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CFB Rivalry Week Recap, Championship Week Preview

MSU won’t have a bowl game to look forward to, but who’s going where from the Big Ten?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Rivalry Week Results

Penn State 45, Michigan State 12

At halftime, MSU had a big edge in yardage and hadn’t punted even once. But the advantage on the scoreboard was only two points, because, as’s Tom Fornelli pointed out, you don’t win games with field goals. Four drives with a first down inside the 15 resulted in four kicks. Cross the goal line on three, or even two, of the four and it’s still a game after Penn State puts up three quick touchdowns in the third quarter. Instead, it was entirely out of reach, and the Nittany Lions tacked on a couple extra scores late because they could. (I have no problem with this at all; even if you don’t buy the “it’s our job to stop them” argument, we were still going for it on fourth downs, so it’s absurd to argue that they should let up when we haven’t.) The win put Penn State in the Big Ten title game because ...

Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (2OT)

The defenses dominated in regulation; only one of the four touchdowns scored came on a drive longer than 22 yards (one of Ohio State’s was directly by the defense and the other after an interception return into the red zone; Michigan’s second touchdown was set up by a fake punt stop). Another Michigan turnover snuffed out a promising drive at the 1 yard line, but Ohio State missed a couple opportunities of their own with two missed field goals, including one from 21 yards out that left the Buckeyes trailing by 3 with seven minutes left.

The Buckeyes quickly forced a 3-and-out and then ran the clock all the way down before forcing overtime with a 23-yard field goal on 4th and goal. Why Michigan didn’t take a timeout after third down (which ended with about 20 seconds on the clock), I’ll never understand; OSU wound up having to kick off with only 1 second left (having taken their own timeout with 5 seconds) and Michigan managed to return it into Ohio State territory. Had the Wolverines not botched their clock management there, they would likely have had time for a shot at the end zone, or maybe even a quick sideline route followed by a long field goal try. Instead, it was off to overtime. Both teams traded touchdowns in the first OT, with Michigan electing to kick and force a second OT instead of going for 2 and the win immediately. The Wolverines were held to a field goal, then OSU went for it on 4th and 1 and (just barely) got the first down, ending the game with a touchdown on the next play.

Iowa 40, Nebraska 10

The Hawkeyes put an end to any drama out West a day early, never looking even vaguely threatened after a pair of 75-yard touchdowns in a span of 1:27 late in the first quarter. A field goal cut that to 13-3 (Iowa had a PAT blocked on their first touchdown) early in the second, but Iowa responded with an immediate touchdown drive and the Huskers never got closer than 16 in the second half. The idea of Nebraska making a New Year’s Six game was always a very long shot without a conference title, since there are so few at-large spots this year, but it certainly won’t happen now.

Wisconsin 31, Minnesota 17

For a while, it looked as though Minnesota might reclaim the Axe for the first time since 2003. The Gophers got out to an early 3-0 lead and answered Wisconsin’s first touchdown with a kickoff return all the way to the Badgers’ 13-yard line, cashing in just one play later to retake the lead. A Mitch Leidner run just before halftime extended Minnesota’s lead to 17-7. Wisconsin took the opening drive of the second half down inside the Gophers’ 20 but had to settle for three points, and that lead held up until a Sojourn Shelton interception return set up the Badgers’ tying score with 12 minutes left. With eight minutes to go, a 71-yard run by Jazz Peavy set up a 2-yard touchdown by Corey Clement, giving the Badgers the lead. Three plays later, Leon Jacobs set up another touchdown with an interception, and the Gophers didn’t threaten again.

Northwestern 42, Illinois 21

This looked like it could be a laugher early; just over 17 minutes in, the Wildcats led 21-0. Illinois answered, forced a punt, and managed to punch in a second touchdown just before the half to make it only 21-14, and the Illini had first and goal on their first drive of the second half before turning the ball over via a fumble. Northwestern pushed the lead back out to 14 on the ensuing drive, but a turnover of their own on the next one let Illinois back within 7. The Illini forced a punt quickly on the next series, but a fumble on the return gave Northwestern the ball back near midfield, and the Wildcats took advantage to go back up 35-21. A long interception return set up the final touchdown early in the fourth quarter, as Northwestern claimed bowl eligibility in their last opportunity for the regular season.

Maryland 31, Rutgers 13

Like Northwestern, Maryland left the question of bowl eligibility open until the last day. The Terps struck quickly, just two plays into the game, on a 46-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Goins Jr. (any relation to a certain MSU basketball player?), and they added a punt return midway through the first quarter to go up 14-0. The Scarlet Knights, for a change, would not go quietly this time, cutting the lead in half with a 15-play touchdown drive early in the second quarter, but Maryland answered after an exchange of punts to push the lead back to two scores five minutes before the break. Rutgers nearly got back within one score on their opening drive, fumbling inside the Maryland 10; however, two drives later they did cash in with a 28-yard Justin Goodwin touchdown run to make it 21-13 (the PAT was blocked). Maryland answered with a touchdown on their next drive to extend the lead back out to 15, and Rutgers missed a field goal on their next drive and never threatened again.

Indiana 26, Purdue 24

The Hoosiers struggled a bit more than Maryland and Northwestern but did manage to make it 3 for 3 in terms of teams fighting for their sixth win. The Boilers struck first after returning an interception to the Indiana 1, but it only took the Hoosiers a minute and a half to level the scores at 7. Indiana took a 17-16 lead into the half thanks to a blocked PAT, but Purdue scored on the opening drive to go up 22-17 (failing the two-point conversion that would have made up for the block earlier). The Hoosiers cut it to 22-20 very early in the fourth quarter, came up with a stop, and finally took the lead with 5 minutes left, missing the PAT to leave it at 26-22. The Boilers got as far as the Indiana 23 yard line before a fourth down interception gave Indiana the ball back. The Hoosiers tried to run out the entire clock while conceding an intentional safety after a three-and-out, but they didn’t quite manage to do so and had to kick off with one second left. It didn’t matter, though, as Purdue immediately fumbled trying to set up a desperation return.

Championship Week Preview

Here we’ll focus on the major conference championships (four official title games and another de facto) and the competition for the non-major spot in the New Year’s Six. All times ET, Saturday unless otherwise noted). Odds are based on my margin-aware ratings.

MAC Title Game: Western Michigan vs. Ohio (7:00 Friday, ESPN2)

The Broncos are currently the top-ranked non-major team in the playoff rankings at #17 and can finish off an unbeaten season by taking down the Bobcats. Ohio is not really a threat to take the Cotton Bowl spot if they pull the upset.

Odds: Western Michigan 95.2% (projected margin: +19)

Pac-12 Title Game: Washington vs. Colorado (9:00 Friday, FOX)

Washington’s emergence this season was no surprise. Colorado becoming a major power on the verge of a NY6 bid - and with an outside shot at the playoff if they pull the upset here - is.

Odds: Washington 68% (+4.5)

American Title Game: Temple at Navy (Noon, ABC)

Navy is one of three ranked non-major teams (at #19, behind WMU and ahead of #24 Houston). If they win here, Army-Navy might have a Cotton Bowl berth riding on the line for the Midshipmen. Temple might have a decent claim to the Cotton Bowl berth themselves if they win.

Odds: Navy 60% (+2.5)

Bedlam (and unofficial Big XII Title Game): Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (12:30, FOX)

Technically, this isn’t an official championship game, but whichever team wins will claim the title. Oklahoma is unbeaten in conference but lost to Houston and Ohio State in September; Oklahoma State lost controversially to Central Michigan (on a play on an untimed down which CMU should not have been awarded) and also lost to Baylor. Could the winner sneak into the playoff? It seems unlikely at this point, since both teams in the Pac-12 title game are ranked ahead of both, as are both Big Ten title contenders.

Odds: Oklahoma 77% (+7.5)

SEC Title Game: Alabama vs. Florida (4:00, CBS)

Had Florida beaten Florida State last weekend, the Gators might have been playing for a chance to sneak into the playoff themselves (they wouldn’t be near the top 4 for the moment, but beating Alabama would be worth a big leap). As it is, Alabama looks nearly certain, win or lose, to make the top 4; the question would be whether Florida can win (or impress enough in a loss to overtake Auburn) and snag a Sugar Bowl spot for themselves.

Odds: Alabama 95.1% (+19)

ACC Title Game: Clemson vs. Virginia Tech (8:00, ABC)

Clemson’s sole loss came on a last-second field goal against Pitt. Virginia Tech, with three losses, has no legitimate path to a NY6 bowl unless they win.

Odds: Clemson 85% (+11)

Big Ten Title Game: Wisconsin vs. Penn State (8:00, FOX)

Plenty of intrigue here. Does the winner get in ahead of Ohio State (one fewer loss against a similar or stronger schedule, but not a division champion - and in Penn State’s case, a head-to-head loser as well)? What about a 1-loss Clemson (who would gain far less by beating #23 Virginia Tech than the winner of a #6 vs. #7 showdown)? Or a 1-loss Washington if they win ugly against Colorado? Or a 2-loss Colorado who would just have beaten the at-the-time #4 team? The loser has a good chance of making the NY6 anyway, but it’s not a sure thing.

Odds: Wisconsin 51% (+0.5)

Path to the Playoff

Already There

Alabama’s in, win or lose. There isn’t anyone who’s been close to as dominant as they have this year, and it would be very difficult to make a case for Florida (despite head-to-head), the Bedlam winner, or Ohio State ahead of them.

Win and In

Washington can feel pretty safe if they win; they may be behind Clemson in the current rankings but unlike the Tigers, their conference title game opponent is nearly even with both Big Ten title contenders and ahead of both Big XII contenders, so it will be difficult for any of the teams behind them to make up ground. Unless they win a nailbiter and the Big Ten title game is a blowout (or Bedlam is an even bigger blowout), they’ll make it if they win.

Four Teams for Two Spots

Assuming Alabama and Washington both win, the remaining spots will come down to Clemson (if they win), the Big Ten champion, the Big XII champion, and Ohio State. If Colorado upsets Washington, they’re in the mix here as well, making it five teams for three spots. Clemson has an easier opponent remaining than the Big Ten and Big XII title contenders, but that also means the others have a chance to put up more impressive wins. It seems likely that the Big Ten champion will be ahead of the Big XII champion. Where Ohio State fits in is anyone’s guess; there isn’t any precedent to look at for a non-champion with an otherwise clearly superior resume. If this week’s rankings are any indication, the Buckeyes are probably safely in, but it’s difficult to say anything for certain.

The Rest of the New Year’s Six

Rose Bowl

The Rose Bowl will take the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions if they are not part of the playoff; otherwise, the highest-ranked teams available from each fill in (although there is some flexibility to avoid rematches). If two Big Ten teams (OSU and the champion) make the playoff, Michigan is the likely pick from the Big Ten here; if only one, OSU or the champion (if they’re the one who is snubbed) will go instead. In the Pac-12, USC is lurking not too far behind Colorado; should Washington win and reach the playoff, the Trojans might leap the Buffaloes for the Rose Bowl berth (this is especially likely if Michigan is the Big Ten team, to avoid a rematch). If Colorado wins and makes the playoff (somewhat less likely but not impossible), Washington probably stays ahead of USC.

Sugar Bowl

The Sugar Bowl gets the SEC and Big XII champions (or replacement picks). For the SEC, Florida (if they pull the upset) or Auburn (if they don’t) are the likely candidates based on the current rankings; for the Big XII, if the champion is selected for the playoff, the Bedlam loser might remain as the next option but West Virginia could jump them.

Orange Bowl

The Orange Bowl takes an ACC team and the highest available from the Big Ten, SEC, or Notre Dame (with some flexibility to avoid rematches). The ACC team, if Clemson wins and goes to the playoff, will probably be Florida State; it’s very likely that the Big Ten title game loser (if two Big Ten teams make the playoff) or Michigan (if one does) would be the best available for the second slot.

Cotton Bowl

The only at-large bowl in the rotation this year, the Cotton Bowl would get the non-major selection, which is likely to be Western Michigan or Navy; if both lose, Temple might get the nod, or Troy (Sun Belt), Western Kentucky (CUSA), or San Diego State (MWC) might get picked if they win their respective conferences. (The Sun Belt does not have a title game, nor a full round-robin, so Troy’s chances might require some tiebreakers too.) The last at-large spot is hard to guess since so much depends on who makes the playoff. If only one Big Ten team makes it, the fourth team is likely to be the at-large pick here, as it would mean that most of the teams that could take that spot away are already guaranteed spots as replacements for playoff teams. If two Big Ten teams made the playoff, then the top four are already all covered and this spot would go elsewhere.

The Rest of the Big Ten’s Bowls

With the Big Ten almost certainly taking an Orange Bowl spot, we lose the usual Citrus Bowl spot to the ACC. The remaining bowls, in selection order (with the caveat that most Big Ten bowls now have restrictions on repeat appearances) are:

  • the Outback Bowl (Tampa)
  • the Holiday Bowl (San Diego)
  • the Music City Bowl (Nashville) or the TaxSlayer (Gator) Bowl (Jacksonville); one takes an ACC team and the other a Big Ten team. Over the six-year agreement that began last year, each will get three Big Ten teams; the Gator had one last year.
  • the Pinstripe Bowl (New York)
  • the Foster Farms Bowl (Santa Clara)
  • the Quick Lane (Motor City) Bowl (Detroit)
  • the Heart of Dallas Bowl (Dallas; alternates with the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth)

The most likely case is that four Big Ten teams are in the NY6 and thus only six are available for these seven slots. The eligible teams divide neatly into two tiers: Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota in the top tier (all 9-3 or 8-4) and Northwestern, Indiana, and Maryland in the lower tier (all 6-6).

Recent bowl history suggests that Nebraska would avoid the Holiday Bowl (played there in 2014) and Iowa would avoid the Gator (2014) and possibly the Outback too (2013). Minnesota’s recent bowl berths are all outside the range of games that they would likely land in. For the lower tier, Indiana played in the Pinstripe Bowl last year and Maryland in the 2014 Foster Farms Bowl.

Assuming that Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Penn State all make the New Year’s Six, my expectations would be:

  • Nebraska to the Outback Bowl
  • Iowa to the Holiday Bowl
  • Minnesota to the Music City Bowl
  • Maryland to the Pinstripe Bowl (easier travel)
  • Northwestern to the Foster Farms Bowl (partly to avoid a situation where two consecutive bowls would have just swapped teams, as scheduling becomes trickier down the road if your goal is to avoid repeats)
  • Indiana to the Motor City Bowl

I could see Minnesota moving up ahead of Iowa for the same reason I cited Northwestern ahead of Indiana; having both Nebraska and Iowa with both the Outback and Holiday in their recent history cuts down on a lot of your flexibility in the future (although I think with both of those previous games being in 2014, they’re technically before the current contract). I’m less sure of the order for the last two than I am the rest.

If the Big Ten title game loser does not make a NY6 game, things get a bit more complicated. The loser probably ends up in the Outback if that’s the case; Penn State doesn’t have any recent bowl history in the tier under consideration, but Wisconsin has played in both the Outback (2014) and Holiday (2015) the last two years. The Badgers still would probably be placed in the Outback, as knocking them all the way down to the Music City Bowl would seem unjustifiable. This would bump Nebraska down to the Music City Bowl (they would avoid the Holiday Bowl due to a recent appearance), Minnesota to the Pinstripe, Maryland to the Motor City, and Indiana to the Heart of Dallas.