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The Big Ten’s Playoff Chances Aren’t Dead, but They May Be on Life Support

Last week, Ohio State–Penn State embodied the best of the Big Ten. This week, their defeats signal the worst.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In the span of a few Saturday afternoon hours, the Big Ten unraveled.

The conference with three teams in the top 10 went from having an outside shot at including two teams in the College Football Playoff to potentially ending up with none.

Just last week, no. 7 Penn State and no. 4 Ohio State faced off in a matchup that featured the cream of the conference crop and resulted in a thrilling game that exhibited just how good both teams were. Seven days later, the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes were victims of letdown losses—falling to no. 24 Michigan State and unranked Iowa, respectively—all but closing the door on both of their chances to make the top four.

The duo of nightmarish results leaves the Big Ten’s playoff chances in the hands of Wisconsin, which is undefeated but ninth in the first iteration of the playoff rankings due to its weak nonconference schedule. Should the Badgers win out and win the conference, it would be impossible to keep them out of the playoff, but they are likely to be underdogs against either the Buckeyes or the Nittany Lions in the conference championship. A one-loss Wisconsin would not have a strong enough case, and a two-loss team has never made the playoff in its short history.

For Ohio State, who knew it would be this short-lived? That it would take only a trip to Kinnick Stadium and a face-off against the suddenly emboldened and nothing-to-lose Kirk Ferentz to unravel their season in embarrassing fashion by a shocking 55-24 result (the most points ever allowed by an Urban Meyer–coached team) and knock them off their high horse following their comeback win against Penn State last week?

The Hawkeyes made the visiting team uncomfortable and forced Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett to throw four interceptions, removing him from any talk of a late Heisman campaign. Similar to Ohio State’s loss to Clemson in the playoff last season, the Buckeyes relied far too heavily on Barrett, who was forced to throw the ball 34 times and carry it 14 times—over twice as many carries as J.K. Dobbins had. Barrett could muster only 208 yards in the air and 63 on the ground, while Iowa’s sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley threw for 226 yards and five touchdowns.

To add insult to injury, the Hawkeyes seamlessly pulled off an exquisite fake field goal that led to the touchdown that would put them up by three scores.

For Penn State, the lackluster performance in a weird, monsoon-riddled game against Michigan State—in which the Spartans hit a game-winning field goal to prevail 27-24—may cost them their own season. The Nittany Lions’ death knell is faint but nearing; their playoff chances are far too reliant on ultimate chaos ensuing. If Clemson fails to win the ACC, and Notre Dame also unravels, and Georgia somehow implodes in the next few weeks, the Nittany Lions might have a case. Might.

For now, though, the Big Ten (much like the Pac-12) sits on the outside looking in, hoping that the very same chaos that put them out will somehow vault them back in. The fact that there’s a faint chance they could still make playoff at all speaks to the volatility of college football. Sooner or later, the chaos comes for all.