College Football Playoff rankings are in: What do they mean for Penn State Nittany Lions?

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
James Franklin's Penn State Nittany Lions are No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.

The College Football Playoff committee released its first set of rankings Tuesday night — and Penn State is (almost) on top of the world.

The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 4 overall, which equates to whole lot of good news with a small side of bad news. The good? The committee thinks highly of James Franklin’s squad and, if the season ended Wednesday, the traditional blue-and-white power would be in the playoff. The bad news? The season doesn’t end Wednesday.

Realistically, it didn’t matter whether Penn State was ranked No. 1 or No. 6 Tuesday night, especially with top-ranked Ohio State still on the horizon. Spots in the playoff aren’t handed out in early November; they’re earned by the time the conference championships finish — on Dec. 8, better known as “Selection Day.” While Penn State has done exactly what it’s needed to do at this point, it still has four regular-season games remaining.

And the playoff picture could look completely different by December.

Then again, recent history remains on the Nittany Lions’ side. Over the last five seasons, 60 percent of the teams that started in the top four made the playoff. And, in the last two years, it’s been even more lopsided: Six of the eight teams that began ranked in the top four earned playoff spots.

But forget all that for a moment, and just remember this: Penn State still needs to get past No. 1 Ohio State on Nov. 23. If the undefeated Buckeyes stay perfect against PSU, the odds don’t favor a second Big Ten team making the playoff. And let’s not forget about No. 17 Minnesota either — although the Nittany Lions would be better served losing to Minnesota on Saturday and beating Ohio State than vice versa. (With a win over the Buckeyes, Penn State would still be in line to advance to the Big Ten title game with the tiebreaker.)

In other words, with No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama also set to play Saturday, a lot of variables remain in the playoff race. But the important takeaway from Tuesday’s announcement is that Penn State has impressed the 13-person committee, the team from Happy Valley controls its own destiny and, for now, it’s right where it wants to be.

What the committee said about PSU: Rob Mullens, the Chair of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, joined reporters on a conference call immediately after the televised announcement on ESPN. And Mullens opened by explaining the spot for each of the top-four teams — including Penn State.

“Penn State is No. 4 because of its strong play, which includes wins over Michigan and Iowa,” he said. “Penn State’s strength of schedule gave it an edge over Clemson.”

Later, Mullens explained that Clemson’s narrow 21-20 win over North Carolina hurt it because the committee takes an entire performance into account. On top of that, Clemson may remain undefeated — but it hasn’t beaten a ranked team.

Still, there was a “lengthy discussion” about Penn State and Clemson.

“Two really good teams, both strong defensively,” Mullens said. “But in the end, what it came down to was Penn State has the marquee wins against 14th-ranked Michigan and a road win against 18th-ranked Iowa.

“In addition, they have a nonconference win over Pitt, which is a pretty good win at this point.”

New Year’s Six chances: Here are the Nittany Lions’ national media bowl projections. Notice a pattern?

ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura: vs. No. 8 Utah, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

ESPN’s Mark Schlabach: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

USA Today’s Erick Smith: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel: vs. No. 8 Utah, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

Stadium’s Brett McMurphy: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

The Sporting News’ Bill Bender: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

SB Nation’s Jason Kirk: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

247 Sports’ Brad Crawford: vs. No. 7 Oregon, Rose Bowl (5 p.m. Jan. 1)

(Note: All projections were made before the playoff rankings were released, and all rankings reflect the committee’s new top 25.)

Well, there’s definitely a consensus.

Most experts believe Ohio State will beat Penn State and, yes, the Buckeyes will absolutely be favored in that Nov. 23 matchup at The Shoe. If the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes continue winning, that game will essentially act as a play-in to the Big Ten championship and a playoff spot.

If Penn State upsets OSU, a spot in the playoff is the most likely scenario. But if the Nittany Lions don’t win that late November game? As it currently stands, the consolation prize isn’t too shabby: It’s the Rose Bowl, which would give PSU its third New Year’s Six bowl in the last four years.

(With four games left, there are still a lot of variables left, as we mentioned above. Penn State would still need to beat Minnesota and the Big Ten West would still need to lose in the Big Ten title game for the Nittany Lions to have the best chance to slide into the Rose Bowl. But the odds, however premature, appear to be leaning that way.)

Since the College Football Playoff replaced the BCS in 2014, this is the highest that the Nittany Lions have ever started in the playoff committee’s first rankings release of the season. PSU began at No. 14 at this time last year, No. 7 in 2017 and No. 13 in 2016. It finished Nos. 12, 9 and 5.

Rooting interest: At its base level, Penn State wants to see teams ahead of it fall — and teams it already beat come out on top. That gives the Nittany Lions an opportunity to move up while, at the same time, strengthening its playoff resume.

Here are a few games to watch this weekend, who to root for, and why:

No. 2 LSU at No. 3 Alabama; 3:30 p.m. Saturday, CBS: Root for the LSU Tigers. LSU boasts the stronger resume and, with a loss to Alabama, it still has a shot at being the SEC’s second playoff team. Something Penn State can’t have happen. Sure, Bama would still have an outside shot at a second playoff spot with a loss, too — but Nick Saban scheduled Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi and Western Carolina. LSU has the nonconference opponents Georgia Southern, Northwestern State, Utah State and Texas. Strength of schedule counts for something, and LSU boasts the clear edge.

No. 18 Iowa at No. 13 Wisconsin, 4 p.m. Saturday, FOX: Root for the Iowa Hawkeyes. A win over Wisconsin would improve Iowa’s standing in the rankings, which would make Penn State’s 17-12 win over Kirk Ferentz’s squad all the more impressive. That can only help the Nittany Lions moving forward.

No. 5 Clemson at N.C. State, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Root for the N.C. State Wolfpack. OK, sure, N.C. State is a 32-point underdog — but just rooting for a close game here might help the Nittany Lions in the end. Clemson’s resume is ridiculously easy; there’s a chance it could finish the regular season without beating a single team that winds up in the top 25. Still, with Clemson’s reputation, odds are a one-loss team won’t get in over Clemson. But you never know ... which is why it’s never bad to look a little ahead. If Clemson loses — it did nearly fall to North Carolina, 21-20 — then it’s out of the playoff race. A monumental upset here, no matter how unlikely, could really change the face of the playoff picture.

CFP Rankings: Here’s a full list of the College Football Playoff rankings, which were released Tuesday night:

1. Ohio State (8-0)

2. LSU (8-0)

3. Alabama (8-0)

4. Penn State (8-0)

5. Clemson (8-0)

6. Georgia (7-1)

7. Oregon (8-1)

8. Utah (8-1)

9. Oklahoma (7-1)

10. Florida (7-2)

11. Auburn (7-2)

12. Baylor (8-0)

13. Wisconsin (6-2)

14. Michigan (7-2)

15. Notre Dame (6-2)

16. Kansas State (6-2)

17. Minnesota (8-0)

18. Iowa (6-2)

19. Wake Forest (7-1)

20. Cincinnati (7-1)

21. Memphis (8-1)

22. Boise State (7-1)

23. Oklahoma State (6-3)

24. Navy (7-1)

25. SMU (8-1)