Penn State may have defeated Ohio State in a head-to-head matchup during the 2016 season, but Penn State Athletics Director Sandy Barbour says she was not bitter seeing the Buckeyes selected to play in the College Football Playoff instead of the Big Ten champion Nittany Lions. But that doesn’t mean she was satisfied having to settle for playing in the Rose Bowl (which, in fairness, isn’t a bad consolation prize).
“I think Ohio State should’ve gone. I have no problem with the fact Ohio State went,” Barbour said while attending Big Ten spring meetings in Illinois, according to Land of 10. “In fact, you know, we were arguably the best league in the country and we didn’t go. So let’s try to figure out why and what is there. [Whether] it’s we, Penn State, or we, as a conference … how do we address that in the future?”
The debate over whether or not Penn State should have been included in last season’s College Football Playoff boiled down to two teams; Ohio State and Pac-12 champion Washington. Penn State owned a head-to-head victory over the Buckeyes and went on to win the Big Ten championship, but Ohio State won a road game against eventual Big 12 champion Oklahoma and topped a Michigan team that blasted Penn State earlier in the season to end the regular season with a better regular season record than Penn State. Washington also finished the season with just one loss to Penn State’s two, and wrapped up the Pac-12 championship to boot (both Washington and Penn State ended up losing to USC last season). With those facts alone, it made some sense why Penn State would have been omitted from the playoff (and hindsight being 20/20 as Penn State lost to USC in the Rose Bowl is arguably fair to rely on as well; Ohio State getting blanked by Clemson doesn’t help the PSU argument either).
But there were some numbers that favored Penn State over Washington, most notable being strength of schedule slanting significantly in favor of Penn State. With everything in the past though, the focus shifts to the future and what happens the next time the scenario of a Big Ten (or another power conference) champion could be left out in favor of another team from the conference pops up. As things stand now, there are no mandates requiring playoff teams to be conference champions, which is fair because there is always the possibility a team like Alabama could be a clear top four team, run the table in the regular season and the be upset in a close conference championship game. Every season will include different variables, so coming up with one concrete way to settle on the top four teams will never truly be accomplished unless the College Football Playoff decides playoff participants must be conference champions. But again, that leaves the door open to the possibility of a dominant team being left out anyway. Which brings us back to the main question the selection committee is forced to answer: do you choose the four best teams or the four most deserving teams? To many, those are two different qualifiers, and to others, they are the same.
You could argue Penn State was a better team at the end of the regular season and conference championship games than Ohio State or Washington was, but the Nittany Lions lost twice while the others lost just once. With just four spots available, the debates will continue. With an eight-team playoff, the controversy could easily go away by allocating one spot for each power conference champion, one spot for the top Group of Five conference champion and two additional wild card spots.