WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – When the College Football Playoff field was announced Sunday afternoon, there wasn’t much surprise that Washington took the fourth spot. The same four teams remained at the top, with little adjustment, and the No. 4 team could have gone either way between Penn State and the Huskies.
Both teams won conference titles, beating top-10 teams in their championship games, are red-hot and each had their own pluses and minuses.
However, whether it meant to or not, the College Football Playoff selection committee sent a message when the top four teams were announced. Non-conference strength of schedule no longer matters, at least if your a team that has the protection of conference title.
Washington went undefeated in its non-conference season, beating Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, while Penn State beat Kent State and AAC champion Temple, but lost to an eight-win Pittsburgh team. Rutgers is a joke, Idaho is an eight-win team from a terrible conference and Portland State is an FCS team. Even though Kent State had a terrible year, Temple upset a ranked Navy team this weekend and Pitt is the only team to beat No. 2 Clemson.
You can make a good argument that if the Nittany Lions played another MAC team instead of Pitt they would have gone 3-0 just like Washington. At that point, Penn State would have likely been in while the Huskies would be out.
If I’m an athletic director, I’m no longer scheduling games against competent non-conference opponents – even if that means destroying rivalries – unless I’m a power like Alabama or Ohio State. Alabama and Ohio State has the depth year in and year out to play an Oklahoma early in the season, but for a Penn State, what’s the point? Sure there are pluses to scheduling those tough games – look at Ohio State – but why take the risk? The same thing can be said for the Sooners, who lost to Ohio State and Houston, but went on to win out.
While you can make the argument that Ohio State’s non-conference win against the Sooners is what saved the Buckeyes’ season, and it’s valid, a non-conference loss cost Penn State it’s Playoff bid. Not only did the Lions win the toughest conference in college football, but it won the toughest division as well. Penn State outlasted No. 3 Ohio State and No. 6 Michigan, yet the Lions find themselves playing on Jan. 2 instead of Dec. 31. While Washington’s only claims to fame are a Pac-12 title, with traditional powers Oregon, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State all having down years, and a trio of top-25 wins in No. 10 Colorado, No. 18 Stanford and No. 19 Utah. Not only did Penn State beat No. 3 Ohio State and No. 24 Temple, but it also took down No. 8 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
Penn State head coach James Franklin said that he and athletic director Sandy Barbour will continue to schedule the games that best set them up to win the Big Ten title and finish the season undefeated. Maybe they won’t schedule Pitt moving forward? Heck, maybe they’ll skip the game with Temple, too.
It’ll be interesting to see what athletic directors do in the future.
PJ Fleck, the guy who should be taking over my beloved Oregon Ducks.