Here's how PSU can still make the College Football Playoff
The 2017 Penn State football season was going as smoothly as one could’ve hoped for seven games and three quarters.
Then J.T. Barrett strapped the entire city of Columbus on his back and led his Buckeyes back from a two-possession deficit against the then-No. 2 team in the country.
As one would expect, Ohio State jumped into the coveted top-four at No. 3 in the AP Poll with four games remaining. Although the College Football Playoff Selection Committee won’t announce its first ranking until this evening, the Buckeyes will make the CFP for the second straight year barring any late slip-ups against the inferior opponents remaining on their schedule.
Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions dropped to No. 7 and, more importantly, lost control of their own destiny in terms of competing for a national championship.
But don’t press the panic button just yet.
There are a few scenarios in which the Blue and White jump back into the Playoff picture as the season comes down the homestretch.
First and foremost, of the six teams seated ahead of the Nittany Lions right now, at least two will have losses by the season’s end; No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia will most likely meet in the SEC Championship, and No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin are on track to face off in the Big Ten title game. And if those two games don’t feature all four teams, it means one of them has already lost to a lesser opponent.
Unfortunately for Penn State, the road to the CFP via a Big Ten Championship is unlikely, as Ohio State would have to lose two times for Penn State to sit atop the Big Ten East.
In addition, getting in on merit (like Ohio State did in 2016) is difficult, as Penn State’s only defeat against a Top-25 opponent was its 42-13 stomping of Michigan, who is now unranked. So while in the grand scheme of things a one-point loss at the 'Shoe isn’t a fatal blow to Penn State’s season, it did put the CFP chances on life support.
But it’s not over yet.
Here’s what I believe is the most feasible route for Penn State’s first College Football Playoff berth.
First off, Penn State needs to control what it can control. That means winning out, and winning out decisively. While the remaining four games on the schedule are against obviously lesser teams, the Nittany Lions need to show the Selection Committee they are a top-four team in the country. If that means icing the kicker in the last minute of a blowout (See: Week 3 vs. Georgia State), so be it. But the games need to be won convincingly.
As far as what happens beyond Happy Valley, what happens to Alabama and Georgia is of the least importance because one of the teams would need to lose to someone other than each other to fall far.
In terms of the two Big Ten teams ahead of the them, Nittany Lion fans have to root for a Wisconsin loss – even if that means swallowing their pride and pulling for OSU in the Big Ten Championship. In that case, one would think Penn State’s impressive performances throughout the season could outweigh the Badgers running the table in a horrid Big Ten West.
Then come the Irish.
No. 5 Notre Dame’s remaining schedule is probably the toughest of anyone in the top seven, with games at No. 9 Miami and No. 18 Stanford remaining. Since the Irish already have a loss, dropping one of those games could knock them out of CFP contention.
Finally, the Selection Committee would have to view Penn State as a better team than No. 6 Clemson. It’s not outlandish, as the Tigers had a worse loss (at Syracuse on Oct. 13) and play in a lesser conference.
It will certainly take some luck, but if all that happens, a trip to the College Football Playoff is conceivable for the Nittany Lions.
Before anything else happens, James Franklin has to have his team ready to go in East Lansing on Saturday for the clash with No. 24 Michigan State.