Big Ten Upsets Promise to Test Playoff Precedents

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For the past five weeks or so — essentially since Washington State beat USC, TCU topped Oklahoma State and Iowa State stunned Oklahoma — the the Pac-12 and Big 12 appeared the Power Five conferences most likely headed for College Football Playoff exclusion.

And, indeed, the path for a representative from either conference remains treacherous, but at least they have company from the Big Ten.

With Penn State losing its second road heartbreaker in as many weeks, this time at Michigan State, and Ohio State’s gobsmacking blowout defeat to Iowa, every team in what might be the most top-heavy division in college football now sports at least two losses.

Precedent from the limited available sample size says two losses equal an automatic disqualification from Playoff contention.

That same limited sample size includes the exclusion of only two Power Five conferences since the Playoff’s inception: the Pac-12 in 2015, and the Big 12 in both 2014 and 2016. So, when contenders from each of those conferences slipped up early, logic dictated history repeating. Add Notre Dame to the mix, particularly at the expense of Pac-12 favorite USC, and a scenario in which both conferences were excluded looked plausible.

But Penn State and Ohio State both losing puts the Big Ten in a perhaps even more tenuous position.

The Big Ten still features an undefeated team, which the Pac-12 and Big 12 cannot claim. However, despite pulling away to rout Indiana on Saturday, unbeaten Wisconsin has not been overly impressive this season. More importantly, the Badgers are 9-0 without a win against the Playoff Top 25.

Contrast that with one-loss Big 12 leaders TCU, which beat Oklahoma State; and Oklahoma, which added today’s win at Oklahoma State to an impressive resume that included a road victory over the Big Ten’s Ohio State.

One of either Oklahoma or TCU will add the other to its portfolio in the final stretch of the season, too. And a similarly loaded back-half could be a boon to the Pac-12.

Washington’s resume is wholly unimpressive through the first two months, but the Huskies see Stanford and Washington State down the stretch, as well as a presumably Top 25-ranked opponent representing the South in a hypothetical Pac-12 Championship Game.

I write this from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum press box, an hour ahead of USC-Arizona, where one of the two will improve its standing by night’s end.

Now, Wisconsin benefits from Iowa beating Ohio State — but how much? Top 25 wins at season’s end is the more important metric than ranking at the time of playing. A Wisconsin win in next week’s rivalry showdown would mark four Hawkeyes loss, and presumably bump them from the ranking…should they make it on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, an undefeated Wisconsin would almost assuredly be an underdog against a two-loss Ohio State or Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game. The prospect of the Big Ten champion again sporting two losses is a very real possibility — and this time, the one-loss alternate would be fresh off a loss to that same two-loss team.

Both the Pac-12 and Big Ten face similar prospects, however. The Big 12’s ridiculous championship game only exacerbates the atmosphere for cannibalization that has denied the conference two Playoff bids in three years. A one-loss regular-season champion losing a rematch just feels like the only logical conclusion with the Big 12 so shamelessly tempting fate.

One Pac-12 division champion is guaranteed to have two losses when it gets to Santa Clara, but that doesn’t mean USC or Arizona couldn’t spoil Washington’s prospects.

All three of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 producing two-loss champions would establish a new precedent for the Playoff committee; but what, exactly?

With Alabama and Georgia rolling through a decidedly down SEC, the scenario Finebaumites and others drunk off It Just Means More Kool-Aid have been crowing for since the Playoff’s inception might come to fruition. Ironic that weakness below its top two teams could be the reason the SEC lands two in the Playoff.

But should the SEC land both Alabama and Georgia in the Playoff, the ACC champion finishes with one loss, and Notre Dame finishes 11-1, the Playoff committee could face the migraine of playing musical chairs for one bid among three conference champions — if not four.

Four? Well, say UCF navigates its way to an American Athletic Conference championship unscathed. A glass ceiling was built between the Group of Five conferences and the Playoff from the system’s conception, with the only conceivable route into the tournament coming via Power Five chaos.

If UCF went undefeated, why shouldn’t it be considered against a bevy of two-loss conference champions?

But should true chaos ensue — we’re talking unprecedented not just for the Playoff era, but for all of modern college football history — a scenario in which Notre Dame beats Miami but loses to Stanford; USC beats Washington to win the Pac-12; a two-loss ACC emerges; and Auburn upsets one of Alabama or Georgia (or both!), all current debates are null-and-void.