When the initial College Football Playoff rankings were unveiled on Nov. 5, this week’s game against Ohio State and Penn State was set up to be a matchup between two of the nation’s top four teams. The Buckeyes opened the rankings at No. 1, while the Nittany Lions started out at No. 4, and if both teams were still undefeated, there’s no question that it would still be a matchup of top-four teams.
Because Penn State lost to Minnesota two weeks ago, Saturday’s game won’t quite be that. But it’s not too far off.
Ohio State sits in the No. 2 slot of the rankings this week for the second week in a row – behind LSU and just ahead of Clemson, the only other two remaining unbeaten teams in college football – while Penn State is ranked No. 8, leaving the Nittany Lions well within striking distance of a playoff berth if they can upset the second-ranked Buckeyes this weekend.
With just two weeks to go in the regular season, it’s one of the most pivotal games remaining on the schedule that will play a part in determining which teams ultimately make up this year’s four-team playoff field.
If Ohio State defeats Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes will have their biggest win of the season to date to their resume, which could give them a claim to potentially move back ahead of LSU in the rankings. As the rankings stand right now, defeating Penn State would give Ohio State a third top-20 win on its resume – along with No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 19 Cincinnati – to match LSU, which has wins over No. 5 Alabama, No. 11 Florida and No. 15 Auburn.
A win over Penn State wouldn’t tip the strength-of-schedule scale in Ohio State’s favor – at least not yet – but it would close the gap enough for the Buckeyes to have a real case for No. 1 with how dominant and complete their play has been all season.
College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Rob Mullens indicated Tuesday that the committee remains as impressed as ever with Ohio State, which has won its 10 games all by at least 24 points and by a nation-best margin of victory of 41.7 points per game.
“Ohio State is strong on both sides of the ball. They've made a statement all year long," Mullens said. “We certainly do not incent margin of victory, but we understand that those were all convincing wins for Ohio State.”
Ohio State would also clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game by defeating Penn State, which is a crucial step in the Buckeyes’ path to the playoff. While it’s still possible that the Buckeyes could make the playoff by finishing their regular season with a win over Michigan and a 11-1 record – they did in 2016, when a loss to Penn State kept them out of the Big Ten Championship Game that year, too – the lack of a division or conference title could ultimately leave them on the outside looking in, especially considering that all five Power 5 conferences could still potentially have champions with one loss or zero.
|ACC||BIG TEN||BIG 12||PAC-12||SEC|
|#3 CLEMSON (11-0)||#2 OHIO STATE (10-0)||#9 OKLAHOMA (9-1)||#6 OREGON (9-1)||#1 LSU (10-0)|
|#8 PENN STATE (9-1)||#14 BAYLOR (9-1)||#7 UTAH (9-1)||#4 GEORGIA (9-1)|
|#10 MINNESOTA (9-1)||#5 ALABAMA (9-1)|
Penn State, meanwhile, will be playing for its playoff life on Saturday. If they lose their second game of the season to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions will be eliminated from the playoff race. With a win over the current No. 2 team in the country and a chance to win the Big Ten championship, though, Penn State would have a very real shot at making the field if it wins out.
A loss by Ohio State would open up two spots in the playoff for one-loss teams, and Penn State could vault multiple places up the rankings with a win over the Buckeyes. At the least, Penn State would presumably move ahead of Ohio State in the pecking order – with the same record, a head-to-head win and a Big Ten East title (assuming the Nittany Lions beat Rutgers next week), as well as two other top-20 wins against No. 13 Michigan and No. 17 Iowa – while a maximum of only three other teams currently ahead of the Nittany Lions (LSU or Georgia in the SEC, Clemson in the ACC and Oregon or Utah in the Pac-12) could win conference championships.
The Nittany Lions still sit behind four other one-loss teams right now – Alabama, Georgia, Oregon and Utah – but Mullens said Tuesday that the committee is “impressed” with Penn State and its resume and that there's “plenty of discussion and a lot of debate” between those five teams right now.
“They beat a No. 13 Michigan, won a tough road game at Iowa, their only loss is a team ranked No. 10 and ... (Penn State also has) a non-conference win over a 7-3 Pittsburgh team,” Mullens said. “Those are all quality wins.”
All of that is to say that Penn State has just as much to play for as Ohio State this week – arguably even more, given that the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes would still have some life – so even though the Buckeyes are favored to win Saturday’s game by three scores, they should expect to get the Nittany Lions’ best shot once again this year.
Saturday’s game will be just the second November matchup between teams in the top 10 of the playoff rankings at the time of the game, along with the No. 2 vs. No. 3 game between LSU and Alabama two Saturdays ago, and will be the last regular-season game between two teams currently ranked in the top 10. As of now, No. 1 LSU is on track to meet No. 4 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and No. 6 Oregon and No. 7 Utah are currently set to meet in the Pac-12 Championship Game, but those matchups aren’t locked in yet.
Given that, it’s fair to say that Saturday’s game between Ohio State and Penn State might be the most important game left in college football’s regular season – at least in regard to setting the College Football Playoff field – and whoever leaves Ohio Stadium victorious this weekend will position itself well for a shot at competing for a national championship this year.