For the first time since the invention of the College Football Playoff (by that Dr. Pepper vendor, if memory serves correctly), a conference could place two teams in the four-team field that will compete for a national championship.
And that conference is the Big Ten.
There’s plenty of unpredictable November football left to be played, but if everything plays out as expected over the regular season’s final two weeks, the Big Ten looks like it will become the first league to land multiple teams in the Playoff.
How did this happen? After all, in the first two years of the Playoff, all eight spots went to conference champions. Putting multiple teams from the same conference in the same Playoff field would put an end to that admittedly brief trend.
Well, you can thank the Penn State Nittany Lions, who have come out of nowhere and stormed to an 8-2 record with just one loss in conference play, that coming against the one-loss Michigan Wolverines. But that eight-win record includes a victory over one-loss Ohio State, and that is the key to this whole thing.
You see, even if Ohio State wins its final two regular-season games — including a sure-to-be-epic showdown with Michigan in The Game — it won’t be able to claim a Big Ten East Division title or play for a conference championship if Penn State also wins its last two regular-season games. And given that the Nittany Lions’ last two regular-season games come against Rutgers and Michigan State, two teams with a combined 1-13 league record, it’s looking pretty likely that that is the scenario that will play out.
What about Michigan, you ask? Well, yes, the Wolverines would reach the Big Ten title game if they win their last two regular-season games against Indiana and Ohio State. But Michigan is coming off a loss to Iowa, its first of the season, in which it looked dreadful on offense, and reports this week suggest that starting quarterback Wilton Speight has a broken collarbone and could miss significant time. That puts the Wolverines at a serious disadvantage going up against a group of Buckeyes that has won each of its last two games by 62-3 scores and has looked completely deserving of their current No. 2 ranking in the Playoff rankings.
So what does that all mean for the Playoff and the Big Ten filling two of the four spots?
A one-loss Ohio State team — even without a conference championship, or a division championship, for that matter — would almost surely be picked by the selection committee to play for a national title. The Buckeyes’ resume is impeccable, with road wins over two top-10 teams, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, and a blowout win over another ranked team in Nebraska. Add to that an assumed-for-this-discussion win over another top-10 team in Michigan and the fact that the lone loss would be against a top-10 team (and potential Big Ten champion) in Penn State, and you’ve got a resume that cannot be matched.
Assuming that the Badgers avoid disaster and meet the East Division champion in Indianapolis, the top-10 winner of the Big Ten Championship Game, be it Wisconsin or Penn State, would take another spot thanks to that team’s own stellar resume and a championship win in what the committee has established is in its opinion the best conference in America.
So the winner of the Big Ten title game and one-loss Ohio State take two spots, likely splitting up and facing off against SEC champion Alabama and ACC champion Clemson in the Playoff semifinals.
Again, this is all just projection at this point with games still to be played and late-season chaos always ready to strike, much like it did last weekend when the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams in the Playoff rankings all suffered their first defeats of the season.
But if things do end up playing out as expected, expect the Big Ten to be the first conference to send multiple teams to one Playoff.