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Penn State Ranking and Playoff Possibilities

Where do the #7 Nittany Lions go after Saturday’s heartbreak?

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Were you catatonic after the Penn State Nittany Lions fell to the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus in the game of the year on Saturday night? Devastated by the fourth quarter comeback led by JT Barrett?

I get it. Me too. It was a tough pill to swallow, and in the immediate aftermath, as the Buckeyes rushed the field and celebrated a hard earned victory over the second ranked team in the country, it looked as if the Nittany Lions were completely out of the running for a playoff berth.

Most things, though, look better in the light of day. The surest path to the College Football Playoff was certainly cut off on Saturday evening when Penn State’s hopes for an undefeated Big Ten Champion season were dashed.


With Saturday’s loss in Columbus, Penn State fell from number 2 to number 7 in the Associated Press Poll. That turns out to be good news. It’s not clear yet where the Lions will slot when the College Football Rankings are first released this Tuesday. It’s worth remembering, though, that last year’s Nittany Lions began their rankings at number 12 and finished just fifth, one spot shy of a playoff berth.

College football’s top teams crash and burn all the time, and this year has been no different - Clemson falls to Syracuse, Iowa State takes out Oklahoma and TCU, Florida State loses its quarterback and it’s season, Washington State takes out USC, then itself falls to Arizona while its Apple Cup rival Washington drops an ugly one to Arizona State. The Nittany Lions no longer control their own destiny, and if the playoffs started tomorrow, they’d likely be finding their way to a New Year’s Six bowl as a consolation prize. But there are six weeks left in the college football season, which means anything can happen.

And it probably will.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the possible scenarios for this week’s first set of College Football Playoff rankings and which teams and scenarios Penn State fans should be cheering for the rest of the way.

The Ground Rules

We’re working with lots of assumptions here, so bear with us. The committee is tasked with selecting “the best four teams.” That’s loaded with all sorts of implications.

The number of losses a team has matters. Power 5 teams get preference over Group of 5 Schools, and that seems likely to continue this year. That means that absent some extraordinary circumstance, an undefeated Power 5 conference team takes precedence over a one-loss team, and a one-loss team takes preference over a two-loss team.

Yes, even if that team is a conference champion. Yes, even after last year.

Notre Dame gets the same treatment as any Power 5 team.

Group of Five schools have to be exceptional, and even an undefeated G5 team has no guarantee of making the playoff (see the 2016 Western Michigan Broncos). Boise State might be the exception, based solely on brand value, but that’s neither here nor there this season.

All things being equal among options, the committee also takes into account game control, schedule strength, and conference championships. Last year seems to have made it clear that those are useful data points, but not determinative.

Possible Ranking Scenarios

Wholly Unlikely but Fun to Consider

  • Penn State at #4

Unlikely doesn’t even begin to describe it, but the committee is tasked with selecting the best four teams, whatever that means. On Saturday morning, Penn State was the consensus 2nd ranked team in the country, had throttled top 20 opponent Michigan the week prior, and had blown out nearly every team it had faced with the exception of Iowa, where it was statistically dominant. One day later, all of that is still true, except the Nittany Lions fell by a single point to Ohio State in Columbus, who had two full weeks to prepare.

When a team loses, history and tradition suggest that the losing team gets sent to the back of the line. In a playoff world, that doesn’t have to be true. Want to watch college football twitter explode this week? Send out the following rankings:

  1. Georgia
  2. Alabama
  3. Ohio State
  4. Penn State

Two schools each from the SEC and Big Ten, under the assumption that, to date, these are the four best teams in America based on performance.

Far More Likely

  • Penn State between 5 and 9

Alabama and Georgia have sprinted out in front. Ohio State lags just behind with one loss, but also the best win of the year. Notre Dame’s single point loss to Georgia, dominant performance against USC, and sound victory over a very good NC State team put them in the driver’s seat for a spot in the top 4.

After that teams begin to group together. Wisconsin and Miami are both Power 5 teams that remain undefeated, although the schedule to date will give the committee agita - Wisconsin has played exactly no one and Miami’s schedule (given Florida State’s situation) is backloaded. Oklahoma has a great early season win against an Ohio State team that hadn’t yet found its footing, but also has a loss to Iowa State and ugly and uneven performances against Baylor, Texas, and Kansas State. TCU has a good win over Oklahoma State, but shares Oklahoma’s frustration with a loss to Iowa State. Oklahoma State has a loss to TCU with Bedlam on the horizon. Washington looked atrocious in its single loss to the Sun Devils. Clemson has the worst loss of all of the contenders, getting beat by Syracuse, but they also have good wins over Auburn and Virginia Tech. They’re also the defending national champion, and this is a decision made by humans, so that matters.

The narrative is favorable to the Nittany Lions, who did exactly what they were expected to do for the first six games of the season, then blew away the spread against the Wolverines before covering in a narrow loss to a very good Buckeye squad. Penn State doesn’t have a signature win against a top 10 team like Oklahoma, but they do have a victory over Iowa, who beat the team who beat the Sooners. It’s possible the Lions slot in at 5, but could end up behind any or all of Wisconsin, Miami, Oklahoma, or Clemson.

So, what am I rooting for so that Penn State can make it to the playoff?

#Chaos. Total and utter #chaos. #Chaos in the face of difficulty. #Chaos in the face of adversity. The audacity of #chaos. In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this sport. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.

Fundamentally, here’s what we’re looking for:

  • Dominant Penn State wins. Taking care of business with wins is nice, and 11-1 is great. 11-1 alone probably gets the Nittany Lions a trip to the Peach, Fiesta, or Orange Bowl. To make the playoff, style points are not encouraged, they are required. That means Penn State has to win the next four, and dominate at least the last three. Dominating Michigan State would be tremendously useful as well.
  • Ohio State losing the regular season. This is an easy one. Penn State’s loss to Ohio State is a good loss and keeps the Nittany Lions in the conversation. That said, two Ohio State losses in conjunction with Penn State winning out puts the Nittany Lions back in the Big Ten title game, and a 12-1 Big Ten Champion Penn State is not getting left out of the field.
  • Failing that, Ohio State losing once, but winning the Big Ten title. One loss plus a win in the title game eliminates Wisconsin and gives one loss Penn State some advantage over a two-loss Big Ten Champion. Sound familiar?
  • North Carolina State. The Wolfpack already have two losses - one to South Carolina and one to Notre Dame. That likely eliminates them from consideration unless we see #totalandunprecedentedchaos, 2007-style, where all bets are off. But the Pack are a very good team and capable of winning the ACC. That’s what you should hope for. The Pack winning out gives them victories over Clemson and either Miami or Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. A second loss for Clemson and previously undiscussed Virginia Tech eliminates each from consideration, and Miami’s first loss probably slots them behind an 11-1 Penn State team.
  • Miami, sort of. Undefeated Miami beats out one loss Penn State, so losing to Virginia Tech this week or NC State in the ACC title game would be tops. But Miami gets the chance to take out Notre Dame in two weeks, and who doesn’t want to see that?
  • Big 12 cannibalism. Oklahoma has potential losses coming up against Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia. The Cowboys could get knocked out of contention by Oklahoma or Iowa State. TCU has risky games against an upset-minded Texas and Oklahoma left on the schedule. Plus, there’s the conference title game. Pray for everyone to end up with two losses.
  • Auburn. War Eagle gets the chance to take out both Alabama and Georgia over the next few weeks. A loss to Auburn by either puts a two loss season and possible elimination in play.
  • Navy and Stanford. If Miami can’t take out the Fighting Irish, the Midshipmen or Cardinal can silence the echoes by delivering Brian Kelly’s squad a second loss.