Michigan State at Center of College Football Playoff Race

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The College Football Playoff race is in full swing, and Michigan State is on center stage with the opportunity to knock off two top ten teams in their final two regular season games. There are numerous candidates in the running to make the third annual playoff. But so far, the only clear-cut front-runner is undefeated Alabama.

The one-loss Clemson Tigers are in a solid position as well. If they win out, they will win the ACC and likely take the second playoff spot.

The third spot is up for grabs, but the front-runner may be Washington, who also controls their own destiny in the Pac-12. The Huskies will need to win a hard-fought game against Washington State to win the North Division and then defeat either Colorado, USC or Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. But if they do this, Washington will probably find themselves in the playoff.

For sake of argument, let’s assume that Alabama, Clemson and Washington will win out and make the playoff. If this is the case, who will be in the hunt for the final spot, and how does it affect Michigan State?

Four Big Ten teams (Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin) remain in the race for this final spot. Although Michigan State (3-7 overall, 1-6 Big Ten) was booted out of the playoff contest two months ago, they will have the opportunity to spoil the résumés of Ohio State and Penn State. This would bring chaos into the FBS.

Michigan State is having a bad year. But the reason for this is not because of lack of talent. It is mostly due to poor leadership, coaching and team chemistry. The Spartans have already proven that they can play good teams close, just as they did against Michigan. With a slight gain of momentum from a 49-0 win over Rutgers, it is not impossible that the Spartans defeat Ohio State or Penn State.

Penn State (8-2 overall, 6-1, Big Ten) needs Ohio State (9-1 overall, 6-1, Big Ten) to win out. The Nittany Lions have the edge over the Buckeyes in their head-to-head matchup, winning 24-20 on Oct. 22. If Ohio State and Penn State tie, the Nittany Lions will go to the Big Ten Championship Game and have a chance to make a run toward the playoff.

But if the Buckeyes lose to the Spartans, this opens the door for Michigan (9-1 overall, 6-1 Big Ten), who has the head-to-head edge over Penn State. If Michigan ties with Penn State, the Wolverines will win the East.

The Nittany Lions also need OSU to win because it would boost their signature victory. Penn State wants Ohio State to look as good as possible. If the Spartans defeat No. 2 Ohio State this Saturday, Penn State takes a serious hit.

If Michigan State loses to Ohio State but beats Penn State, then the tables will have turned a different way. If the Nittany Lions pick up their second conference loss, they will have fallen out of Big Ten Championship and playoff contention. This means that the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game will win the Big Ten East and most likely play Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Speaking of Wisconsin, the Badgers have lost to both Michigan and Ohio State in close games. It is difficult to beat a good team twice. If the Buckeyes or Wolverines win the East, they very well could lose to the Badgers. In this case, the two-loss Badgers would make a case for the final playoff spot.

Michigan is in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten. If they win out, they will find their way in the playoff. However, it is speculated that UM quarterback Wilton Speight is out for the season with an injury. If this is the case, the Wolverines could easily lose to Indiana or Ohio State, opening the door for a Penn State-Wisconsin Big Ten Championship Game.

But if MSU defeats Ohio State or Penn State, the entire playoff race is flipped on its head. And what if a two-loss team wins the Big Ten? The selection committee will have to choose among a two-loss Big Ten champion, a one-loss Louisville team that may not have a conference title and a Big 12 team.

To make matters even more complicated, there are three Big 12 teams in the hunt for the playoff: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Could the two-loss Sooners or Cowboys gain an edge over a two-loss Big Ten team? Would either have the edge over Louisville, who only has one loss but probably will not win their conference? Could a one-loss Ohio State team that finishes behind Penn State in the East Division trump all of these teams?

The bottom line is that the selection committee may end up in an impossible situation. If Alabama, Clemson and Washington win out, there will be one spot remaining for what seems like 100 teams will fight for. If any of these three teams do not win out, the scenario becomes even more complex.

All eyes should be on Michigan State as they play their final two games against Ohio State and Penn State. This is not to suggest that MSU will beat both of these teams with no difficulty. But if, on the off chance, they happen to win one of these games, the college football world just may explode.