Road to Atlanta: Big Ten crowds playoff picture


This weekly series tracks the College Football Playoff selection process, which will lead to a national semifinal game in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31.

If the College Football Playoff pairings were based on this week’s rankings, the Big Ten would have two of the four teams in the field, while the Pac-12 and Big 12 would be shut out.

And it’s easy to envision a scenario where that remains the case when the playoff is set Dec. 4:

  • Say No. 2 Ohio State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten) defeats Michigan State on Saturday and No. 3 Michigan on Nov. 26. That seemingly would eliminate Michigan from the playoff picture while solidifying a berth for the Buckeyes.
  • Then say another Big Ten East Division team, No. 8 Penn State (8-2, 6-1), wins its two remaining regular-season games against Rutgers and Michigan State. That would put the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten championship game ahead of Ohio State because of their win over the Buckeyes.
  • Then say Penn State beats No. 7 Wisconsin from the West Division for the conference title.

Under that scenario, would the selection committee include Ohio State in the playoff, but exclude a Big Ten champion that beat the Buckeyes?

The remedy to the dilemma could be to select both teams.

“That would be the most difficult question the committee has to deal with,” Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan said this week. “I really believe there’s a good chance the Big Ten gets two teams in the playoff in that case.”

Another case: If Wisconsin were to beat Penn State in the Big Ten title game, the Badgers would have a compelling playoff case as a two-loss conference champ that beat the team that beat Ohio State.

In the playoff’s first two years, no league has put more than one team in the field. But there’s no rule setting such a limit.

“It’s based upon each particular team’s resume,” selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. “The committee has the flexibility if we believe two of the best four teams are from the same conference to make that decision. … However, it’s nothing we have spent any time talking about or anything that’s been on the table in front of us. Obviously, still three weeks left (before the final rankings).”

The Big Ten’s place in the playoff picture is simplified if Michigan (9-1, 6-1) wins its remaining regular-season games against Indiana and Ohio State. In that case, the Wolveries will go to the conference championship game and the Big Ten likely gets one playoff berth.


Clemson slipped to No. 4 in the committee’s rankings, down from No. 2 last week, after losing at home to Pittsburgh. That puts the Tigers in position to play No. 1 Alabama in a semifinal game in the Peach Bowl if both teams hold their current rank through the final two weekends of the regular season and the conference championship games.

“We’d need the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the Georgia Dome to fill the demand for that matchup,” Stokan said.

Based on this week’s rankings, the other semifinal would match No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl. It presumably won’t turn out that way because those teams will sort things out between them next week.

Also based on this week’s rankings — and assuming for the sake of this exercise that they remain unchanged — Stokan pencils in these potential pairings for the other “New Year’s Six” bowls: No. 6 Washington vs. No. 7 Wisconsin in the Rose, No. 5 Louisville vs. No. 8 Penn State in the Orange, No. 9 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Auburn in the Sugar and No. 10 Colorado vs. No. 20 Boise State or No. 21 Western Michigan (representing the “group of five” non-power conferences) in the Cotton.


Games on Saturday involving teams ranked in the top four:

No. 1 Alabama (10-0) at home vs. Chattanooga (8-2), 7 p.m. on ESPN2: Alabama would be favored by more than a touchdown against any team in the country, according to oddsmaker RJ Bell of

No. 2 Ohio State (9-1) at Michigan State (3-7), noon on ESPN: A playoff team last season, Michigan State had lost seven consecutive games before routing Rutgers last week.

No. 3 Michigan (9-1) at home vs. Indiana (5-5), 3:30 p.m. on ESPN: Despite all the permutations in the Big Ten championship race, Michigan still controls its own destiny.

No. 4 Clemson (9-1) at Wake Forest (6-4), 7 p.m. on ESPN: The Tigers need to finish strong to stave off playoff pushes from teams close behind them in the rankings.


Q: In the selection committee’s eyes, what makes Ohio State the highest ranked of the one-loss teams?

A: "We see a very talented team that has three wins over current CFP Top 25 teams," said Hocutt, the committee chairman, referring to the Buckeyes' wins over No. 7 Wisconsin, No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 18 Nebraska. "The selection committee is very impressed with the past two games that we've seen Ohio State play, their performance on the field (in 62-3 wins over Nebraska and Maryland). The only loss that Ohio State has is to a CFP top-10 team, Penn State, so in the committee's eyes Ohio State is deserving of that No. 2 ranking this week."