining win probabilities:

  • Iowa (Nov. 11): 77 percent (projected margin: 12.7)
  • Michigan (Nov. 18): 71 percent (9.5)
  • at Minnesota (Nov. 25): 81 percent (15.5)

There’s a 44 percent chance that UW emerges unscathed from that trio. Iowa is No. 35 per S&P+ and has played great football against the best teams on the schedule, and Michigan is up to 21st and has begun to answer some of the questions that plagued the offense as recently as a couple of weeks ago. Minnesota seems be running out of gas.

How would the Badgers fare in the Big Ten title game?

  • Hypothetical Wisconsin vs. Ohio State projection: Ohio State by 3.6 (UW’s win probability: 42 percent)
  • Hypothetical Wisconsin vs. Michigan State projection: Wisconsin by 7.4 (UW’s win probability: 67 percent)

Combining that with the current East title odds above, you end up with Wisconsin having about a 47.5 percent chance of winning the Big Ten title game.

Mash that together with the Badgers’ 44 percent chance of reaching 12-0, and you get a 21 percent chance of getting to 13-0.

Wisconsin gets in at 12-1

In addition to 44 percent odds of finishing 12-0, the Badgers have a 42 percent chance of going 11-1. Let’s say they lose to Michigan but beat Ohio State: a 12-1 Big Ten champ is still going to have a place in this race. At least, if some other things happen. And other things could happen.

  • Per S&P+, No. 3 Notre Dame has only a 25 percent chance of finishing 11-1, thanks to a tough finishing stretch of at Miami, Navy, and at Stanford.
  • The odds are still pretty good that a Big 12 battle royal finishes with a two-loss conference champion.
  • If No. 9 Washington survives Stanford, Utah, and Washington State, the Huskies could still slip up against USC.
  • The highest-ranking current two-loss team, No. 10 Auburn, probably won’t win out.

Plus, the Badgers could get an injury boost of sorts. They are dealing with a drastic number of injury issues at the moment, and if they were to fall to, say, Iowa with their two-deep in tatters but rebound against Michigan and the East champ with better health, the committee would have a case to caveat the loss.

A two-loss East champ gets in

All those things I just mentioned that could break in Wisconsin’s favor? They could break in favor of a two-loss Ohio State or Michigan State, too. (Or, technically, a two-loss Michigan or Penn State.)

Right now, the odds of the Big Ten East champ finishing at 8-1 in conference (and 10-2 overall) are around 56 percent. If either Ohio State (51 percent chance) or Michigan State (12 percent chance) reaches Indianapolis at 10-2, then beats Wisconsin, they could end up at the top of the two-loss pack.

They would be behind a hypothetical Auburn that has beaten Georgia, Alabama, and Georgia again in the SEC title game, but AU’s odds of pulling that off aren’t good.

So really, the biggest threat to the “best two-loss team” claim might be if Ohio State and Oklahoma both finish as two-loss champs. Head-to-head might be a hindrance there.