COLUMBUS, Ohio — Confetti fell from the ceiling of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as Penn State took the podium to accept its Big Ten Championship Game trophy Saturday night.
About 175 miles back in Columbus, Ohio, the Ohio State football program enjoyed a bye week of sorts.
Make no mistake, the Nittany Lions’ conference title victory only adds to Penn State’s case as a playoff candidate — only there doesn’t appear to be any spots available in college football’s Final 4 heading into the selection show Sunday.
Top-ranked Alabama is a lock, as is ACC champion Clemson (currently ranked No. 3). No. 4 Washington bolstered its resume with a 41-10 crushing of Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night.
That just leaves No. 2 — and the Buckeyes were already in the playoff before this weekend began.
In the moments following Penn State’s victory against Wisconsin in Indianapolis, a mini-debate between the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes’ respective candidacies ignited both on the FOX broadcast and social media. The argument seems simple: Considering Penn State defeated Ohio State this season and now owns the conference title, shouldn’t the Nittany Lions get the nod instead of the Buckeyes as the Big Ten’s playoff representative?
For one, there’s isn’t an official Big Ten representative. The CFP committee is charged with selecting the four best teams, not the four best conference champions. So any argument in favor of Penn State making the playoff based on two games — beating Ohio State in October and beating the Badgers on Saturday night — is likely misplaced.
If Penn State has a case for making the playoff, it come from how the Nittany Lions compare to Washington. Whereas Penn State got off to a 2-2 start to the season, including a Week 2 loss to Pitt, the Huskies benefited from less-aggressive scheduling, facing Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State outside of the conference. Still, it’s worth noting that Penn State ranks 15th nationally in strength of schedule, per TeamRankings.com, while Washington ranks 14th.
Ohio State, meanwhile, compiled its 11-1 record against the nation’s toughest schedule.
That’s why the Buckeyes appeared to be a playoff lock before this weekend ever began.
In order for the committee to even consider factors like Penn State’s conference title and head-to-head victory against Ohio State, it would first half to deem the two teams’ résumés comparable. As of the latest rankings released last Tuesday, committee chair Kirby Hocutt indicated that wasn’t the case.
In fact, the committee has seemed to go out of its way to distance OSU from PSU in recent weeks.
“They are not close in the eyes of the selection committee,” he said on Tuesday.
Could that have changed this weekend? With Ohio State sitting at home while Penn State added a second top-10 win and league title to its résumé? Perhaps. But that doesn’t change the fact the 11-1 Buckeyes compiled a better record than the 11-2 Nittany Lions this season and did so against a tougher schedule. The committee claims it doesn’t set precedents. But punishing Ohio State in a season in which it went 3-1 against top-10 opponents also isn’t the message it wants to send to teams, either.
So it doesn’t matter that Penn State not only beat the Buckeyes but went on to win the Big Ten title as well? According to Hocutt, apparently not.
“Only when the selection committee deems those teams to be comparable, that the margins are razor thin, then do we go to those four measurements that are talked about,” Hocutt said, referencing the committee’s four core tiebreakers.
Those tiebreakers: championships won, head-to-head matchups, record vs. common opponents and strength of schedule. Penn State has the edge in the first two, Ohio State in the latter two. So even if the committee comes back on Sunday and decides the two are in fact comparable, it’s no slam dunk Penn State would wind up with the edge either.
That’s not to say the Nittany Lions don’t have a case. Penn State has won 9 straight games, including 2 against top-10 opponents. It won the toughest conference in college football. And perhaps most importantly, it appears to be a far different team than the one that lost to Michigan 49-10 in September.
“It’s on you now, the committee,” Franklin said while standing on the podium in Lucas Oil Stadium.
And he’s right. It’s now up to the committee to determine the four best teams in college football. After Saturday, it’d still be surprising, but less of a shock if Penn State wound up being one of those teams.
But if it does, it won’t be because of how the Nittany Lions compared to the Buckeyes.
For all intents and purposes, Ohio State punched its playoff ticket a week ago.