Over the coming days, and perhaps even weeks, we’ll hear ad nauseum the adjectives and superlatives reserved for games like the one we just witnessed between Ohio State and Penn State. An instant classic; remarkable, unbelievable, transfixing, and even heartbreaking. Saturday afternoon’s match-up at the Horseshoe was, of course, all of these things. It was a gripping contest in which every shift in momentum reverberated with force around the wider landscape of college football. Removing one’s eyes from the screen, an impossibility; predicting what might come next, futile. Arguably the biggest choke-job in the BIG TEN history, the 39-38 loss is one that could haunt Penn State for some time. This, after all, was their year, and after taking a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, the Nittany Lions’ destiny was firmly in their hands.
But although Ohio State’s win came in a game that can accurately be conferred the honorific “instant classic”, there’s a different adjective I’d like to employ to describe what we saw yesterday: Illuminating. The knock-down-drag-out in the Horseshoe was by no means the only moment of consequence from that extraordinary cluster of games that began at 3:30pm. Yesterday’s slate, it seems, has left us with a clear Top 4, and just a handful of teams left on the bubble. When it comes to securing one of the remaining three playoff spots (we’ll assume Alabama is in), the ferocity of the competition is such that there are, by my reckoning, only eight teams remaining with a meaningful chance of taking the field for playoff football.
The New Class of the B1G
Of the seven teams capable of playing for a National Championship, only one hails from the BIG TEN. Wisconsin, many observers’ dark-horse for the B1G crown this year, has been in large part underwhelming, if not frustrating. Bearing the softest schedule of the Top 25 (with the obvious exception of Washington, about whom I am refusing to write), the Badgers have done little to convince us they are of the calibre of, say, a Georgia or a Notre Dame. Although Wisconsin’s wins haven’t exactly been close or hotly contested, it’s difficult to identify a signature victory from the team’s relatively anemic schedule. A win against Ohio State could catapult the Badgers into the fourth spot, but that would be far from automatic, or indeed justified. Come Week 14, there could — and likely will — be a string of one-loss teams clutching resumés eclipsing that held by Paul Chryst. Indeed, if an undefeated Wisconsin was denied playoff entry, we ought not to feel pity for the Badgers: the out-of-conference record is simply too weak to justify inclusion alongside the elites of the game who have taken substantial scheduling risks.
Some, however, will suggest that the Penn State’s window is still slightly ajar. They could point to Ohio State’s forthcoming trip to Michigan, and speculate about what loss could mean for the Buckeyes’ chances. Such conjecture is optimistic to the point of delusion, however. This Ohio State team — one of the most talented in the country — is not losing to that Michigan team — one that is currently navigating the border between mediocrity and full-blown crisis. The question then becomes whether Penn State could enter the playoff alongside Ohio State? This is still theoretically possible, but if we look around the country, it seems clear that there is simply too much quality out there to justify including two teams from the BIG TEN conference.
Notre Dame’s path
Following Notre Dame’s win over #14 NC State, the Fighting Irish are now a legitimate Top Four team (something we insisted on last week). With its only loss coming against a Georgia team that could be ranked #1 come Tuesday, Notre Dame should be in possession of one of the four playoff spots — and it will be Notre Dame’s to lose. Brian Kelly’s team have navigated one of, if not the, toughest schedule in college football, and the Fighting Irish still have obstacles ahead. Notre Dame still have to face an underrated Wake Forest, a good but marginally overrated Miami, a competent Navy, and a ranked Stanford. If they can win-out, there is no logical argument for excluding the team from South Bend.
Should Notre Dame win-out, the ACC will likely be the loser. A Conference Championship match-up between Miami and Clemson would be far from the “quarter-final” many of us would have predicted a month ago. Irrespective of what Miami were able to do against Clemson, the Hurricanes could not enter the playoff at the expense of Notre Dame. And if Clemson emerged ACC Champions, Notre Dame would still hold the more impressive resumé. Of course, if Miami can get past Notre Dame in two weeks time (a big ask), the ACC Championship Game could yet prove to be one of the most significant match-ups of the season. However, saving a Miami win, the ACC frontrunners would reliant on all kinds of chaos across the Power Five.
A Graveyard in Ames, Iowa?
Iowa State’s wins over Oklahoma and TCU have made it difficult for any of the BIG 12’s frontrunners to qualify this year. With a trip to Norman still on the slate, TCU now has a long road ahead if it is to win the conference championship — and even if it does, the Horned Frogs don’t have the quality out-of-conference wins necessary to justify inclusion ahead of a raft of other teams in the Top 10. Oklahoma, on the other hand, does. Despite losing to a clearly-formidable Iowa State, the Sooners’ win over Ohio State in Week 2 ought not to be forgotten. If Oklahoma were to win-out, it would raise a number of difficult questions for a Playoff Committee already liable to accusations of anti-BIG 12 bias. If the Sooners were to finish the season with wins against Ohio State, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas, and West Virginia, could they really be denied entry?
Quarter-final in Atlanta? Not this year.
It should come as no surprise to anyone if Georgia is ranked #1 on Tuesday. With a win on the road at Notre Dame, the Bulldogs’ resumé has a slight edge over that held by Alabama. Both the SEC frontrunners still have Auburn to come, but neither should face serious difficulty in overcoming the two-loss Tigers. Should the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs both enter the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 2 undefeated, we should expect to see both teams in the playoff (barring, of course, a one-sided blowout). This will be more a procession than a quarter-final.
In truth, Georgia’s resurgence should really be the primary talking-point of the season: With only four places available, the likely inclusion of two teams from the SEC has created serious problems for the other four conferences, reducing the number of teams that can legitimately considered to be “on the bubble”. Add to that Notre Dame’s possible inclusion, and we are looking at a situation where only two out of the four teams entering the playoff can boast a conference championship.
The Onside View Final Top Four Projection:
3. Notre Dame
4. Ohio State