Six weeks ago the Big Ten wasn’t going to have a fall college football season. Now, it’s the conference best positioned to put multiple teams in the College Football Playoff.
As it heads into its own kickoff weekend, the Big Ten has a 34% chance to earn multiple bids to the playoff, according to the Allstate Playoff Predictor. That actually well outpaces the SEC (20%), certainly the ACC (3%) and Pac-12 (less than 1%).
The most likely two-team combination for the Big Ten? That’s easy: Ohio State and Wisconsin, which makes up 63% of the instances where the Big Ten puts multiple teams in the playoff.
Ohio State is obvious. With quarterback Justin Fields at the helm, the Buckeyes are the second-best team (behind Clemson) in college football, FPI says, and the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten.
FPI also is quite high on the Badgers, who bring back all of their starters along the offensive and defensive lines a year after finishing in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. That’s a big reason why the model thinks the Badgers are the fourth-best team in the country, though it does consider them almost a touchdown worse per game than Ohio State.
Most Likely Combinations of Multiple Big Ten Teams in CFP
|Ohio State, Wisconsin||21%|
|Ohio State, Penn State||8%|
|Penn State, Wisconsin||4%|
|Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin|
|Ohio State, Indiana|
Put the two together and add in the fact they’re in opposite divisions and don’t have a scheduled game against each other, and there’s three different ways both can reasonably get in: Both teams reach the conference championship game undefeated, one-loss Wisconsin beats undefeated Ohio State, or one-loss Ohio State defeats previously undefeated Wisconsin.
Both teams are at least a 74% favorite in every one of their games, and there is a 17% chance that both teams are undefeated entering the Big Ten championship game. Though again, that’s not the only way they both can earn a selection.
The next-most likely combination is Ohio State-Penn State. The teams could both reach the playoff the old-fashioned way: Two teams from the same division, including one that wins the conference championship. For example, there’s an 11% chance that Ohio State goes undefeated and Penn State loses only to Ohio State, though actually in that scenario the Nittany Lions would have only a 32% shot of being selected. The inverse — Ohio State losing only to Penn State — also works. And either way, the team that goes on to win the conference also probably can afford to drop a game beforehand. The third and final combination of teams with at least a 1% chance to get in together is Penn State and Wisconsin — which plays out in exactly the same way as Ohio State-Wisconsin.
There are a few other paths — all three teams could get in, or Ohio State could be paired with Indiana or Iowa — but all of those have less than a 1% chance of occurring.
So why is the Big Ten more likely to earn that second spot over the SEC?
In short because the SEC has only one team left without a loss. While either Alabama or Georgia was going to have to take a loss to the other at this point in the season, other teams considered contenders in the preseason — Florida and LSU — have been upset already.
Those losses don’t preclude the SEC from getting two teams in — it’s easy to imagine a one-loss Florida beating an undefeated Alabama in the conference championship game and both getting in, for example. But the fact that Florida took a loss already makes that situation much more unlikely now. The Gators have no more room for error. The same is basically true for Georgia. Or Texas A&M. So the SEC might put multiple teams in, but it’s much less likely to be in a position to have that chance come the conference championship game.
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