Each week in this space, we examine all the things a certain contending team needs to have happen in order for it to make the College Football Playoff. This week, we look at the Penn State Nittany Lions, who suffered their first loss of the season Saturday after a fourth-quarter collapse on the road against Ohio State.
Current situation: Undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country, Penn State had a clear playoff path laid out in front of it — provided it could beat the Buckeyes, that is, in what was the program’s biggest game since the late 1990s. The Nittany Lions scored on the game’s first play and held control for three quarters, but Ohio State kept chipping away at PSU’s lead late, capping off a 19-3 fourth-quarter run with a go-ahead touchdown pass from which Penn State never recovered. Now ranked seventh in the first edition of the CFP committee rankings, the Lions have only a 14 percent chance of making the playoff, according to the FiveThirtyEight model.
What the Lions can do: Because the loss came relatively late in the season, it left Penn State without much time to rebuild its playoff status. Even if the Lions win the rest of their games, our model gives them only a 20 percent chance of making the playoff. One important factor driving that number is a lack of opportunities for another signature win down the season’s final stretch: According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Penn State’s future strength of schedule ranks just 67th in the country — easily the worst among the top 15 teams in the country by FPI. The only ranked team remaining on Penn State’s schedule (assuming it doesn’t go to the Big Ten championship) is Michigan State — and if PSU beats Michigan State, the Spartans will surely lose their ranking, which is currently only No. 24. With this weak slate of remaining games, it will be difficult for the Lions to impress the committee solely with their performance on the field before season’s end.
Even so, here are the most important games left in the regular season for Penn State, based on the biggest difference in winning percentages between our simulations where the Lions make the playoff and ones where they don’t:
Where they need help: As if losing to the Buckeyes wasn’t enough, Penn State fans now need to keep a close eye on every Ohio State game from here out. Because the teams share a division and because OSU now holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over Penn State, Ohio State will need to lose twice in conference play to give PSU a shot at winning the East. That’s not very likely; our model gives Ohio State a 44 percent chance of winning every remaining regular-season game, much less winning at least three of four. But OSU’s best chances to lose will come in its games at Iowa this weekend and at Michigan on Nov. 25, so those are also Penn State’s highest-leverage games left in the season (aside from the Lions’ own matchup against Michigan State on Saturday).
Of course, it’s also possible that the committee could slot in both Penn State and Ohio State come selection day. (In 28 percent of simulations where the Lions make the CFP, the Buckeyes are also in, making OSU Penn State’s fourth-most-likely playoff “companion” behind Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.) But the chance of two Big Ten teams making the playoff is pretty remote; our model gives it an 8.3 percent probability of happening, mainly because it would require some major shakeups elsewhere in the country — most likely losses by Clemson, Washington, Notre Dame and/or one of the Big 12 front-runners — to clear space. And although the most common combination among those multiple-Big Ten-playoff-team universes features Penn State and Ohio State making the playoff together (47 percent of the times that two Big Ten teams make it), our model assigns a 27 percent chance to a scenario where Ohio State and Wisconsin are the Big Ten picks, and the Nittany Lions are left out.1
But maybe that’s also an area where the model doesn’t have enough information yet. If Wisconsin and OSU are on a collision course in the Big Ten championship (and they appear to be), then those Badger-Buckeye universes would mean that the committee selected a conference title-game loser for a playoff spot. That may not be very realistic: In 12 chances over three seasons, only once — Ohio State in 2016 — did the real-life committee pick a team that didn’t win its conference (and those Buckeyes didn’t lose their championship game but rather missed it entirely on a tiebreaker).
That should give Penn State hope that its current odds are being slightly understated by our model — that if they just keep winning and get a little lucky, the Lions could slip in as a second Big Ten playoff bid at the very least. Then again, if college football’s playoff era has proven nothing else, it’s that the committee might do something we’ve never seen before. We’ll see whether that works in Penn State’s favor or not.