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Niyo: History tells us beasts of Big Ten aren’t out of playoff mix yet

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Urban Meyer

One thing we know for certain about Saturday night’s Big Ten showdown between No. 4 Ohio State and No. 9 Penn State in Happy Valley: It’ll be billed as something it’s not.

A playoff elimination game?

C’mon. It’s still September. And the cuts are never that quick or clean in college football, which I suppose is part of the intelligent design with this current four-team playoff format we’re all stuck with for the time being. It’s exclusive enough to make every game feel like a life-or-death experience. But with only the Power Five conferences legitimately in the mix, it doesn’t require divine intervention to stumble, fall and get back in the race.

Especially when that trip occurs in the first month of the season, as it did for Michigan and Michigan State or, in a rather extreme case, Wisconsin. Ditto the Buckeyes or Nittany Lions after Saturday’s prime-time game at Penn State.

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But for all the angst that was aired a week ago after a particularly ugly showing by the Big Ten — including losses by Wisconsin (to BYU), Maryland (Temple) and Nebraska (Troy) — the league still has four teams ranked in the top 15 in this week’s AP poll, same as the SEC. That’s twice as many as the Pac-12 or Big 12. And if you’re wondering about head-to-head results, only the SEC (6-2) and Big Ten (7-5) are above .500 against Power Five opponents.

So Saturday’s winner in Happy Valley might be in the driver’s seat, sure. But the loser isn’t necessarily road kill.

Penn State still has home games remaining with Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa as well as a Nov. 3 date in Ann Arbor, where the Nittany Lions have won just once in the last 20 years. Ohio State’s path appears to be a bit clearer, but there’s still a road trip to East Lansing in mid-November and the rivalry game with Michigan.

Not the end-all

No one needs to remind the Buckeyes what happened last year after they beat Penn State. That’s where the Big Ten ultimately lost its playoff spot, as Ohio State got thumped at Iowa the following week, giving Urban Meyer’s team a second loss to go with Baker Mayfield’s flag-planting in the Horseshoe.

And has everyone forgotten what happened the last time the Buckeyes traveled to State College? It was only two years ago when a two-loss Penn State team stunned No. 2 Ohio State, 24-21, thanks to a blocked fourth-quarter field goal that was returned for a touchdown. Yet six weeks later, while Penn State was busy celebrating a Big Ten championship in Indianapolis, the Buckeyes were receiving a playoff invitation.

Which is why Meyer balked Monday when asked if he’d raise the stakes for his players this week, emphasizing this game with some sort of winner-take-all scenario.

“No,” he replied flatly, “because there’s so much football afterwards.”

He’s right about that, of course. And not just in his own league, where Wisconsin quickly rebounded from an ugly loss last week with an important win at Iowa. (The winner of that game has played in the Big Ten title game each of the last four years, by the way.)

Because while it’s hard to envision a playoff field that doesn’t include Alabama and Clemson, nothing’s guaranteed in this sport, other than that Nick Saban finding a way to act miffed after every lopsided win.

Georgia still has to face Auburn and play LSU in Death Valley. LSU must survive a midseason stretch that includes Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State. Oklahoma must go on the road to TCU and West Virginia, in addition to rivalry games against Texas and Oklahoma State. Stanford has road tests at Notre Dame, Washington and Arizona State. Notre Dame’s remaining schedule looks much less daunting than it did a month ago, but it’s far from a cakewalk.

All of which is to say everything’s still up for grabs here, regardless of whether the playoff selection committee means it when it says it doesn’t factor conference strengths into its deliberations at season’s end.

Slim margin for error

The Big Ten only has two undefeated teams left, but the same is true for the Big 12. The Pac-12 as three teams without a loss, but two of them — Cal and Colorado — don’t figure to stay that way for long. And though the ACC still has Clemson, that conference followed up the Big Ten’s disastrous Week 3 with a disastrous showing of its own Saturday: Virginia Tech lost to Old Dominion, while Boston College celebrated its first national ranking in a decade by getting drubbed by a previously-winless Purdue team.

Keep that in mind if the Tigers somehow get tripped up — Clemson lost to Syracuse last year, Pitt in 2016 — and the strength-of-schedule argument enters the debate.

In some respects, it already has. Penn State coach James Franklin is among many coaches who’ve questioned how much the playoff selection committee values nonconference scheduling. (You wouldn’t necessarily say that after looking at it the last couple years,” he said this spring.) And it’s worth noting that the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 are a combined 30-0 against FCS teams this month, while the Big Ten, which only recently lifted a short-lived “ban” on scheduling such opponents, is 2-0.

Questions about a level playing field aren’t going away anytime soon, not so long as the SEC and ACC continue to play eight-game conference schedules while the other Power Five leagues play nine. Since going to a nine-game schedule in 2016, the last two Big Ten champs have missed the playoffs. And who knows? Maybe this year Jim Delany’s league will bowl a turkey and the league will have to reconsider it’s stance.

But for now, all that talk is cheap. So I’d suggest we all check back at Thanksgiving to see if the Big Ten really has eaten its own.


Twitter @johnniyo