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Penn State’s New Year’s Six Hopes Require Order, Not Chaos

I’m not back. I’m just bored.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Ever the astute man, Jared convinced me to not “quit quit,” allowing me to keep my editing powers while I tended to my personal affairs (more on that someday), which have taken up the majority of my time. Ultimately, he knew the allure of penning* an article once again would be too great for me to ignore perpetually, so here we are today. And maybe tomorrow. But for right now, I have words on Penn State football and my overlord has been gracious enough to keep the door open, so who am I to turn that down?

Back to the topic at hand, last Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings paved the way for the Nittany Lions to make their third consecutive New Year’s Six game. Ranked 12th, all the Lions needed was to take care of business in one more game, plus a little bit of order everywhere else. The former came to fruition, but the latter didn’t necessarily go exactly as planned.

The Michigan Wolverines, a shoo-in to the four-team playoff had they taken care of their own business on Saturday, lost in historic fashion to their bitter rivals. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s static placement as 10th in the College Football Playoff Rankings makes the picture a little murky for the Lions, who would need a Big Ten team in the playoff in order to feel really good about their chances.

Even with murky waters, Penn State has a shot at making the New Year’s Six. It’s complex and there are a lot of moving pieces, but the Lions can make it to the Big Stage if a few things fall into place. Below is a graphic of what is possible as things stand today, which we’ll use as our spring board to come up with some scenarios. A caveat here, of course, is that there is still one more set of CFP rankings left before championship week. Depending on how the committee reacts to Washington State, LSU, and Michigan all losing, we could be looking at a pretty clear (or even murkier) picture come Tuesday night.

With few exceptions (like LSU making it to the Peach or Fiesta, for example), these are the eligible teams and where they can theoretically land. Due to the outlined tie-ins in the above graphic, there are four at-large spots open. One of those spots is reserved for the highest Group of Five team, which will be UCF unless Memphis can take advantage of McKenzie Milton’s injury.**

A number of scenarios can change how the teams land and where, but ultimately, there are three at large spots for potentially six teams, depending on how things shake out. With that said, let’s run through every possible scenario from worst to best.

Worst-Case Scenario: Pandemonium

In this scenario, Northwestern, Pitt, and Texas all win their conferences. Penn State would be pushed too far down the pecking order by default, and the committee might be forced to break two of their sacred rules to date. Due to all the losses, they might have to ignore the results of a conference championship game, AND pick a team with more than one loss to fill all four slots. The landscape would look something like this, were pandemonium to occur:

Chart of what would happen if Pitt, Northwestern, and Texas won their conference.

Three teams that currently sit behind Penn State in the standings would leapfrog them by virtue of auto-bids, thus only leaving one At-Large spot for potentially six different candidates. This scenario, of course, is extremely unlikely, but nonetheless the most damaging.

Not Ideal: Oklahoma Wins, Ohio State Loses

Not too different from Pandemonium above, Oklahoma making it to the playoff by virtue of being the last 1-loss team on the board means that Texas (or West Virginia, depending on how far Texas falls), once again, gets picked as the fill-in representative to the Sugar Bowl.

Chart of what would happen if Ohio State loses the championship game, but Oklahoma doesn’t.

As you can see above, the picture becomes quite clear with just one upset, but still Penn State would be on the outside looking in. Even in the scenario where UCF is matched up against Michigan or Ohio State, the committee wouldn’t make the other game a Big Ten vs Big Ten matchup, when there are other eligible teams from other conferences available.

Workable: CHALK BABY!

If all the favorites win, it becomes an issue of who the committee likes best. If it’s Oklahoma, it will be tight. If it’s Ohio State, Penn State is likely in.

If all favorites win, Penn State has a good shot at a New Year’s Six game.

In this scenario, Ohio State either goes to the Rose Bowl, bumping Michigan down a slot, or it goes to the playoff, sending Michigan up to the Rose Bowl. Same concept applies to Oklahoma, except where they bump Texas out of contention altogether if they don’t get picked for the playoff. Were rankings to shake out as expected, Penn State likely ends up matched up against UCF, or against in the other matchup that doesn’t include UCF. The chances of getting bumped are still there, but are very low at this point.

Best Case: Ohio State Wins, Oklahoma Loses

In this case, Texas gets the auto-bid by winning the Big 12, which adds Oklahoma to the list of available At-Large teams. On the other hand, Ohio State is almost guaranteed to make the playoff, being the only team with fewer than two losses left. That sends Michigan to the Rose, freeing up a slot in the At-Large pool.

If Texas wins the Big 12 and Ohio State wins the Big Ten, Penn State is in.

Because Oklahoma is not a Big Ten team, there is no “conference vs conference” issue anymore, as Michigan will be shipped off to Pasadena while Ohio State gets its face bashed in by Alabama. That almost certainly puts Penn State against UCF (and who wouldn’t want to see Penn State to be the team that ends their streak?) while Oklahoma and Florida (or LSU) duke it out.

There are other scenarios on the table (like Pitt beating Clemson or Georgia beating Alabama) that could change things, but for the most part, some combination of these will be what ends up happening, with the exception of Pandemonium. With just a little bit of luck, Penn State could be in!

*It’s a virtual pen.
**Because we all know that UCF isn’t making the playoff regardless of what happens next weekend.