Can the Big Ten Get 2 Teams in the College Football Playoff?

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 14, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 07: Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans shakes hands with head coach Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes after defeating the Buckeyes 34-24 to win the Big 10 Conference Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 7, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

When Michigan State beat Oregon on Saturday to solidify itself as a College Football Playoff contender for the 2015 season, it also set the Spartans on a collision course for another one of the biggest games of the year.

After all, the past two matchups between Michigan State and Ohio State have not only determined the Big Ten champion for all intents and purposes, but they have had national championship implications as well.

With manageable schedules ahead for both the Spartans and Buckeyes before their Nov. 21 showdown, this year's Big Ten battle between the conference's top two programs doesn't figure to be any different.

When Ohio State (ranked No. 1 in the nation) and Michigan State (ranked fourth) meet in Columbus later this year, a spot in the CFP could very well be on the line.

And perhaps not just for the winner of the game.

With only one year of the CFP in the books, only so many precedents have been established when it comes to determining who will partake in the new postseason format.

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One that's yet to be determined is how leagues with two legitimate playoff contenders will be handled, especially if they come from a conference that determines an outright champion like the Big Ten.

EAST LANSING, MI - NOVEMBER 8: J.T. Barrett #16 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs for a 55-yard gain against the Michigan State Spartans during the game at Spartan Stadium on November 8, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Ohio State defeated Michigan State 49-
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Last season was somewhat of a perfect storm for the CFP, with its four participants—Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State—all hailing from different conferences. The only Power Five league left out of the inaugural four-team tournament was the Big 12, which had Baylor and TCU finish fifth and sixth in the final CFP rankings.

With only 10 teams and no conference title game to determine an outright champion, the Big 12 presented the Bears and Horned Frogs to the playoff committee as co-champions, a tactic that wound up hurting both teams' candidacies.

"One of our main criteria is conference championship," CFP selection committee member and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said at the Big Ten meetings in May, per Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com. "You can't give two teams in a conference the conference championship. You can't give two teams credit for that."

But as the Buckeyes proved with their 59-0 statement win over Wisconsin in last year's league title game, the Big Ten benefits from its conference championship game.

And barring a loss by either Ohio State or Michigan State before their November showdown, one of those two teams will representing the Big Ten East against the seemingly weaker West in Indianapolis this December.

Assuming—and that's quite an assumption just two weeks into the season—an undefeated Buckeyes or Spartans team goes on to win the Big Ten, a spot in the second CFP would be essentially guaranteed for the winner of the teams' matchup.

Sep 12, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans running back LJ Scott (3) runs the ball for a touchdown against Oregon Ducks defensive back Arrion Springs (1) during the 2nd half of a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 31-28. Mandatory Credit:
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

But what about the loser?

Admittedly, it would be difficult for a team to lose in the second to last week of the regular season and still make the playoff, which is the situation either Ohio State or Michigan State would find itself in.

Even more damning to the Big Ten's hopes of getting two teams in the playoff is that only one of the Buckeyes and Spartans will even play in the league title game, and it's already been established that conference championships matter to the selection committee.

According to the CFP's official website, "When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered:"

  • Championships won
  • Strength of schedule
  • Head-to-head competition (if it occurred)
  • Comparative outcomes of common opponents (without incenting margin of victory)

So how can the Big Ten get two teams into the playoff? By having the Ohio State-Michigan State loser possess a resume so strong that the aforementioned criteria wouldn't even come into play.

The Big Ten's best bet in such a scenario would likely be for the Buckeyes to beat the Spartans and go on to win the Big Ten, with Michigan State using its own merits to crash the playoff. 

Should the Spartans take care of business aside from their trip to Columbus—road games against Michigan and Nebraska could prove tricky—the lone blemish on Michigan State's resume would be a road loss to the defending national champions, who could very well remain the nation's top-ranked team throughout the season.

With the Spartans' big win over Oregon—now ranked 12th in the AP Top 25—already working in their favor, a loss to the No. 1 Buckeyes simply may not be enough to drop them out of playoff contention.

Conversely, Ohio State won't have the luxury of an impressive out-of-conference win, as Michigan State is the Buckeyes' only opponent currently ranked in the Top 25.

Despite its status as the defending national champion and first-ever unanimous preseason No. 1 team, Ohio State may very well need to go undefeated in order to make its second consecutive playoff. 

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Of course, so much of where the Big Ten's top two teams stand in the CFP conversation come November will depend on what else is happening around the nation.

In order to be in a situation where getting two teams in the playoff is actually viable, multiple leagues would need to take themselves out of contention with conference champions who possess two or more losses.

The rest of the Big Ten doesn't appear to be doing the Buckeyes and Spartans many favors either, as quality wins for both teams will be few and far between until their highly anticipated meeting takes place.

So while some precedents in the new format remain unset, it could very well be the Big Ten that teaches us how conferences with multiple playoff contenders will be handled.

Again, a lot can happen between now and their showdown to change the season trajectories of Ohio State and Michigan State. But as it currently stands, there could be a lot more than just a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game on the line in Columbus in late November.

For both teams.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand.