The Dust Yet Unsettled: How Penn State Gets to the Playoff and Who to Root For

By Noel Purcell on November 1, 2017 at 7:30 am
Penn State football team sings alma mater after defeating Michigan on Oct. 21.
© Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

That game was heartbreaking. I said "the season is over" approximately ten thousand times Saturday night as I numbed myself to defeat. However, I woke up Sunday morning and realized that, hey, no it's not! Sometimes that initial crush of a defeat will get in the way of better logic. That's okay, we shouldn't all be rational all the time. But now it's time for rationality to win out. There are still a number of scenarios that put Penn State in the playoff.

Penn State needs to win out, period. It really needs to kick absolute ass the rest of the way, too. James Franklin hasn't had a penchant for taking his foot off the gas, and some brutalization is in order to boost the team back up. Penn State winning all of its remaining games is a prerequisite to any of the below scenarios, so consider them as such. Any one-loss conference champ is almost certainly getting in over Penn State as well. Not every one of these scenarios needs to happen, but they're all ones you can root for and have hope for to get Penn State in.

Big ten

The Major Players


  • Ohio State, 7-1 [5-0] (@Iowa, MSU, Illinois, @Michigan)
  • Penn State, 7-1 [4-1] (@MSU, Rutgers, Nebraska, @Maryland)


  • Wisconsin, 8-0 [5-0] (@IU, Iowa, Michigan, @Minny)

Ohio State either needs to drop two of its final four games or win out. The Buckeyes have a tough road, with an away game against Iowa at Kinnick, a home game against a rebounding Sparty, and The Game to close the season away at the Big House. They also have to play Illinois, but, lol c'mon. If they lose two of those, Penn State plays in the Big Ten title game against the Big Ten West Champion. The odds of that are very slim, but strange things happen in November in College Football. Penn State fans know how dangerous Kinnick Stadium can be, Michigan's offense looked revitalized with Brandon Peters under center, and Michigan State's defense is back after a down season last year. Still, don't count on it. If it doesn't happen, the best scenario for Penn State is an undefeated Ohio State to close the season. A one-point away loss to the hottest team in college football would be looked at rather favorably by the committee.

Wisconsin losing to one of Indiana away, Iowa at home, Michigan at home, or Minnesota away won't deny them the cakewalk title to the Big Ten West, but would make them a non-factor to Penn State as long as OSU takes care of business in the Big Ten championship game. If Wisconsin beat a one or even two-loss Ohio State in the BTC, there's likely no hope for Penn State as an at-large second-place team of the losing division. I think Wisconsin is overrated, but they're still a very good team. Lose at least once, lose in the title game, and there's a path for the Nits. Alternatively, lose to Penn State in the title game! Yeah, that would be nice.

Conclusion: A major letdown by OSU or, more likely, they win out with two total losses by Wisconsin, are the plays. IU getting that long-awaited ranked win at home would be cool.


The Major Players


  • Georgia, 8-0 [5-0] (SCar, @Auburn, UK, @GT)


  • Alabama, 8-0 [5-0] (LSU, @MSU, Mercer, @Auburn)
  • Auburn, 6-2 [4-1] (@TAM, UGA, ULM, Bama)

Whoever wins the SEC title game is going to the Playoff. This should shock nobody. Alabama is not liable to lose to any of LSU, Missippi State, or Mercer. They close the year with the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare, and Auburn is No. 10 in S&P+ overall. If they win out and beat Alabama, Auburn would win the division. Georgia is a borderline lock to win the East with South Carolina, Auburn, Kentucky, and Georgia Tech left on the schedule. They'd win it even if they lose one of those games, and all of those teams except Auburn are vastly inferior. A Georgia whose only loss is an SEC title game matchup against Bama, or a Bama who comes in second in the division but whose only loss is Auburn, are both almost certainly playoff teams, or at least close enough that you wouldn't feel comfortable. So, the best scenario for Penn State here is that Georgia loses at least one game on its regular season schedule and the championship game. A two-loss Georgia would be very unlikely to overtake a one-loss Penn State.

Conclusion: War (Somewhat) Damn Eagle or two-teams and help elsewhere.

ACC and also notre dame

The Major Players


  • NC State, 6-2 [4-0] (Clemson, @BC, @Wake, UNC)
  • Clemson, 7-1 [5-1] (@NC State, FSU, The Citadel, @SCar)


  • Miami, 7-0  [5-0] (VT, ND, UVA, @Pitt)
  • Virginia Tech, 7-1 [3-1] (@Miami, @GT, Pitt, @UVA)


  • Notre Dame, 7-1 [lol] (Wake, @Miami, Navy, @Stanford)

This one is tricky as hell and very (very) long. The ACC is a horrible nightmare and I hate it. A one-loss conference champ in the ACC is getting in over Penn State. Notre Dame being a half-assed member of the ACC hurts the Lions here.

Clemson-North Carolina State is perhaps the second-most important game of the upcoming weekend. If NC State beats Clemson, the Tigers are cooked barring an incredible meltdown against the conference dregs by the Wolfpack. That's the goal. NC State winning plus a letdown to one of BC/Wake/UNC to have them as a three-loss division champ is the dream. If Clemson wins, the rest of the schedule is a joke, meaning they'd have to lose in the conference championship game. Despite the loss to mediocre Syracuse, the committee would be unlikely to keep the the ACC champion and defending national champions out of the picture, especially if it could put together a first-round rematch with Alabama.

As for the Coastal and the Irish, Miami is paired with Wisconsin as a weak unbeaten division leader. A lot could happen here. The original draft of this had all the scenarios, but it's not worth it, especially with Notre Dame holding maybe the best loss in the country (up there with PSU's) Here's what needs to happen: Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Miami need to end up with two losses each by the time the committee picks the playoff. There are so many ways this can happen that it hurt my head figuring them all out, so I'll give the best one.

The dream scenario is NC State beating Clemson and winning the division, but also slipping up against one of BC/Wake/UNC to get to three losses. Then, Miami beats VT, but loses to Notre Dame. Notre Dame then loses to one of Stanford or Navy. Miami loses the conference title, and three-loss NC State is your ACC champ. It sounds terribly convoluted, but there's more light at the end of the tunnel than you think.

Conclusion: Big time Wolfpack guys + Team Chaos. A two-loss (minimum) ACC champion is imperative.

Big 12

The Major Players

  • Iowa State, 6-2 [4-1] (@WVU, OK St, @Baylor, @KState)
  • TCU, 7-1 [4-1] (Texas, @OU, @TxTech, Baylor)
  • Oklahoma, 7-1 [4-1] (@OK St, TCU, @KU, WVU)
  • OK State, 7-1 [4-1] (OU, @ISU, KState, KU)

You know the name of the game by now: Gimme a two-loss conference champ anywhere I can get one. There are tons of ways for that to happen, and the best one is Iowa State. With losses to Texas and Iowa, they are not making the playoff. However, they can still win the Big 12! OK State winning Bedlam but losing to Iowa State in Ames, and having TCU lose to someone, and you're almost assured it. Essentially, you're rooting for loss trading and the lesser but still decent Big 12 teams like Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, and West Virginia to go on a tear. Like the ACC, this picture is still wide open. Oh, and Oklahoma beat Ohio State, who you may remember beat Penn State. I'm not going to pretend I have a good answer for exactly what you need to root for here, so.

Conclusion: Even more chaos (not having your fate in your own hands sucks).


The Major Players


  • Washington, 7-1 [4-1] (Oregon, @Stanford, Utah, Wazzu)
  • Stanford, 6-2 [5-1] (@Wazzu, UW, Cal, ND)
  • Washington State, 7-2 [4-2] (Stanford, @Utah, @UW)


  • USC, 7-2 [5-1] (Arizona, @Col, UCLA)
  • Arizona, 6-2 [4-1] (@USC, OSU, @Oregon, @ASU)

Everyone in the Pac-12 has at least two losses except Washington. Get them there, and even with a conference title, they're likely not in over Penn State. Ideally, Stanford beats them. Stanford is not going to the playoff with two losses (one is to San Diego State). However, if they'd like to eliminate Notre Dame, that'd be cool. Wazzu is also cooked with a loss to Cal. Have one of them win the division, instead. Same with Arizona, who lost to Houston and Utah. USC's close loss to Wazzu might've kept it in with a title, but Notre Dame just crushed them. If Notre Dame misses the playoff, even if USC wins out, they'll still be unlikely to make it.


  • UCF, 7-0 [4-0] (@SMU, UConn, @Temple, USF)

Barring some sort of insane turn of events where every single scenario I've described in here coalesces into a black hole of failure for every major conference team and essentially every other contender has two+ losses, UCF isn't making it. Sorry, Knights. Your best win is Navy, and you may well lose to USF.

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