STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — So Ohio State just lost its first game of the 2016 season and you want know whether the Buckeyes still control their own destiny in their quest to make the College Football Playoff.
It’s understandable. After all, win the Big Ten and a one-loss Ohio State is all but a lock to make college football’s final four.
But with Ohio State’s 24-21 loss to Penn State on Saturday not only coming within its own conference, but in the Big Ten East division as well, it’s easy to see why some may currently be confused about the current conference title picture.
With the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions each having endured a conference loss and Ohio State possessing the potential to give one to Michigan as well on Nov. 26, a three-way tie for the Big Ten East division looms. In such a scenario, the Buckeyes would likely wind up with the final trump card — it would just come with the help of an unlikely ally.
With Michigan sitting at 7-0 (4-0 in the Big Ten), Ohio State at 6-1 (3-1) and Penn State at 5-2 (3-1), a three-way race for the Big Ten East has taken shape heading into the final five weeks of the 2016 regular season.
With that in mind, take a look at a few of the scenarios that could possibly play out.
Scenario 1: One-loss Ohio State beats unbeaten Michigan, Penn State wins out
The only team left in the Big Ten East that truly controls its own destiny at this point is Michigan. If the Wolverines win out, they’re heading to the Circle City. It’s as simple as that.
But what if the Buckeyes win the rest of their games, including their rivalry matchup with the Wolverines in the final week of the regular season? How would a Penn State team with also just one conference loss and a win over Ohio State factor in to the equation?
As it turns out, Ohio State would hold the tiebreaker.
In the event that three teams in the same division share identical conference records — in this case, 8-1 —according to the Big Ten website, the first tiebreaker for the trio is “the records of the three tied teams will be compared against each other.”
In this hypothetical situation, such tiebreaker would be voided. Michigan already has a win over Penn State, which already has a win over Ohio State, which in this scenario would have a win over Michigan. No one team would have an advantage over the other that the third team wouldn’t also have over them.
So they’d move to the second tiebreaker: “The records of the three tied teams will be compared within their division.” In this scenario, each team’s lone loss would be within the division, so there’d be no advantage here either.
Onto the third tiebreaker: “The records of the three teams will be compared against the next highest placed teams in their division in order of finish (4, 5, 6, and 7).” This also wouldn’t break the tie, as all three teams would be undefeated against the rest of the Big Ten East.
The fourth tiebreaker — “The records of the three teams will be compared against all common conference opponents” — would be more of the same. Each team would be undefeated in this regard with their only losses having come to one another.
Tiebreaker No. 5 is where we’d finally find our decision. “The team with the best overall winning percentage [excluding exempted games] shall be the representative.” This would eliminate Penn State, which with a theoretical 10-2 overall record would possess a lowing winning percentage than both the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
From there, Ohio State’s [hypothetical] head-to-head victory win over Michigan would break what would only be a two-team tie. The Buckeyes would be heading to Indy, with a potential playoff spot on the line.
Simple enough for Ohio State, right?
Scenario 2: Penn State wins out, one-loss Ohio State beats one-loss Michigan
What happens if Michigan suffers a loss between now and Nov. 26 and both the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes win out from here?
Ohio State would be in trouble.
In this hypothetical scenario, Ohio State would be 11-1 with an 8-1 Big Ten record, Penn State would be 10-2 with an 8-1 Big Ten record and Michigan would be 10-2 with a 7-2 Big Ten record.
With conference records deciding the division winner, the Wolverines would be on the outside looking in on a tie between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions — a tie the Nittany Lions would ultimately win, thanks to the two teams’ head-to-head matchup on Saturday.
You might not be saying “Go Blue” just yet if you’re an Ohio State fan, but you might want to get used to at least thinking it.
Other potential Big Ten tiebreaker scenarios
Barring anything crazy happening — which I wouldn’t rule out with five weeks left in the regular season — everything else in the Big Ten East would be pretty self-explanatory.
If Penn State suffers another loss — the rest of its schedule includes games at Purdue, against Iowa, at Indiana, at Rutgers and against Michigan State — then Ohio State and Michigan would play for the Big Ten East title, assuming both teams continue to win out between now and then
If Ohio State suffers another loss between now and Nov. 26, it would need Michigan to also suffer a loss before then, as well as Penn State, in which case, the earlier divisional tiebreakers could come into play with the three-way tie.
Like I said, a lot can change in the next five weeks.
But for now, if you’re wondering whether the Buckeyes control their path to Indianapolis, the answer for now is ‘yes’ — just so long as an unlikely ally in Ann Arbor keeps on winning.