The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism—at least one Power 5 conference champion is left on the outside looking in every year, and in 2016 Western Michigan learned that for many teams even an undefeated regular season is no guarantee of a shot at a national championship.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, SI.com will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. We've already covered the ACC, the Big 12 and the Pac-12. Up next: The Big Ten.
Big Ten Conference
2016 champion: Penn State
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Four
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Four
Michigan: For almost any other program bidding farewell to its leading rusher and top three receivers and returning only six starters, including one on defense, making a case that it could play its way into the CFP would be a non-starter. The Wolverines can get there if head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff prove as adept at developing talent at Michigan as they have been at acquiring it. Harbaugh’s two full recruiting classes have finished eighth and fifth, respectively, according to the 247Sports Composite, and have yielded a handful of guys who either have been or will be thrust into major playing time early in their college careers, like defensive lineman Rashan Gary, offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, running back Chris Evans and wide receivers Kekoa Crawford and Eddie McDoom.
Gary, in particular, seems ready to develop into the Big Ten’s most disruptive force in the trenches since Joey Bosa, and Evans shined as a complement to veteran De’Veon Smith last season, registering 614 yards on 88 carries (7.0 yards per carry). The Wolverines do take on rival Ohio State at The Big House this season, but they’ll need to navigate a season-opening tilt against SEC power Florida and trips to 2016 Big Ten champ Penn State and West division favorite Wisconsin.
Ohio State: Heavy NFL-related roster turnover is the norm at Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are equipped to manage the mass defections they sustained this offseason and claim Urban Meyer’s fourth national title. He tabbed former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson and Chip Kelly protégé Ryan Day to infuse some dynamism into a passing attack that grew stale under fourth-year starter J.T. Barrett last year and flopped spectacularly in Ohio State’s 31–0 trouncing at the hands of Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. If Barrett resembles the electric dual-threat triggerman who guided the Buckeyes to an 11–1 record and entered the Heisman Trophy conversation before breaking his ankle against Michigan in 2014, and if a few of the esteemed skill guys Meyer has recruited to Columbus step up, Ohio State should cruise to the conference title game and a spot in the final four.
There’s not a team on the schedule that will be able to hold down the Buckeyes’ defensive line for four quarters; Jerome Baker can anchor a linebacking corps that lost first-team All-Big Ten member Raekwon McMillan to the pros this offseason; and Ohio State has stocked its secondary with enough talent to weather the departures of three first-round picks (Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley).
Penn State: The Nittany Lions’ path to the CFP will be more difficult this year than it was last year—when the selection committee controversially placed them fifth in the final rankings—mostly because the Ohio State game is on the road. (Michigan, which beat Penn State by 39 in Ann Arbor last year, travels to State College in late October.) Even though Meyer has been virtually unbeatable in Big Ten play during his five seasons in charge of the Buckeyes, having incurred only two regular-season losses, the Nittany Lions should be able to push them, if not pull the upset on their home turf. Wilson and Day should upgrade Ohio State’s passing game, but the Buckeyes, like the rest of the teams on Penn State’s schedule, are going to have a hard time matching score-for-score an offense headed by the nation’s premier backfield duo, quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
If the Nittany Lions’ O-Line can hold up better than it did in 2016, they should ride that blistering attack to, at minimum, 10 wins and a New Year’s Six bowl. Their defense isn’t in the same class, but it can get enough stops to provide sufficient breathing room for second-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Penn State broke into college football’s upper crust last season. This season it should prove it’s not going anywhere.
Wisconsin: If there were any doubts about Paul Chryst’s qualifications for the Wisconsin job when he accepted it two seasons ago, he has incinerated them by leading the Badgers to 21 wins since the start of 2015. It would be misguided to expect a dip in ’17. Wisconsin is the odds-on favorite to take the Big Ten West and give either Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State a real fight in the conference title game. (The Badgers luck out in having to face only one of those teams in league play, by the way: The Wolverines come to Madison on Nov. 18.) A preseason injury to tackling machine Jack Cichy, coupled with the offseason losses of Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt, will test new defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, but there’s a lot to like about the rest of this group, including defensive backs Derrick Tindal, D’Cota Dixon and Nick Nelson, a transfer from Hawaii.
Wisconsin will need more from quarterback Alex Hornibrook, but the presence of two big-time targets in tight end Troy Fumagalli and wide receiver Jazz Peavy should help facilitate a sophomore leap. And behind a sturdy offensive line, The Wisconsin Running Back Factory looks set to keep running on schedule, with sophomore Bradrick Shaw and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James taking the places of Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale.