Michigan State likely would have made the College Football Playoff last season.
The College Football Playoff will begin in 2014-15, and no one is quite sure what to expect.
For 16 seasons, we cried about the use of computers, about the farce of letting formulas decide the title game. But things aren't so uncomplicated now that the final two teams will be settled on the field. Before those final two, there must first be a final four. And instead of on the field, those four will be settled by the only thing worse than a convoluted BCS algorithm.
A group of human beings.
If you root for the Big Ten in any capacity, the thought of such a group might lead to panic. Human beings, for whatever reason, seem to hate (or at least to not respect) the league. The BCS was the same way, but computers can only be so biased; in people, the trampled reputation of the Big Ten is powerful and real.
It might be enough to keep a one-loss Big Ten team out of the playoffs.
Or might it? Would the CFP Selection Committee really leave a one-loss team from the nation's richest conference—a team that ostensibly won said conference—out in the dark with respect to its title-game fate? Wouldn't going 12-1 under those circumstances be enough?
Most of it depends on context. If, for example, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida State and Oregon all run the table, of course a one-loss team from any other conference should stay home. Even the worst, most delusional Ohio State message-board troll couldn't complain (though he'd certainly do his best to try).
That context also has to do with which Big Ten team has one loss and where that one loss came from. Michigan State could theoretically lose to Oregon at Autzen Stadium then run the table, potentially beating Ohio State and Wisconsin along the way.
That's a pretty tough resume to beat, especially if Oregon is as good as expected in 2014. With a large group of one-loss teams and less than three or four undefeateds, it's tough to imagine Sparty missing out in that scenario.
Here is a look at the last six seasons with regard to how many losses each team in the top four of the final BCS standings (which is released before the bowls) had to its name:
As parity has begun to prevail these past three seasons, it's become harder and harder for more than one team to run the table. It's even harder for more than two. It's hard (though not impossible) to imagine a scenario where at least two one-loss teams don't make the playoff.
But that's where the "conference thing" comes into play. It can be assumed that a one-loss SEC team would outrank a one-loss Big Ten team, no matter the context surrounding them. One could argue whether that is fair—personally, I think it is—but one would be hard-pressed to argue it wouldn't happen.
Just for some empirical data, though, let's look at how the one-loss teams from each conference have fared in the same six-year sample from before:
|1-Loss Teams||Top Four w/ 1-Loss||Success Rate|
*Note: I'm not sure what to make of the ACC having zero one-loss teams. It's almost definitely a coincidence, though I prefer to imagine some sort of absurd correlation behind it. Either way, it's neither here nor there.
Every power conference besides the Big Ten (and ACC) had its one-loss teams land in the top four at least 50 percent of the time and typically more than that.
The Big Ten was one-for-six.
Not until Michigan State in 2013 had a one-loss Big Ten team finished in the BCS top four, including the crazy year in 2010 when three one-loss teams—Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State—all finished between Nos. 5 and 10.
Maybe Big Ten fans shouldn't bemoan the human voters after all?
Of course, these things are also not independent of context. That 2010 season had an uncharacteristically high number of undefeated teams with three. The Big Ten simply got unlucky, picked the wrong year to have three one-loss teams at the top.
Still, even though these numbers reflect the BCS system rather than the CFP one, it's doubtful the two processes are drastically different. In 2010, the CFP committee might have preferred Wisconsin or Ohio State over Stanford. Sure. For the most part, though, dilemmas like that will be rare.
Which is to say: The Big Ten needs as few one-loss teams as possible from the SEC and Pac-12. One-loss Florida State or Clemson from the ACC would be tough to place ahead of, as well. If a one-loss team wins the Big 12, it will probably be bested by a one-loss Big Ten champion, just as Baylor was with Michigan State this past year.
If those things break correctly, a number of Big Ten teams might be able to sneak into the playoff with one loss—assuming that loss is the right one.
Of the teams that might realistically go 12-1 in the conference this season—and I'll use that term loosely, so as not to offend—here's a look at what those acceptable losses would likely be:
|#1 Good Loss||#2 Good Loss||#3 Good Loss|
|Iowa||vs. Wisconsin*||vs. Nebraska*||n/a|
|Michigan||at Ohio State||at Michigan State||at Notre Dame|
|Michigan State||at Oregon||vs. Ohio State||at Penn State*|
|Nebraska||at Michigan State||at Wisconsin||vs. Miami*|
|Northwestern||at Notre Dame||vs. Wisconsin*||vs. NEB/MICH*|
|Ohio State||at Michigan State||at Penn State*||vs. Michigan*|
|Penn State||vs. Ohio State||vs. Michigan State*||at Michigan*|
|Wisconsin||vs. LSU (N)||at Northwestern*||n/a|
Note: Games with an * are ones that "might" be acceptable losses but likely wouldn't be. Games without an * almost certainly would be.
If any of those teams above can get through the schedule with one loss, and if that loss is ideally against the best team on their schedule, it would, at the very least, have grounds to argue for a spot in the CFP.
(The notable exception here is Iowa, whose schedule is so easy that it would likely have to go undefeated to make a case.)
If I had to rank what the 10 strongest cases from that list would look like, it would probably go something like this:
- Michigan State (12-1); loss at Oregon
- Ohio State (12-1); loss at Michigan State
- Michigan (12-1); loss at Ohio State
- Michigan (12-1); loss at Michigan State
- Wisconsin (12-1); loss vs. LSU
- Nebraska (12-1); loss at Michigan State
- Michigan (12-1); loss at Notre Dame
- Ohio State (12-1); loss at Penn State
- Michigan State (12-1): loss vs. Ohio State
- Penn State (12-1); loss vs. Ohio State
If you think a Big Ten team is going to make the CFP with one loss, you almost definitely need one of those scenarios to take place. In the case of No. 10, you would also need the rumored sanction reductions at Penn State to include bowl eligibility in 2014, as reported by PennLive's Charles Thompson, which seem like a bit of a pipe dream.
(In which case, by the way, throw in Nebraska (12-1); loss at Wisconsin as the new 10th member of that list.)
Other scenarios from the table above would stand a chance based on how the season unfolds. If it's a wild year and the top teams from every other league have two losses, why shouldn't an Iowa sneak in?
Who would have thought that Michigan State, which went 6-6 in the regular season two years ago, would have finished the regular season at No. 4 last season? Stranger things have happened.
It's hard to say which, if any, of those options will happen or is even the most realistic. However, if I had to answer the question posed in the title of the article, my response would be "Yes."
One of those scenarios will happen. A once-defeated Big Ten team will play for a spot in the first-ever national semifinal.
Now we can finally get to the fun part.
Let's see which one it will be.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT