Dec. 07, 2016
Let the Debate Begin: Washington or Penn State at #4?
Washington dominated #8 Colorado 41-10 on Friday, setting the tone for Saturday's conference championships. I think all playoff hopefuls outside of Clemson were hoping for Clemson's downfall against Virginia Tech, as that would make the top 4 teams crystal clear. But Virginia Tech was unable to complete the rally back from their early 35-14 deficit, and they lost the game to the Tigers 42-35.
Penn State faced an early deficit of their own in the Big Ten Championship against #6 Wisconsin. The Badgers were up 28-7 early and were running the ball at will while Penn State's offense struggled to move the ball at all. But as they've done all season, the Nittany Lions pushed to overcome adversity and rallied back to win the game 38-31, claiming the prized Big Ten crown.
So now it's time to look at everyone's completed resume and rank them. Alabama is clearly still #1, and Ohio State and Clemson will be #2 and #3, with Clemson likely taking the #2 spot due to their conference title. But what will the committee do with the #4 spot? They basically have 3 options: Leave Washington at #4, jump Penn State to #4, or move Michigan in from #5 and completely ruin the integrity of the CFP.
Obviously, I doubt Michigan will be the pick since they were already behind Washington and the Huskies just got their first top-10 win of the year in blowout fashion, but the committee is clearly driven by money, and Michigan is a money-making machine for college football, so they do have a chance of getting in for that reason (although it would be completely unjustified).
Washington has 4 games that will be considered notable: A 44-6 win over #18 Stanford (current rank), a 31-24 road-win over #20 Utah, a 45-17 road-win over Washington State (who was ranked #23 at the time), and their 41-10 spanking of #8 Colorado to take the Pac-12 title. They have 2 games that can be called negative: A 35-28 overtime-win over Arizona (who finished 3-9), and their late-season loss at home to USC. However, USC will likely jump into the top-10 after Oklahoma State lost, so that loss is not quite as bad as it seemed at the time. So here's a summary of Washington's resume:
35-28 (OT) win @ Arizona)
26-13 loss vs. 11 USC
44-6 win vs. 18 Stanford
31-24 win @ 20 Utah
45-17 win @ Washington State
41-10 win vs.* 8 Colorado
Now for Penn State's roller-coaster resume. The Lions had a very slow start to the year. They were 2-2 after 4 games, with a loss to rival Pittsburgh and a blowout-loss to Michigan. No one had Penn State on their playoff radar at that point. But since then, the Nittany Lions have played unbelievable. They knocked off #2 Ohio State at home in October 24-21. That got Penn State into the top 25 at #24. 2 weeks later, they beat a tough Iowa team (who later beat Michigan) 41-14. Those were Penn State's only 2 solid wins (although calling the Ohio State win "solid" is an understatement) going into the Big Ten championship game. In that game, Penn State came back from 21 points down to beat #6 Wisconsin and earn a guaranteed New Years' Six Bowl Game. Here is a summary of Penn State's resume:
Big Ten champions
24-21 win vs. 2 Ohio State
39-36 loss @ 25 Pittsburgh
41-14 win vs. Iowa
49-10 loss @ 5 Michigan
38-31 win vs.* 6 Wisconsin
If I were to compare the resumes of these 2 teams, I would have to score it like so: Yes, Washington has a better record, but if you look at each team's "strength of record" rank on ESPN (a factor in determining ESPN's FPI rankings), Washington is ranked 4th while Penn State is 7th, meaning that Penn State's schedule was much harder than Washington, almost completely making up for the 1-game differential between the 2 teams. So Washington has a slight advantage there. Then I would compare the difficulty in each team's conference championship since they are both conference champions. Washington won the Pac-12, which currently has 4 teams in the top 25, and only 6 bowl-eligible teams (out of 12). Penn State won the Big Ten, which has 4 teams ranked in the top 7, and has 10 bowl-eligible teams (out of 14). Just winning the Big Ten East alone (a division that contains Ohio State and Michigan) is a bigger accomplishment than winning the entire Pac-12 in my eyes. The gap in conference-title difficulty is much bigger to me than the gap in records, so Penn State pulls ahead by a slim margin here. Finally, we move to specific games. Washington doesn't have any bad losses, but they do have a bad win. They also only have 2 games that they can really brag about (blowing out Stanford and Colorado). Penn State has 2 bad losses (although the Pitt road-loss isn't as bad since they are ranked now) but they have big wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, who are both far better than any team Washington has even faced to this point. This tells me that right now Penn State is more capable of competing with top-level talent than Washington is, since the Huskies have played a fairly tame schedule compared to Penn State. However, since Washington blew out 2 good opponents, while Penn State's best blowout win is over an unranked team, I would say Penn State's individual-game resume is even with Washington's.
Therefore, I would give the slight edge to Penn State. They won a much tougher conference, have more solid wins (2 of which being top-10 opponents), and they already beat a team that will likely be in the playoff (Ohio State). Washington has a great resume as well, but their weaker schedule has made it impossible for them to demonstrate their ability to compete against high-end teams like Penn State. Not to mention, I think Washington vs. Michigan would be a better Rose Bowl than Penn State vs. Colorado, so I think that could be a deciding factor as well.