Last Saturday, Big Ten leaders Ohio State and Penn State suffered road upsets. These losses appear to have eliminated the Big Ten from the College Football Playoff. Four teams in the Big Ten East have a 7-2 record: Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. Wisconsin leads the West at 9-0, but one loss by Wisconsin likely eliminates them from the Playoff discussion, as they have a weaker schedule than other Playoff competetors, even those who have two losses. This raises the question: could a two-loss team make the College Football Playoff?
There are a small number of two-loss teams that have a Playoff-worthy résumé: Auburn, Michigan State and Ohio State. These three teams, which need to rely on some chaos, all have a somewhat realistic shot of making the College Football Playoff if they win out.
Auburn is the team with the easiest path to the Playoff, currently sitting at 7-2 with losses to Clemson and LSU. They lost to Clemson, who is currently ranked fourth in the Playoff committee’s ranking, by eight points on the road. They then dropped a road game to LSU, the twenty-fourth ranked team by the Playoff committee, by four points. The committee will likely look at their losses favorably, and their upcoming games could boost their résumé tremendously. On Saturday, the Tigers host number one ranked Georgia.
A win over the 9-0 Bulldogs would launch Auburn from their current ranking of ten. They then host Louisiana-Monroe in an easy non-conference matchup before hosting number two Alabama. If both teams win their last two games before the Iron Bowl, it would set up an SEC West title game. Alabama would be 7-0 in SEC play and Auburn would be 6-1. If Auburn won the game, they would win the SEC West and have another shot at Georgia in the SEC Championship game. If they won that, they would be 11-2 with three quality wins late in the season. They also defeated Mississippi State, who currently is number sixteen in the Playoff committee’s rankings, 49-10.
This series of events is not as absurd as it may initially appear. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) slightly favors Auburn on Saturday as they face Georgia, giving them a 51.4 percent chance to win the game. The FPI then gives them a 34.6 percent chance to beat Alabama, but defeating Georgia would likely raise their chances. Alabama also plays Mississippi State on the same day Auburn plays Georgia, and a Mississippi State win would boost the chances that Auburn wins the game. The road to the Playoff is difficult for Auburn, but it certainly exists.
Michigan State has a realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff as well, as they boast an impressive résumé. They have two losses, to Notre Dame, who is third in the country, and to Northwestern. Michigan State has wins over two teams currently ranked in the Playoff committee’s ranking, a 17-10 victory over number twenty Iowa and a 27-24 win over number fourteen Penn State.
For Michigan State to make the Playoff, they need to beat Ohio State, who is coming off of a 55-24 loss at Iowa a week ago. The Spartans would then need to win the rest of their games, winning the Big Ten East. They also need Wisconsin to stay undefeated as they play Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota to end the season. They need to defeat an undefeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to contend for a spot in the Playoff.
This scenario will take some outside help, but it is realistic. The Spartans have played well, outside of the Notre Dame game, in games that they were expected to lose. In their matchup against Ohio State, they have only a 7.9 percent chance to win according to the FPI, which does not view them favorably. Despite their success, Michigan State ranks thirty-fifth in the FPI rankings, below Michigan and Iowa, whom they’ve beaten.
Ohio State is the final two-loss team with a path to the Playoff, with an identical path to Michigan State’s. The Buckeyes sit at 7-2 with a home loss to a top ranked team, fifth-ranked Oklahoma, and a road loss to a ranked Big Ten West opponent, number twenty Iowa just last week. Ohio State plays Michigan State at home this weekend before ending the season by playing Illinois and Michigan. To make the Playoff, the Buckeyes need to win out and defeat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State needs Wisconsin to be 12-0 before they would take them on in to win the conference.
Ohio State’s path to the Playoff will be more difficult than Michigan State’s because of the magnitude of their losses. Their loss against Oklahoma, a 31-16 loss early in the season, will not prevent them from entering the Playoff. Similarly, Michigan State’s twenty point loss to Notre Dame won’t prevent them from making the Playoff. Ohio State does have a home victory over Penn State on their résumé and would gain more quality wins if they win out.
Where Michigan State has an advantage over Ohio State is in their second loss. Michigan State lost to a 6-3 Big Ten West team, Northwestern, on the road. Ohio State lost to Iowa, also a 6-3 Big Ten West team, on the road. The difference in the two losses, which are against teams with seemingly identical profiles and both on the road, is the final score. Michigan State lost to Northwestern 39-31 in triple overtime while Iowa upset Ohio State 55-24. Losing by 31 may ultimately prevent an 11-2 Big Ten champion in Ohio State making the Playoff over other contenders.
In addition to these teams taking care of business, chaos needs to follow for any of these teams to have a shot at making the Playoff. Oklahoma and TCU, top six teams in the Playoff committee rankings, play on this weekend. That game will likely eliminate one of those teams from the Playoff hunt. After that game, the winner would then need to lose to completely eliminate the Big 12 from the Playoff. The PAC-12 is already considered to have a very slim chance of sending a team to the Playoff. With this, two of the Power Five conferences would likely not be represented in the Playoff.
Should Auburn win out, the two-team scenario that is being created in the SEC would not exist. Georgia would have two losses, late in the season, eliminating them from contention. Alabama would have a head-to-head loss in the last week of the season, finishing 11-1. This series of events could remove both of those teams, replacing them with Auburn. Clemson and Miami appear to have won their ACC divisions, setting up a match-up in the ACC title game. This game would send one to the Playoff and eliminate the other, if they both win out until that point. If Miami wins out and ends the season 11-0, they have to knock off Notre Dame this weekend. Notre Dame would then have two losses and would likely be knocked out of the race due to the timing of the loss.
The committee may still favor Notre Dame over Michigan State because of the head-to-head matchup in favor of Notre Dame. Michigan State may end with eleven wins to Notre Dame’s ten, but the head-to-head may be too much to overcome. Of course, if they lose two of their last three games, they would be at three losses. A three loss team would certainly not be included in a four team Playoff.
2017 may be the first season that a two-loss team makes the College Football Playoff. These three teams have to opportunity in front of them to give the committee a difficult decision in December. They have to win out, and have some luck from outside help, but making the Playoff is still not out of the picture for these teams.