Why 3 Big Ten Teams Should Be in the Playoff

By Chris Murphy

With the season coming down its final weeks, it is crunch time for any and all College Football Playoff hopefuls. It is also crunch time for College Football Playoff predictions. Perhaps the question you will hear most over the next two weeks is “who’s in?”, and everyone has an answer along with an explanation.

If you take a survey of all these answers and write them down, you will probably end up with the following list of teams: Alabama, Ohio State, Washington, Clemson, and Penn State/Wisconsin. Of these 6 teams, some will have Penn State, some will have Ohio State, and some will have Wisconsin. But very few will have multiple Big Ten teams, even two seems a little much to have.

Alabama Crimson TideIn a season of big risks and outlandish statements, I’m going to make one myself: Three Big Ten teams deserve to be in the College Football Playoff. Those three teams should be Ohio State, Michigan, and the winner of Penn State/Wisconsin. These three, combined with Alabama, should be the top four come the final Playoff Rankings. Along with this idea, I’m here to try and convince you why this Playoff scenario should be considered.

Let us first consider the most important aspect of getting in: the overall record. Below is a table along with comments about each team’s record.

Team

Record (Conference) Best Win Loss(es)

Note

Alabama

12-0 (8-0) USC 52-6 N/A Championship game pending
Ohio State 11-1 (8-1) Michigan 30-27 @Penn State 24-21
Michigan 10-2 (7-2) Penn State 49-10 @Iowa 14-13, @Ohio State 27-30
Penn State 10-2 (8-1) Ohio State 24-21 @Pitt 42-39, @Michigan 49-10 Championship Game Pending
Wisconsin 10-2 (7-2) LSU 16-14 @Michigan 14-7, Ohio State 27-30 Championship Game Pending
Clemson 11-1 (7-1) @Florida State 37-34 Pitt  43-44 Championship Game Pending
Washington 11-1 (8-1) @WSU 41-17 USC 27-13

Championship Game Pending

From this table, it is clear that Alabama should be in. When you are undefeated in a Power Five Conference (sorry Western Michigan), you have more than earned the right to play in the Playoff. Probably losing to Florida in the SEC Championship won’t change their status unless they get blown out.

So now we are left with a comparison between three Big Ten teams and potential conference champions in the PAC 12 and the ACC. Ohio State is 11-1 and lost to the potential Big Ten champion on a blocked field goal returned for a score. This loss is better than the loss of say Washington or Clemson because

  1. It was on the road, not at home
  2. It is to a team that is playing for the conference championship

According to a study by Dick Chatelain [1], the home team – over the past 10 years in Power Five study – has a 55% chance of winning the game compared to an equal opponent. In those 10 years, only once has the home team been less likely to win the game; this was in 2014 at 49.2%. Also, you have to take into account that this includes all teams in each of the Power Five Conferences; so the numbers of the elite teams are impacted by the performances of teams like Kansas, Rutgers, and Boston College (three of the worst Power Five teams). So we can say that this number increases to around 60%, maybe even higher for the elite teams. The point being, winning at home is something that a playoff team is expected to do; when you don’t win at home, it looks a lot worse than when you lose on the road.

Now is where things get interesting. Many people make the argument that Ohio State deserves to be in the playoff with Alabama. But what about Michigan and Penn State or Wisconsin? Here, we will turn to some of the playoff criteria, established by the committee. According to the college football playoff committee, one of the major criteria for getting in over another team is strength of schedule; who have you played and have you challenged yourself? This point of consideration allows us to turn our attention away from very successful Group of Five schools (again, sorry Western Michigan) and other schools with “cupcake schedules” in favor of a program that has challenged itself. Below are the strengths of schedule for each of the teams.

Team

Strength of Schedule Rank (as of Nov 29)

Alabama

3

Ohio State

1

Michigan

2

Wisconsin

5

Penn State

14

Clemson

9

Washington

17

This table reflects the strength of each conference and how that makes a difference. Currently, the SEC and Big Ten hold the top five spots in toughest strength of schedule. Four of those teams are in line for the playoff, the other is LSU. By strength of schedule, it is clear that Michigan and Wisconsin played a harder season than both Clemson and Washington. Michigan and Wisconsin both has two losses, yes, but both teams to conference foes and three of those four losses came from teams in the playoff hunt (the exception being Michigan’s loss to Iowa). And, in terms of “quality opponents”, Wisconsin has played a whopping four teams ranked in the top ten at the point in which they faced them. Penn State and Michigan each have played two top ten teams. In contrast, Clemson and Washington each have only played one top ten opponent and in each case the game was at home.

There is one other stat that show why Michigan and Wisconsin (or Penn State) belong. Below are two tables [2]; one table is the 2015 defensive rankings and the second table is this year’s defensive rankings.

2015 Playoff Team

Total Scoring Defense Ranking

Clemson

24

Alabama

2

Michigan State

24

Oklahoma

28

2016 Playoff Hopefuls

Total Scoring Defense Ranking

Alabama

1

Michigan

2

Ohio State

4

Wisconsin

3

Penn State

30

Clemson

8

Washington

10

The trend in 2014 pointed more towards offensive teams; three of the top five teams (Oregon, TCU, Baylor) were in the top five in offense but near the bottom in defense. And many people argued the reason Baylor and TCU did not get in was partly because of a lack of defense in favor of unstoppable offense. 2015 began directing us more towards defensive success. The teams in 2015 are all in the top 30 in scoring defense, with champion Alabama having the second best scoring defense in the league. In 2016? The top spots are occupied by Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Penn State is an outlier in this state, which explains why its path to the playoff is much harder. However, to see great defense at work, simply look at the games against Rutgers. While Rutgers was indeed one of the worst teams in the NCAA this year, the Scarlet Knights are still a Power Five team capable of winning football games. Yet Michigan beat them 78-0, Ohio State beat them 58-0, and Penn State beat them 39-0 (Wisconsin did not play them this year). That is no accident; three shutouts by three different defenses shows poor offense yes, but also very impressive defense. And while Clemson and Washington are putting up impressive numbers of their own, make no mistake the defenses of the Big Ten are much better.

How This Scenario Actually Happens

So, I’ve spent a long time talking about the why the Big Ten should make the playoff, but I have not specified how this happens or what each team does. Below I will discuss each Big Ten team’s path to the playoff.

Important to note, like I stated before, there is almost no way all four can get in. This would require Alabama to somehow disappear from existence, and even then they’d probably find a way in the playoff as they are so dominant.

Ohio State: Ohio State did the best it could; it beat Michigan and awaited its Big Ten championship fate. Though it will not play for a championship in the Big Ten, its body of work alone should be enough to make the playoff; they beat their rival and have only one loss. They should be a lock for the playoff.

Michigan: Like Ohio State, they will not play for a Big Ten championship. But unlike Ohio State, they controlled their own destiny and blew it by losing to Ohio State. However their body of work is still impressive and let’s consider for a moment their two losses:

  • They lost to Ohio State in Columbus on a controversial call in double OT
  • They lost in Iowa City to the Hawkeyes by one point on a game winning field goal by the Iowa kicker as time expired

We can’t forget they beat Penn State by 39 points earlier in the year, they beat Wisconsin in a tight battle, and dismantled a Colorado team who is playing for the PAC 12 championship. Michigan’s path is very easy if the following occurs:

  • Penn State and Wisconsin play a very lackluster Big Ten championship, neither team impresses or dominates the other
  • Colorado beats Washington

If these two things happen, it does not matter what Clemson does as Michigan should be in. If not, the committee will have to choose between a conference champion and the best two loss team in the nation.

Wisconsin: Wisconsin took care of business in the Big Ten West and played both Michigan and Ohio State very tough losing by a combined 10 points to the two of them. Should they beat Penn State in the championship and look equal to or better than they have looked, they will make the playoff over one of the other conference champions just because of the Big Ten strength.

Penn State: Penn State has the toughest road by far because of their performance throughout the year. They beat Ohio State, but got rocked by Michigan. And they lost a rivalry game to Pitt. That’s two very tough losses to swallow. They need help, and here is how they get it:

  • Penn State handily beats Wisconsin (i.e, more than ten points)
  • Clemson loses to Virginia Tech, giving them two losses
  • Colorado beats Washington

Then the debate comes down to Colorado vs Penn State, and Penn State will probably win because of the strength of the Big Ten (the Michigan loss becomes null because both lost to Michigan). In this scenario, Michigan and Penn State get in, leaving Colorado out.

And finally, I will discuss the best, and most likely scenarios that the Big Ten faces to get three teams into the playoff:

Best Case Scenario for Big Ten Explanation:

  • One of the two teams (ideally Wisconsin) blows out the other in the championship
  • Colorado beats Washington
  • Virginia Tech beats Clemson

Best Case Scenario for Big Ten Ranking:

  1. Alabama  
  2. Ohio State  
  3. Wisconsin  
  4. Michigan

Most Likely Scenario Explanation:

  • The Big Ten Championship is decided by one score (ideally Wisconsin wins)
  • One of the following things happens
    • Clemson and Washington win, but one of them does not win decisively (in this case a one loss conference champion can be considered worse than a two loss Michigan but it’s a very hard sell unless the team plays bad)
    • One of the two teams lose

Most Likely Scenario Ranking:

  1. Alabama  
  2. Ohio State  
  3. Wisconsin/Penn State  
  4. Michigan

Sources

[1] http://dataomaha.com/bigstory/story/101/sports/college-footballs-greatest-myth?fb_comment_id=1197424553654234_1198193190244037#f18704b6c6b1bae

[2] http://www.cfbstats.com/2016/leader/national/team/defense/split01/category09/sort01.html

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