B1G debate: Who has the B1G’s best path to the College Football Playoff?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who has the B1G’s best path to the College Football Playoff?
RYAN: I know it’s early, but this entire sport revolves around the College Football Playoff. It shouldn’t take away our enjoyment from all of the games, but it is fun to speculate. And this topic is worth discussing because of the massive shakeup to the Big Ten’s elite program. Ohio State looked fallible for the first time in the Ryan Day era, as the Buckeyes’ 35-28 loss to Oregon was their first regular-season defeat since 2018.
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So do the No. 9 Buckeyes (1-1) still have the best path to the CFP? I don’t think so. The best path to the CFP belongs to Iowa.
For one, the No. 5 Hawkeyes (2-0) have been the most impressive B1G team thus far. I don’t think that’s really debatable, though No. 10 Penn State (2-0) also has a case. Iowa, though, has thoroughly dominated 2 teams ranked in the top 20 in Indiana and Iowa State. It has looked every bit like a top-5 team, and that ranking is completely justified.
Even though this debate isn’t about who has played best so far and rather about who has the best path, I still think it’s Iowa. How many games left on the Hawkeyes’ schedule are truly worrisome? I think Oct. 9 vs. Penn State and Oct. 30 at Wisconsin are the only ones. The toughest game (Penn State) is at home.
Plus, there is no Ohio State on that schedule. What’s interesting is that if the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes played this week on a neutral field, I’m picking Iowa, no questions asked. CJ Stroud has looked very good so far, but that Iowa secondary has shut down Michael Penix Jr. and Brock Purdy, 2 of the sport’s most experienced QBs. Stroud hasn’t shown the type of pinpoint accuracy you’d need against the Iowa secondary.
One more loss and the Buckeyes are out of CFP contention. There is no margin for error, and no team other than the 2019 Buckeyes has gone unbeaten against a 9-game conference schedule. As for Penn State, it has a tough game with Auburn this weekend, plus trips to Ohio State and Iowa. The Nittany Lions have a very difficult schedule, and that’s with already playing at Wisconsin.
CONNOR: Welcome to college football in 2021. It’s already bananas. Why? Because for the first time in a long time, it feels like a non-Ohio State team has the B1G’s best path to the Playoff.
I have no problem with the Iowa pick because I agree that the Hawkeyes are a legit top-5 team. I would’ve been mad if they didn’t get that kind of love after winning convincingly against a pair of Top 25 teams to start the year. The only thing that prevents me from saying that they have the best path is more of a B1G West issue. As in, the West hasn’t won in Indianapolis since the conference expanded to 14 teams. Iowa was the closest to doing that back in 2015, and it came an LJ Scott arm away from doing so.
Give me Penn State, though. I’m saying that in part because I believe the Lions will handle Auburn convincingly on Saturday night, and after 3 weeks, Penn State’s résumé will be just as good as Iowa’s. To get to the Playoff, you need that quality non-conference win, which both Iowa and Penn State will have. I had the Lions going into Columbus and beating the Buckeyes coming into the season, and watching Ohio State’s train wreck of a defense only solidified that prediction.
But here’s what I think is interesting. We could see the inverse of 2016 play out all over again. That year, Penn State was a 2-loss B1G champ, but a 1-loss Ohio State team that lost to the Lions made the Playoff. There’s a path for Penn State to go 11-1 and still make the field. The Lions could do that by virtue of splitting against Iowa and Ohio State, which I think is somewhat likely. But given what we’ve seen from Jesse Luketa and that defense, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Penn State sweeping those road games.
Alternatively, Penn State could lose to Iowa, then beat Ohio State and then take down the Hawkeyes in a rematch in Indianapolis to punch a Playoff ticket. After this weekend, the Lions will have a loss to give. Can Sean Clifford avoid that grenade game? Shoot, can Spencer Petras? I guess we’re talking ourselves into it.
You were sort of down on Iowa coming into the year, and I was sort of down on Penn State. My how things have changed.
I think we’re in agreement here that Ohio State’s Playoff path is tougher to envision because of how bad the defense has looked dating back to the start of 2020, right?
RYAN: Let me clarify that. I was only down on Iowa in relation to Wisconsin. I thought the Badgers were going to come out like they did against Michigan last year and blow teams out. Their defense has played outstanding. But for whatever reason, Graham Mertz is playing even worse than the end of last year. I thought Wisconsin and Iowa were relatively equal, with the Badgers possessing a major edge at QB. That has obviously not been the case.
I’m still very skeptical of Petras. He has not looked any better than last season. He hasn’t had to though, since Iowa’s defense looks elite. I feel much better about Clifford, to be honest. You have to keep in mind with him, this is his third offensive coordinator in 3 years. Iowa has had as much continuity as any program in the country, and Petras still is playing at a below-average level.
That said, Iowa plays in the West, as you mentioned. The path is just so much clearer. And it gets Penn State at home, which I know hasn’t meant much lately (Penn State has won the last 3 meetings at Iowa), but generally speaking, that should matter.
There are so many more landmines for Penn State. It’s early, but Michigan looks like a completely different team. Indiana could get it turned around and has played the Nittany Lions tough the last 2 years. Maryland looks great. Michigan State looks great. Rutgers looks great. Penn State is going to be favored against everyone aside from Ohio State and probably Iowa, but it’s not inconceivable for a few of these East teams to step up and knock off Penn State.
On the flip side, the West is terrible. Nebraska lost to Illinois, which lost to UTSA and got blown out by Virginia. Minnesota already lost its best player for the season and barely got by a MAC team last week. Northwestern is in a transition season. Purdue is Purdue until it shows otherwise. On paper, Iowa has 4 tough games this season, and it has already played 2 of them.
As for Ohio State, the path to the CFP is definitely more difficult. Could the Buckeyes run the table and make it? Absolutely. But it is not going to be easy, and there’s no guarantee that it would even be enough. What about when (not if) Clemson also runs the table (because it will against that laughable schedule)? What if Alabama and Georgia are undefeated going to the SEC Championship Game? Oregon can lose a game and still would be ahead of Ohio State. It sure doesn’t look like anyone in the Big 12 can hang with Oklahoma after Iowa State and Texas were beaten handily (though the Sooners always seem to lose a random game or 2) last weekend.
Anyways, my point is that Ohio State has a tough road ahead of it. If the Buckeyes can win out, including the Big Ten Championship Game, then they will have truly earned it.
CONNOR: You make a valid point. It’s early, but the Playoff picture could absolutely be a crowded one if the Pac-12 feels like actually participating this year. I think Oregon is super intriguing moving forward, and at the very least, that loss should age better for Ohio State.
(A relevant stat for the defense-less Buckeyes: 2018 Oklahoma is the only team of the 28 Playoff invitees who had a defense that ranked outside the top 70 in FBS.)
The other team that could disrupt my “Penn State at 11-1 without a B1G Championship” scenario is Cincinnati, which is going to beat Indiana in Bloomington on Saturday and then take down Notre Dame in a couple weeks. I keep telling everyone who will listen that an unbeaten Cincinnati team isn’t getting left out of the field. Starting No. 8 in the country is a totally different story than any of those UCF teams that tried to go from a borderline Top 25 team into the top 4 with games against mediocre Power 5 teams like Stanford and Pitt.
As for the B1G, some might try to put Iowa back in that 2015 box. That year, there was so much talk about Iowa’s lack of quality wins. That’d be a lazy take for 2021, but that wouldn’t stop the Colin Cowherds of the world from putting it out there, especially if Indiana and Iowa State are unranked later in the year. Is that fair to Iowa? Nope.
But we’ve seen time and time again that the selection committee doesn’t respect the 1-loss West team. That 2015 Iowa team didn’t have a loss to give, and neither did 2017 Wisconsin, both of which went into Indianapolis unbeaten. The 2016 Wisconsin squad was the only West team that got the benefit of the doubt, and that was because it beat 3 teams that were ranked in the top 8 at the time of the matchup, including No. 5 LSU at Lambeau Field. That’s what would worry me most about Iowa’s Playoff chances.
It feels like the B1G’s Playoff chances are already down to 3 teams after just 2 weeks, though. Did that just upset Michigan fans? Go win at Wisconsin in a few weeks and then I’ll say you’ve got an outside shot of at least being in the Playoff picture into November.