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GameDay Final: The problem with Penn State in the playoff

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Are you in? (0:35)

The games are all over. Sunday we find out who's in the College Football Playoff. (0:35)

Ohio State lost once.

Penn State lost twice.

The Buckeyes beat three teams that are currently ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings, including two of them on the road.

The Nittany Lions defeated two teams that are currently ranked in the top 10 -- one at home and one at a neutral site.

If the CFP selection committee decides on Selection Day to include No. 2 Ohio State -- and not No. 7 Penn State -- among the four teams that will compete in the third edition of the playoff, its reasoning has to be as simple as that.

Penn State's 38-31 victory over No. 6 Wisconsin in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game left plenty of debate about which four teams are most deserving to compete in the playoff.

When the Badgers raced out to a 28-7 lead over the Nittany Lions in the first half, it seemed like the selection committee's job would be easy. The playoff was going to be neat and tidy, and the committee was only going to have to put a bow on it, like having to decide whether Ohio State or Clemson would wear home uniforms in a CFP semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31.

But Penn State's remarkable comeback -- the largest in Big Ten title game history -- at least raises the question about which teams are truly most deserving for the four spots. We'll find out their identities when the final committee rankings are released Sunday during the College Football Playoff Selection Show (noon ET, ESPN & ESPN App).

Defending national champion Alabama will remain the No. 1 seed after routing No. 15 Florida 54-16 in the SEC championship game. No. 3 Clemson, the playoff runner-up to Alabama last season, also seems safe after defeating No. 23 Virginia Tech 42-35 in the ACC championship game. No. 4 Washington was even more impressive in a 41-10 rout of No. 8 Colorado in Friday night's Pac-12 championship game. With 12-1 records and conference titles, the Tigers and Huskies seem to be in pretty good shape -- at least that's what we're led to believe.

Here's the dilemma for the committee: How much weight do head-to-head results and conference championships carry? Yes, you can argue until you're crimson in the face that Ohio State is a better team than Penn State. If we're going by the eye test, though, it's not difficult to argue that No. 5 Michigan is also one of the four best teams in the country. The Wolverines took the Buckeyes to the wire on the road a week ago, falling 30-27 in double overtime at the Horseshoe.

However, like Ohio State, Michigan didn't win the Big Ten East and didn't play in the conference championship game. Penn State did and won its first conference championship in eight seasons.

"If you turn on the TV or read an article, people have said that the Big Ten conference is by far the strongest conference in college football," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I've heard that over and over again. We just won the Big Ten conference championship."

Two of the most important factors that we've been led to believe matter most in the race for the College Football Playoff -- head-to-head results and conference championships -- sit squarely in the Nittany Lions' corner.

Penn State stunned No. 2 Ohio State 24-21 on Oct. 22, winning after Grant Haley returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown with 4 minutes, 27 seconds left in the game. You can call it a fluke, but there won't be an asterisk next to the score when it's recorded in history books.

While Penn State has twice as many losses as Ohio State, the Nittany Lions haven't lost since falling 49-10 at Michigan on Sept. 24. That 39-point defeat is certainly a big blemish, but they've won nine games in a row since then, including the big victory over the Buckeyes.

Penn State's other loss, 42-39 at rival Pittsburgh on Sept. 10, doesn't look as bad as it once seemed, either. The Panthers are the only team that knocked off Clemson this season, winning 43-42 on a last-second field goal at Death Valley on Nov. 12.

Over the past two months, though, it's not hard to argue that Penn State is playing as well as anyone outside of Alabama.

"We won the Big Ten championship, arguably the best conference in college football," Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said. "We beat Ohio State. We've got a good résumé. But it's not up to us."

It's up the committee, and its decision won't be easy. If conference championships and head-to-head results really matter, Penn State should be picked ahead of Ohio State. And if conference titles are that important, Clemson and Washington can't be left out so the Buckeyes can be included.

Best of luck, committee.

Playoff teams after Week 14

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide won a third straight SEC title with a 54-16 victory over Florida in the SEC championship game. They are two victories away from winning their second consecutive CFP National Championship and will probably begin their quest in the same place they played the Gators. Alabama should be the No. 1 seed in the playoff and will probably play No. 4 seed Washington in a CFP semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 31.

2. Ohio State: The Buckeyes could only watch as Penn State and Wisconsin played for the Big Ten championship. But it might have been the best thing for them, as they rested and didn't risk a second loss. After beating Michigan 30-27 in two overtimes at home last week, the Buckeyes have all but wrapped up a playoff spot and are probably headed to the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl to play ACC champion Clemson in a CFP semifinal.

3. Clemson: The Tigers held off No. 23 Virginia Tech 42-35 to win consecutive ACC titles for the first time since winning three in a row from 1986 to 1988. By improving to 12-1, the Tigers also probably locked up a spot in the playoff for the second straight season. The Tigers will either be the No. 2 or 3 seed, depending on where the committee ranks them, but they're likely headed to a CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.

4. Washington: The Huskies left little doubt about whether they deserved a playoff spot by routing No. 8 Colorado 41-10 in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night to improve to 12-1 overall. It's their first conference title since 2000, and they picked up their fourth victory over a top-25 opponent. The Huskies are probably headed to Atlanta to play No. 1 seed Alabama in a CFP semifinal at the Peach Bowl.

Next four in contention

1. Michigan: The Wolverines' CFP hopes all but ended with Washington's convincing victory over Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game. But Michigan's loss at Ohio State last week was ultimately its undoing. The Wolverines will still likely play in a New Year's Six bowl game, probably against No. 12 Florida State in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 30. It would be Michigan's first trip to the Orange Bowl since defeating Alabama 35-34 at the end of the 1999 season.

2. Penn State: The Nittany Lions gave the committee plenty to think about after rallying from a 21-point deficit in the first half to beat No. 6 Wisconsin 38-31 in the Big Ten championship game. It was the biggest comeback in Big Ten title game history and earned Penn State its first conference title in eight years. Will it be enough for the Nittany Lions to crack the top four? At the very least, they're probably headed to the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 2, which is quite an achievement after a 2-2 start.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners routed rival Oklahoma State 38-20 in the Bedlam game, winning their second straight Big 12 title and finishing unbeaten in conference play for the first time since 2004. With the victory, OU likely punched its ticket to the Allstate Sugar Bowl, where it will probably play No. 14 Auburn on Jan. 2.

4. USC: Was Colorado's 31-point loss to Washington in the Pac-12 championship game enough to drop the Buffaloes behind the Trojans in the final CFP selection committee rankings? If so, the Trojans will play in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual on Jan. 2. The Trojans finished the regular season with an eight-game winning streak, including a 21-17 victory over Colorado on Oct. 8.

Heisman candidates

1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville: Even after he played poorly in Louisville's final two games, losses to Houston and Kentucky, Jackson is considered the clear Heisman Trophy front-runner. He completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns, with nine interceptions, while running for 1,538 yards and 21 scores.

2. Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma: Westbrook had four catches for 111 yards and one touchdown in the Sooners' 38-20 win over No. 10 Oklahoma State before leaving midway through the second quarter with an injury. It was his ninth straight game with at least one touchdown catch and the eighth time in the past nine games that he had at least 100 receiving yards. He set an OU single-season record with 16 touchdown catches, 12 of which were for 40 yards or more.

3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson: Watson accounted for five touchdowns in the Tigers' 42-35 win over Virginia Tech, throwing for 288 yards with three touchdowns and rushing for 85 yards with two scores. In 13 games, he has thrown 37 touchdowns (two more than last season) and 15 interceptions (two more than last season). He is 30-3 as Clemson's starter, while guiding the Tigers to back-to-back ACC titles.

4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Mayfield completed 13 of 19 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns against Oklahoma State. He accounted for at least three touchdowns in each of OU's nine Big 12 games and at least four TDs in seven of those contests. The best news for OU fans: He announced after Saturday's game that he is returning for his senior season.

Best moments

1. Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck celebrated a MAC title and undefeated season like only P.J. Fleck could.

IT'S LIT. (🔊⬆️, via @espncfb)

A video posted by SportsCenter (@sportscenter) on


2. Three SEC legends -- Florida's Steve Spurrier, Alabama's Gene Stallings and former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer -- celebrated the 25th anniversary of the SEC championship game.


3. The Big Ten used a commemorative coin honoring late Michigan State punter Mike Sadler and late Nebraska punter Sam Foltz, who were killed in a car wreck this summer, and had their families join captains before Saturday night's championship game.


4. Fleck lobbied for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic after beating Ohio.

Tweets of the night

1. Frame it, Gators.


2. You wish.


3. #rowtheboat


4. The College Football Playoff creates unlikely allegiances.

Best plays

1. Washington's John Ross has some hands -- and some wheels.

John Ross putting on a show!

A video posted by ESPN College Football (@espncfb) on


2. Penn State's stop on fourth-and-1 with 1:01 left sealed its comeback victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game.


3. West Virginia's Daikiel Shorts toed the end line to make a spectacular touchdown catch against Baylor.


4. Grambling State's Martez Carter and Dominique Leake hooked up for a crazy touchdown in Saturday's SWAC championship game.

Worst plays

1. A pick-six wasn't how Colorado wanted to start the second half of Friday night's Pac-12 championship game.


2. Penn State snapped the ball over quarterback Trace McSorley's head. Wisconsin's Ryan Connelly scooped up the ball and returned it for a score.


3. Florida quarterback Austin Appleby probably shouldn't have made this throw.


4. And Florida probably shouldn't have tried this fake punt.

Quotes of the night

1. "I'm going to wear cotton shirts. I'm going to have cotton slippers. I'm going to have cotton earmuffs. I'm going to have a cotton jacket. I'm going to wear everything cotton from here on out." -- Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck, on whether he believes the undefeated Broncos will be invited to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

2. "I agreed with everyone who's booing four years ago." -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, after Penn State and Wisconsin fans booed him for saying Alabama and Ohio State had done enough to earn a spot in the playoff. Delany originally argued for the four best conference champions in the playoff.

3. "I'll be here for another year for the opportunity of a three-peat and the ultimate goal of winning a national title." -- Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, when asked if he would return for a senior season or enter the NFL draft.

4. "What these young men have done for the University of Colorado is amazing, and how they fought through everything is amazing. I couldn't be prouder of them. Yeah, we hurt. We lost. We lost to a good team and made some mistakes that kind of gave them a chance to pull away from us." -- Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, on the Buffaloes' dramatic turnaround this season.

Stats that matter

1. 239: Oklahoma's Samaje Perine ran for a season-high 239 yards in a 38-20 win over Oklahoma State, his sixth career 200-yard game. His total matches Adrian Peterson for second most in OU history; Billy Sims had seven 200-yard games from 1975 to 1979. Perine also became the fifth OU player to run for at least 4,000 yards, joining Heisman Trophy winners Sims and Steve Owens, Joe Washington and Peterson.

2. 1: Temple won its first conference title since becoming a major college football program in 1971 by defeating No. 19 Navy 34-10 in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

3. 102: Western Kentucky beat Louisiana Tech 58-44 in the Conference USA championship game, combining for the most points scored in any FBS conference title game. The Hilltoppers set C-USA championship game records for points (58) and total offense (656 yards) and became the first school to win back-to-back titles since East Carolina in 2008-09.

4. 2: South Alabama defeated New Mexico State 35-28, and Louisiana-Lafayette beat Louisiana-Monroe 30-3, allowing both teams to finish 6-6. That means two 5-7 teams -- Mississippi State and North Texas -- will be invited to postseason bowl games based on their Academic Progress Rate scores.