McGONIGAL: Penn State must win out and win big, and then hope for help to make playoffs

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State was ranked No. 7 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
  • PSU has three games left in the regular season and is favored to win all three.
  • Some of the teams ranked ahead of PSU have more difficult closing schedules.

Three days after having their undefeated dreams crushed, the Nittany Lions know where they stand in the College Football Playoff race.

Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki plays against Ohio State during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, in Columbus, Ohio. The Nittany Lions lost the game 39-38, hurting their chances of making the College Football Playoff.

Penn State is the No. 7 in the country according to the first edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, which were released Tuesday night.

Georgia sits at No. 1, while Alabama, Notre Dame and Clemson round out the top 4 in that order. The Nittany Lions also sit behind Oklahoma and Ohio State, but are ahead of unbeaten Wisconsin and Miami.

“Head-to-head results were important for Nos. 5, 6 and 7,” Kirby Hocutt, the College Football Playoff committee chair, said on ESPN’s rankings show. “The discussions for teams No. 3 through 7 were very close.”

Added ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit: “The best thing Penn State can do is blow teams out. ... People would have to lose ahead of them, and the committee would have to look at each other and say, ‘Penn State is one of the best four. The resume doesn’t say it, but Penn State is one of the best four.’”

How they got here: Well, anyone who was in Columbus over the weekend knows the obvious answer to this one. Believe it or not, blowing an 18-point lead and losing doesn’t sit well with the playoff committee.

If Penn State defeated Ohio State, it might be the No. 1 team in the committee’s rankings. So, yeah, the Nittany Lions took a hit there.

Still, when it comes to the eye test — a “metric” that’s strongly considered with five former coaches on the 13-member playoff committee — Penn State holds its own. The Nittany Lions lost by one as a 7-point underdog at Ohio State, and their average margin of victory this season is 30.4. Pretty good.

Now, one mischaracterized concern from fans is Penn State’s supposed weak schedule. The Nittany Lions’ opponents outside of Ohio State own an iffy 32-25 combined record.

But, folks, pump the brakes. The Nittany Lions rank No. 6 in ESPN’s Strength of Record rating — something the committee has looked at in the past.

Will that Strength of Record suffer as the season continues? Probably.

But, for now, Penn State is sitting in a nice spot.

Playoff positioning: As Herbstreit mentioned, Penn State needs help to reach the top 4. Finishing the regular season at 11-1 isn’t going to wow the committee enough to slide the Lions up on their own.

Good news, though: James Franklin’s squad has a reasonable shot at 11-1 while surrounding contenders face tougher roads.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Nittany Lions have a 79.9 percent chance of winning out. That’s by far the best mark in the country. Meanwhile, contenders near Penn State in the rankings like Notre Dame (34.1) and Oklahoma (19.6) have significantly lower win-out percentages.

Some might say that’s a bad thing for Penn State; the Nittany Lions face Michigan State, Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland to close out the regular season. Therefore they don’t have a signature win opportunity, whereas Notre Dame travels to Miami and Stanford, while Oklahoma plays Oklahoma State and TCU.

But it’s one thing to have quality win chances. It’s another thing to actually win those games — and it’s likely the Big 12 will knock itself out from contention in conference play.

Bottom line: There’s not a current one-loss team with better odds at finishing with only one loss than Penn State. That’s important.

As long as the Nittany Lions continue to win, they’re going to be in the conversation.

Week 10 rooting interests:

No. 4 Clemson at No. 20 NC State: To get into a No. 4 spot, the Nittany Lions likely need the ACC champion to miss out with two losses — especially with the possibility that both Alabama and Georgia make the playoff.

Saturday’s trip to Raleigh is Clemson’s only real chance of faltering before the conference title game. Clemson has a 35 percent chance of losing to the Wolfpack, according to S&P+ analytical ratings.

Now, why does Clemson need to lose before the ACC Championship? Why can’t the Tigers pick up their second loss of the year in the conference title game?

Because it’s probable they’d do so at the hands of a one-loss (or better) team ...

No. 13 Virginia Tech at No. 10 Miami: Miami will be underdog to Notre Dame next week, but Penn State should pull for the Hurricanes to fall seven days sooner.

If Miami beats Virginia Tech, it’ll reach the ACC title game either unblemished or with one loss to the Irish. The Hurricanes aren’t falling to Virginia or Pitt.

A nightmare scenario for the Nittany Lions is an 11-1 Clemson facing an 11-1 or better Miami team in Charlotte on Dec. 2. The winner of that game would have a better claim to the playoff than Penn State.

There are still a couple side possibilities — i.e. could the Hokies jump into the mix? — but, for now, it’s simple for Penn State fans: Root against Clemson and Miami this weekend.

No. 6 Ohio State at Iowa: The Buckeyes need to lose twice in their final four games — at Iowa, vs. Michigan State, vs. Illinois and at Michigan — for an 11-1 Penn State team to play in the Big Ten title game.

One loss wouldn’t do it. The Buckeyes own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Penn State.

Ohio State has a win probability of 84 and 97 percent against Michigan State and Illinois, respectively, according to the S&P+ ratings.

If Penn State wants any chance at playing in the Big Ten title game, earning a quality win and improving to 12-1, the Hawkeyes have to get it done at Kinnick Stadium against Ohio State.