McGONIGAL: Odds are long, but Penn State can still reach the College Football Playoff

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
  • Penn State is coming off its first loss of season on Saturday to Ohio State, 27-26.
  • According to ESPN Analytics, PSU still has a 16 percent chance to make the College Football Playoff.
  • That represents the seventh-best odds in the nation.

The sting from Saturday night may not subside for days, weeks, maybe even months.

Penn State fans cheer during the game vs. Ohio State on Saturday. The Lions lost, 27-26, at Beaver Stadium in State College. Despite the loss, PSU fans may still get a chance to see their Nittany Lions in the College Football Playoff.

But, now that at least the initial shock of Penn State’s 27-26 loss to Ohio State is gone, it’s time to realize that the Nittany Lions’ season isn’t over.

Penn State’s fourth-quarter collapse prevented the Nittany Lions from taking control of their own College Football Playoff destiny. But James Franklin, Trace McSorley and company can still reach the national semifinals. Yes, you read that correctly. The Nittany Lions’ national title dreams aren’t over.

According to ESPN Analytics, Penn State has a 16 percent chance to make the playoff, dropping from 24 percent the week before. That’s still the seventh-best odds behind Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Georgia, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. There’s a decent drop-off with the Sooners owning a 34 percent chance to get in, but the Nittany Lions aren’t out of it.

There are two scenarios to examine here: If Penn State makes the Big Ten Championship and if it doesn’t. Obviously, one is more likely than the other. And in both, the Nittany Lions need to win out. But here’s a look at Penn State’s playoff chances in both those situations.

Scenario No. 1: If Penn State reaches the Big Ten Championship ...

... then either Ohio State fell apart or conference history was made.

Let’s start with this: A one-loss Big Ten champion should reach the playoff. Penn State didn’t make it in 2016 because of its losses to Pitt and Michigan, and the Buckeyes didn’t last year because they lost to Oklahoma and Iowa. In four years of the playoff, there has never been a one-loss Power 5 champion who was victorious in a conference title game that didn’t reach the final four.

So, if Penn State runs the table, gets to Indianapolis and defeats the Big Ten West representative, the Nittany Lions would be all but a lock.

That’s easier said than done, though. To make it to the title game, Penn State needs Ohio State to lose twice in the regular season or for there to be a three-way tie atop the Big Ten East standings.

The former doesn’t seem likely. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI), Ohio State has a 90.7 percent chance or better to win in five of its remaining seven games. Realistically, Penn State needs Ohio State to lose twice in the final three weeks — on the road at Michigan State and at home against Michigan. Right now, the Buckeyes have a 77.4 percent chance to beat the Spartans and a 74.2 percent chance to handle the Wolverines. It’s not likely that Ohio State loses both.

What might be more reasonable is a three-way tie, something that has never happened since the Big Ten implemented divisions in 2011.

This is why Penn State fans need to pay attention to Michigan and Michigan State’s meeting on Oct. 20. If the winner of that game is undefeated in Big Ten play — aside from losing to the Nittany Lions — going into their November meeting with Ohio State, they can force a three-way tie by beating the Buckeyes.

In this scenario, the first four tiebreakers — record against each other, Big Ten East record, etc. — would be washes. The fifth tiebreaker in a three-way divisional tie, according to the Big Ten website, is “the best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents.” And that’s where the Nittany Lions have the edge.

To get to this point, Penn State would have to beat Wisconsin and Iowa, the Big Ten West’s two top teams. Michigan plays Wisconsin, but not Iowa, while Ohio State and Michigan State don’t face either. So, if Wisconsin and Iowa play to their potential and finish 1-2 in the West standings, the Nittany Lions should win the fifth tiebreaker by virtue of playing a tougher non-divisional schedule. That would put them in the Big Ten Championship game.

It’s a little confusing, but if it gets the Nittany Lions to Indy, they won’t mind.

Scenario No. 2: If Penn State doesn’t reach the Big Ten Championship...

... it’s going to need some help.

According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, if Penn State wins out but does not win its division, the Nittany Lions would have a 53 percent chance to make the playoff.

In this situation, what are some things Nittany Lion fans should be rooting for?

For Notre Dame to lose, not allowing an independent team to take away a spot from a one-loss conference champion.

For Central Florida to lose, so the committee doesn’t get tempted to put in the Knights after back-to-back undefeated seasons.

For the Pac-12 to boast a two-loss champion. (Colorado is undefeated while Washington, Stanford, Oregon and Washington State all have one loss already).

And for Ohio State to lose in the Big Ten title game, possibly forcing a 2016 repeat with reversed fortunes.

Depending on how the season shakes out, all of those don’t need to happen for the Nittany Lions to get in. But with Saturday’s loss to Ohio State, Penn State fans are going to find themselves checking the out-of-town scoreboards more and more as the weeks pass by.

First and foremost, the Nittany Lions need to run the table. They need to rebound from a gut-wrenching loss and beat Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin in a four-week span.

If they do that, the Nittany Lions will at least keep themselves in the College Football Playoff conversation.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said Saturday night. “There’s a lot of ball to be played.”