The Big Ten placed five teams in the 2015 season’s inaugural College Football Playoff rankings earlier this week, a good showing for the league.
But, really, there are only three teams that are contenders for a spot in the sport’s final four: the undefeated triumvirate of No. 3 Ohio State, No. 7 Michigan State and No. 9 Iowa.
It’s possible the conference could grab multiple spots in the field. And it’s possible the conference could be left out of the field completely. But let’s go with the idea that at least one Big Ten team will have an opportunity to play for a national championship. Which one has the best chance at grabbing a spot?
The Buckeyes, somewhat obviously, seem to have the best chance. They’re already ranked third despite the fact that they haven’t faced much in the way of competition. Their best win came against two-loss Penn State. Their next best win came against ... Northern Illinois? Indiana? And they almost lost those two games.
While the No. 3 ranking might have come as a disappointment to some who thought it should’ve been more like the No. 1 ranking Ohio State has had in the AP poll all year long, it’s actually a pretty good sign. The selection committee ranked the Buckeyes that high despite a weak schedule so far, but games remain against No. 7 Michigan State and No. 17 Michigan. If Ohio State wins those games — the last two regular-season games on the docket — it’s strength of schedule is suddenly fine. Plus those two wins would mean a date in the Big Ten Championship Game, and we all know what a good performance there can do.
Basically, it means the Buckeyes can only go up if they keep winning. Sure, other things could get in the way — like a bunch of current undefeated teams staying undefeated and muddying the top of the rankings — but if Urban Meyer’s team keeps winning, a spot in the Playoff should await.
So who has a better shot between Michigan State and Iowa? That’s a tougher question to answer.
Like Ohio State, if either team finishes undefeated and claims a Big Ten championship, a spot in the Playoff should be a pretty safe bet. Michigan State has one hurdle to climb as opposed to the two Ohio State has. The Spartans already have a road win over Michigan, and should a road win over the Buckeyes get added to their resume, a jump into the top four should follow. If that’s still not enough to impress the committee — and it’s strange to think that it somehow wouldn’t be — a matchup with an undefeated Iowa team in the conference title game would provide another opportunity to do so.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Spartans gear right here]
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have no real more challenges between now and the Big Ten title bout, as they should be heavily favored in their final four games against Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska — teams with a combined 13-20 record. That’s a good thing in that an undefeated finish is more likely, but there are no real chances to impress the committee. An undefeated, Big Ten champion Iowa team would figure to be included in the Playoff, especially with a win against either Ohio State or Michigan State. A one-loss, Big Ten runner-up Iowa team would probably be low on the list of one-loss contenders for a Playoff spot because the schedule just isn’t that strong.
The case with any of these three teams is that finishing with zero losses and winning a conference championship should equal a spot in the Playoff. The more interesting conversation comes when hypotheticals get thrown around. Like what if Iowa is the undefeated Big Ten champ and Michigan State or Ohio State is a one-loss runner-up with two quality wins and one quality conference loss? Or what if Ohio State or Michigan State finishes as an undefeated conference champ and the other has just the one quality loss?
And this is all without mentioning the rest of college football’s Playoff contenders outside the Big Ten. And there are many, making the possibilities practically countless.
The Big Ten, at this stage in the season, seems positioned to be represented in the College Football Playoff. Which team — or teams — will be representing the conference remains to be seen.