Alright, here we are. The college football season has come to an end, and what a thrilling year it has been. Upsets literally all over the place (I’m looking at you, Kentucky). Honestly, in a pretty disappointing year for the NFL, college football has more than made up for it. Per usual, the annual controversy surrounding the College Football Playoff has picked up momentum. Who’s in? Who’s out? In particular, the Big-10 is presenting some major problems to those like me trying to predict the lucky 4 who get bids to the CFP. Let’s take a look at the four teams with a shot from arguably the best conference in college football this year.
Ohio State (Big-10): 11-1 (8-1), SOS (26), FPI (2), no remaining games
Synopsis: Pretty controversial win for the Buckeyes last week over Michigan, but you’ve got to give them credit for playing gritty and making the most of turnovers. The win caps off another double-digit win season for Ohio State, who hopes the committee can reconcile a tough loss to Penn State with big wins vs. Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as a non-conference beatdown of the Oklahoma Sooners. JT Barrett might not be the best passer, or even a good passer, but he more than makes up for it with his legs and he protects the football. Urban Meyer’s top-5 defense doesn’t get a ton of sacks, but they turn the ball over a lot and don’t allow many points (14.2/game).
Key Player: Curtis Samuel RB/WR – People point to JT Barrett on offense, but do-it-all Curtis Samuel is the underrated key to the Buckeyes high-powered attack. Samuel has over 1,500 yards of total offense and 15 scores, averaging 7.7 YPC while catching over twice as many passes as any other Buckeye receiver. His versatility causes real matchup problems for any defense (see below).
Penn State (Big-10): 10-2 (8-1), SOS (50), FPI (14), vs. 6 Wisconsin
Synopsis: Is Penn State the real deal? That’s the question everyone’s asking when looking at the CFP picture. A shocking 4th quarter comeback against Ohio State thrust the Nittany Lions to the front and center of CFP controversy. They enter the Big-10 Championship Game on an eight game winning streak, although Iowa is the only ranked team they’ve beaten during that stretch. Early season losses to Michigan and Pittsburgh hurt their resume, but both Pitt and Michigan are good teams. By no means an offensive machine, the Nittany Lions rely on a top-20 defense and a solid run game to grind out tough wins against top teams.
Key Player: Saquon Barkley RB – Barkley is the Nittany Lion offense. The physical tailback averages over 100 rushing yards/game and has found the endzone a total of 17 times. However, Barkley has been wildly inconsistent all year (8 games under 100 rush yards), including being held to under 100 yards in each of his last 3 games. He’s a little banged up, and Penn State will need him at full strength if they hope to crack the top-4.
Michigan (Big-10): 10-2 (7-2), SOS (52), FPI (3), no remaining games
Synopsis: Don Brown is the best defensive coordinator in the nation. After leading Boston College to a number 1 finish in total defense last year, he’s integrated his philosophy into the Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan system without missing a beat. Led by Heisman hopeful Jabrill Peppers, the Michigan defense gives Alabama’s a run for their money. The problems with the Wolverines lie on the other side of the ball. Offensive inefficiencies and turnover woes have cost the Wolverines greatly in tight games. The Wolverines destroyed Penn State early in the year and also knocked off Colorado and Wisconsin, but late losses to Iowa and Ohio State eliminated Michigan from an opportunity at the Big-10 trophy.
Key Player: Wilton Speight, QB – We all know what Peppers and the defense can do. However, it’s all up to Speight to win Michigan games. Speight has struggled mightily in both of Michigan’s losses, turning the ball over in key moments and displaying an inability to move the ball downfield. The Wolverines, if given a shot in the CFP, will need Speight to play smart and efficient for them to have a chance.
Wisconsin (Big-10): 10-2 (7-2), SOS (37), FPI (12), vs. 8 Penn State
Synopsis: Despite having a shot at winning the Big-10 championship, the Badgers are the least talked about team of the four best Big-10 teams. Wisconsin has had a relatively easy schedule playing in the weaker Big-10 West Division. Back-to-back losses vs. Michigan and OSU taint an otherwise excellent campaign, which saw them knock-off Nebraska, Iowa, and LSU. The Badgers boast an elite defense, but they may have the worst passing attack of any top-10 football team (13 passing TDs all year). QB Alex Hornibrook is questionable for the Big-10 Title Game with a potential concussion, so Coach Chryst may have to rely on Bart Houston to stay relevant in the CFP picture.
Key Player: TJ Watt, LB – The younger brother of the great JJ, TJ has made a name for himself in his own right. With 13.0 TFL and 9.5 sacks on the season, Watt has wreaked havoc on opposing backfields all season. Given Wisconsin’s offensive deficiencies, Watt and Co. must play excellently to keep the games close.
So, who’s in from the Big-10? Right now, most polls have Ohio State safely in, and I couldn’t disagree more. Obviously, with teams like Alabama, Clemson, and Washington having games to play a lot could change, but I believe that Ohio State not making the conference championship means a lot. If Ohio State were to play in the Big-10 championship and lose, they would be out of the CFP, no question. So, why then, by them failing to make the championship game, do they get locked in?
Now, let’s assume that Alabama, Clemson, and Washington all win their conference championship games. If this happens, then Bama and Clemson are locks for the playoff, and you would have to think that Washington is too. And if Penn State wins, can the committee rightfully select Ohio State for that fourth playoff spot over Penn State, even though the Nittany Lions would have the head-to-head win and the Big-10 trophy? The fact of the matter is, the Nittany Lions have done all they need to make the playoff, and by beating Wisconsin Saturday should solidify their spot in the playoff over Ohio State.
Now it comes to Michigan. Make no mistake about it– the Michigan Wolverines are one of the 4 best teams in the college football. Whether they make the playoff or not is an entirely different story. There is no precedent for the committee to put in a non-conference winning, 2-loss team, but the Wolverines FPI suggest that they deserve consideration. The problem with Michigan is that they lost at the wrong time to the wrong teams. With wins against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Colorado, the Wolverines have a legitimate shot, but also need a lot of help, as the sit firmly behind Ohio State at the moment. The only way they can really make it in my eyes is if Wisconsin beats Penn State and Colorado beats Washington. An Ohio State-Michigan rematch sounds pretty nice, huh?
Wisconsin, although they have a shot at the Big-10 title, have very little chance of making the playoff. The Badgers lost to both the Wolverines and Buckeyes, so you’d have to think that both those teams would get the edge even if the Badgers pull off the win over Penn State Saturday. The one scenario I see in which Wisconsin could have a shot is if they win, Colorado wins, Virginia Tech wins, and Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma. Call me crazy, but if that happened we could see 3 Big-10 teams in the College Football Playoff, with Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin all getting the nod to go along with Alabama. The committee has favored the Big-10 all year, and you’d have to think those three would get the nod over teams like Colorado, Oklahoma State, and USC. Crazy.
There you have it. Everything you need to know about the Big-10 and the CFP. Looking forward to Championship Saturday for sure.
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