Michigan and Ohio State are on a high-stakes collision course, right? One of those teams will represent the Big Ten East Division in the conference title game, right? The Wolverines or Buckeyes — or maybe the Wisconsin Badgers or Nebraska Cornhuskers, if a West Division upset is pulled off in Indy — will secure a berth in the College Football Playoff, right?
To use a popular college-football phrase, not so fast my friend.
Plenty of surprised reactions swept social media Tuesday night when Penn State was revealed as the nation's No. 12 team in the season's first batch of rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee. The 6-2 Nittany Lions have only been ranked in the AP poll for a couple of weeks, and outside of that stunning upset Ohio State, not much national attention has been paid to James Franklin's team.
But the selection committee obviously likes what it's seen of Penn State — it loved the Big Ten in general, ranking five of the conference's teams in the top 12. And a look at the standings and the remaining four weeks of the regular season show that maybe the best could still be yet to come in Happy Valley.
Yes, the Lions actually have a shot at making not only the Big Ten title game but also the Playoff. That would be a party-crashing coming completely out of left field, but it's definitely a possibility.
Penn State currently sits in second place in the Big Ten East Division standings with a 4-1 conference record, and it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with fellow 4-1 team Ohio State because of the win two weeks ago in Happy Valley. Michigan sits at the top of the division with a perfect 5-0 league record. The Wolverines would need to lose twice in the final four regular-season games for the Lions to win the East because Jim Harbaugh's team holds the head-to-head tiebreaker there, having handed James Franklin's team one of its two losses. But the good news for Penn State is that if it wins out and Ohio State wins out — which would mean the Buckeyes handing Michigan a loss in the regular-season finale — the Lions break a tie with the Buckeyes.
Penn State has a mighty favorable schedule the rest of the way: home against three-loss Iowa, at 4-4 Indiana, at Big Ten basement-dwelling Rutgers and home against free-falling Michigan State, which has lost six straight games.
Of course, the way Michigan has been playing, asking the Wolverines to lose twice in four games seems a little unreasonable. Michigan's remaining schedule: home against Maryland, at Iowa, home against Indiana and at Ohio State. The biggest opportunity for a slip-up in those first three games? At Iowa? Home against Indiana? Those don't seem like teams that would give the Wolverines a real run for their money. After all, Michigan currently has the best scoring defense in the country and the third-best scoring offense.
But should that ever-present November college-football magic strike again and Michigan does slip up once in the next three games before a loss at Ohio State, then — if the Lions win out — it would be Penn State representing the East in the Big Ten Championship Game. A win there, and then it's time to compare the resumes.
Penn State's resume isn't bad at all. A win over Ohio State is the signature piece, and there's nothing to complain about when it comes to the loss at Michigan. The hang-up would be either the loss against unranked Pitt — though the Panthers are a three-loss team, their defeats have all come at the hands of ranked teams in No. 18 Oklahoma State, No. 19 Virginia Tech and No. 21 North Carolina — or the lack of a high-quality win past Ohio State. Right now, Penn State's second-best win is against Minnesota, a two-loss team that didn't crack the top 25 on Tuesday. And given how the rest of the schedule looks, it's likely to remain the Lions' second-best win. Can you build a Playoff resume on that?
That is obviously another high hurdle that would need to be cleared. The college-football world seemed to declare the Big 12 out of contention for a Playoff spot after losing a pair of undefeated teams last weekend. Could a two-loss Big Ten champ make the sport's final four? Certainly it could, but let's say for a second that Alabama, Clemson and Washington all manage to win their conference championships with undefeated records. Would a one-loss Big 12 champ get boxed out by a two-loss Big Ten champ? That seems unlikely. And what about one-loss teams without conference titles that would perhaps have better arguments than a two-loss Big Ten champ, particularly one without the preseason pomp and circumstance of Michigan or Ohio State? Heck, one-loss Texas A&M is already ahead of undefeated Washington in the rankings. Could the Aggies stay that way, even if the Huskies end up with a Pac-12 conference title?
The bottom line does appear to be this: Penn State can definitely still win the Big Ten East Division and the Big Ten title game and crash the Playoff. But will it? That's going to require help from not just inside the conference but around the country.
But keep the faith, Lions fans, because this is November in college football, where anything can — and typically does — happen.