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How Penn State Would Have Benefited From a 16-Team Playoff

Hope you don’t have any breakable objects near you while you read this.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When discussing in the BSD slack channel who wanted to argue what amount of playoff expansion, Jared and I were both adamant that we could not in good faith, argue for anything other than 16 teams. So, we decided on a little compromise where Jared would make a broader case for a 16-team bracket, while I will expand on that show you how Penn State would have benefitted over the last five years had the college football playoff started out with 16 teams.

As Jared said last week, a 16-team playoff would give representation to every FBS conference out there. This is because each of the ten FBS conference champions would be rewarded with the automatic bid to the CFP. This leaves us with six available at-large spots available for those who didn’t win their conference. The first two rounds of the playoffs would be played on the home field of the higher seeded team, with the same current New Years’ Six bowl rotation (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Peach, and Fiesta) being involved in hosting the semifinal and national championship games.

With the understanding that in actuality, there would be a selection committee that would decide on the most worthy six at-large, for simplicity’s sake, I decided to seed the brackets via the Bracket HQ website based on the order of the final CFP rankings after the conference championships. The unranked conference champions’ overall seeds were determined based in part on overall record, but otherwise was done at random. The selection committee with more time on their hands would parse out the little details in order to determine all the seeds in a real-life scenario.

Having established the selection criteria above, I decided to take a look at three different seasons where PSU plausibly would have ended up in the playoffs: 2016, 2017, and 2019. Clicking on each hyperlinked year listed below will bring up the final CFP rankings (since it would be too much to list all 25 teams in this post for each single year examined).


It will still remain a crime against humanity as far as I’m concerned that the same Ohio State team Penn State upset en route to winning an actual Big Ten championship got in, but PSU didn’t. In a 16-team playoff however, none of that stuff matters because PSU is safely in by virtue of the auto bid and has themselves a first round date with undefeated and 13th-ranked Western Michigan coached by PJ Fleck with Kirk Ciarrocca calling the shots on offense for the Broncos.

As big of a pain in the ass as WMU could have been, it’s not like the Broncos’ defense would have been capable of shutting down a Penn State offense that by this point was clicking on all cylinders under first year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Lions would likely have found themselves traveling cross-country to Seattle to take on Washington in the second round. Even if they got past the Huskies, the dream season would likely have ended in the semifinal against Alabama.

Aside from PSU, the Florida State-Michigan matchup is interesting if only because these two teams actually played each other in the Orange Bowl in 2016, with the Seminoles winning on a last-second touchdown. Would the ‘Noles have been able to go into the Big House and leave with the dub? Who knows, but the possibility of Ohio State and Michigan facing each other in Columbus mere weeks after “the spot” controversy intrigues me to no end.


As punishment for choking away a 15-point fourth quarter lead at Ohio State and then crapping the bed at Michigan State the following week, Penn State’s has to travel cross-country to take on USC in the first round. One has to imagine that game would’ve had a similar amount of offensive fireworks to the Rose Bowl that was played in actuality and would resemble a pure toss-up of a contest. Should PSU survive, a very likely trip to Clemson would be next in the cards for the quarterfinal, where beating even a pre-Trevor Lawrence Tigers squad would have been a tall task.

UCF-Ohio State is far and away, the most compelling non-PSU matchup of the first round games. One can certainly envision McKenzie Milton and that high-flying offensive attack of UCF’s giving a shaky OSU defense fits early on. Ultimately though, the Buckeyes should prevail, which would probably result in having to travel to Tuscaloosa and play at Alabama in the quarters. Have fun with that, Urban Meyer!


Who’s ready for a rematch in Columbus between Penn State and Ohio State in the quarterfinals just a few weeks after OSU’s win in a late November showdown? Because that’s what’s happening if the Nittany Lions can manage to knock off Matt Rhule’s feisty bunch of Baylor Bears who are having their best season by far under Rhule. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the rematch at OSU (if it were to even happen) producing any more favorable of an outcome for PSU.

Amongst the non-PSU first round contests, Florida-Wisconsin is must-watch TV with the Gators having to travel to bitterly cold and possibly snowy Madison in December and trying to get their spread attack going against a team that’s used to playing in such conditions and will try to beat you with brute force. I can already hear Dan Mullen bitching about it in the post-game press conference after the Badgers win a lower-scoring slugfest. Meanwhile out west, Memphis and Oregon’s game would likely be moved from Autzen Stadium to Hayward Field, because it would resemble a track meet, given how dynamic both teams are offensively.


As you can see, had this 16-team system been in place from the get-go, we’d likely be talking about whether Penn State will ever reach the semifinals or championship game, rather than will PSU ever make the playoffs, period. If you ask me, I’d much rather have the former problem that the latter. Furthermore, this expansion will allow PSU and other schools that are right at the doorstep but struggling to break into the playoffs a chance to snag some top notch recruits who increasingly seem to be flocking to Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson. This could potentially help increase parity in college football, which is something it has sorely been lacking for a while.