Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Playoff contenders

Who should be the Big Ten's top playoff contender: Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin with a conference title or Penn State with a conference title? SI and FOX Sports college football experts make their picks.
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No conference’s College Football Playoff picture is more interesting right now than the Big Ten’s. In fact, the Big Ten might have the most fascinating playoff scenario entering the final week of the season of any conference in the three-year history of the playoff.

As the rankings currently stand, 11–1 Ohio State is No. 2, 10–2 Michigan is No. 5, 10–2 Wisconsin is No. 6 and 10–2 Penn State is No. 7. However, the Buckeyes and Wolverines failed to make the Big Ten championship game, leaving the Badgers and Nittany Lions to duel for the conference title on Saturday.

If Clemson and Washington win their respective conference championship games, there will likely only be room for one Big Ten team in the playoff. But if either loses, two Big Ten teams could finish in the top four, and potentially three could if both the Tigers and Huskies lose.

So who would have the strongest playoff résumé by Sunday among Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin with a Big Ten title or Penn State with a Big Ten title? Would a conference championship for the Badgers outweigh their head-to-head losses to Ohio State and Michigan? What about a Big Ten title for Penn State, which beat Ohio State but got blown out by Michigan and lost a nonconference game to Pittsburgh?

The college football experts from SI.com and FOXSports.com rank the Big Ten’s playoff contenders:

Andy Staples, SI: Ohio State, Michigan, Big Ten champ Penn State, Big Ten champ Wisconsin

If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten, it’s easy enough to use head-to-head to justify ranking Ohio State and Michigan ahead of the Badgers. Wisconsin played both and lost to both. So if that happens, I’d rank them, Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin.

It gets more complicated if Penn State wins the Big Ten. The best way to look at it might be to compare it to the three-way tie atop the Big 12 South in 2008. Texas beat Oklahoma. Texas Tech beat Texas. Oklahoma beat Texas Tech. In this case, Michigan beat Penn State, Penn State beat Ohio State and Ohio State beat Michigan. The difference between that year and now is that Michigan and Penn State have other losses to factor in as well. Those Big 12 teams were all 11–1 at this point. But you break the tie the same way. Who is objectively better? For me, that order would be Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State.

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Pete Thamel, SI: Ohio State, Big Ten champ Wisconsin, Michigan, Big Ten champ Penn State

It's obvious that Ohio State is in the playoff unequivocally. So the Buckeyes would be first. From there, there's a lot of debate. I'd take Wisconsin with a Big Ten title over Michigan because of the similar résumé and the weight of a conference title. I'd take Michigan over Penn State with a Big Ten title because of the tenor of their head-to-head matchup.

Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports: Ohio State, Big Ten champ Wisconsin, Big Ten champ Penn State, Michigan

Without having yet seen the game, I can't say for sure, but as of now I'm inclined to say Michigan is still a better team than the two playing in Indianapolis. But it's one thing to put in 11–1 Ohio State over an 11–2 Penn State or Wisconsin, it's another to put in a Michigan team with one fewer win and the same number of losses. At the end of day, Michigan lost two of three down the stretch and couldn't win on the road. It would be a close enough call that the committee should invoke the conference championship "tiebreaker."


Lindsay Schnell, SI: Ohio State, Big Ten champ Penn State, Big Ten champ Wisconsin, Michigan

Well personally, I think Penn State is getting disrespected quite a bit. They beat the No. 2 team and they're only No. 7? Come on. Now, I say that knowing full well that the committee could dramatically change its mind come Sunday, and if it does, none of us should be surprised. I'm curious to know what it would take for Ohio State to not be in the second or third spot. What if Alabama loses or Penn State throttles Wisconsin? I just don't think the Nittany Lions are getting enough credit, and I absolutely think the Big Ten conference champ (Penn State or Wisconsin) should be ranked ahead of Michigan. Also, Penn State has gotten a lot better as the season's progressed, and that should be recognized.

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Brian Hamilton, SI: Ohio State, Michigan, Big Ten champ Wisconsin, Big Ten champ Penn State

This is difficult to understand, and that is actually understandable because the selection committee's rationale is purposefully elastic. There is no automatic bump for a league championship. There is no automatic bump for a head-to-head win. These are criteria that the committee members can choose to apply with as much or as little weight as they see fit. So that's why Ohio State and Michigan should be ranked as the two best teams in the Big Ten—because they're the two best teams in the Big Ten, one weird ending to a game in State College notwithstanding. The league championship isn't enough to vault either Wisconsin or Penn State over them, given the other shortcomings. So, yes, the league title game this weekend? It's ironically for third place.

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Joan Niesen, SI: Ohio State, Big Ten champ Wisconsin, Michigan, Big Ten champ Penn State

This one was tough for me. There's no argument in my book against Ohio State as the No. 1 team among the bunch, and Penn State also seems to me like the clear No. 4, which is certainly no knock. As for Wisconsin and Michigan, it's close to a draw, but I think the Big Ten title has a lot of value, especially with Wisconsin's strength of schedule and if it manages to win big Saturday.