In each of the past two seasons, the Big Ten champion has finished No. 5 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's final rankings -- the most painstaking position for a Power 5 conference champion in the era of the CFP.
In 2016, Penn State beat Ohio State and won the conference title but was left out of the top four. In 2017, Ohio State beat Penn State and won the Big Ten title but also was left out. Don't be fooled, though -- No. 4 Ohio State at No. 9 Penn State on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) will significantly impact the selection committee's final 2018 top four.
Things to remember: Last year, Ohio State lost at home to Oklahoma and was trounced at Iowa 55-24. That's why the Big Ten champ was out -- and two SEC teams were in. In 2016, Penn State lost at Pitt and was hammered at Michigan 49-10. That's why the Big Ten champ was out -- and Washington, with its weak strength of schedule, was in.
"I've talked to a lot of different people who have been in that room," Penn State coach James Franklin said this week. "I think the challenging part is the people in the room change. We've been told what factors are supposed to be important, but the reality is you've got individuals making decisions, and I think the hard part is it's going to change yearly, depending on what individuals are in the room."
There are six new faces this fall on the 13-member committee, but it's also a different picture for the Big Ten's best, as both Ohio State and Penn State are undefeated heading into their meeting Saturday. The Buckeyes earned an important nonconference win against TCU in Week 3, and the Nittany Lions avoided any sneaky upset plots by unranked Pitt in Week 2. Considering Wisconsin (BYU), Michigan State (Arizona State) and Michigan (Notre Dame) have all already lost a game, Penn State and Ohio State enter Saturday as the league's two best hopes at a top-four finish.
ESPN Analytics comprised a list of 10 remaining games that will have the biggest impact on the playoff race and Ohio State at Penn State is No. 1, according to the Football Power Index. The winner will not only take the lead in the Big Ten East, but will also emerge as the league's top playoff contender.
"I think I've got a pretty good understanding of how it works, but I don't know if anybody is ever going to have a true understanding of how it works because the personalities and the experiences in the room change," Franklin said. "For us, I want to have an idea, but after that we really want to spend our time focusing on the things we can control and that's our football team and our development and finding a way to win."
The loser of Saturday's game won't be eliminated completely, but will need some significant help just to get back into the division race. And both PSU and OSU know all too well the perils of a second loss.
The committee has yet to place a two-loss team in its top four, though Auburn came close last year. The group has made it clear that those lopsided losses suffered by both Ohio State and Penn State in years past were too troubling to ignore. Former selection committee chair Kirby Hocutt called Ohio State's loss to Iowa "damaging" last Selection Day and called Penn State "non-competitive" in its 2016 loss to Michigan.
Still, having experienced the gamut of emotions that accompany Selection Day, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer praised the committee. His boss, athletic director Gene Smith, is entering his second season on the committee, but if discussion arises around Ohio State, Smith must recuse himself and leave the room for and cannot vote for Ohio State.
"I think they do a great job," Meyer said this week. "If you have six then there's the seventh, eighth team going to be unhappy. If you have eight, nine and 10 are going to be unhappy. I don't know exactly -- I know Gene Smith is involved, but we rarely talk about it. Our job is to go compete and win games and not worry about that stuff."
It only becomes a concern after a loss.
Here's a look at how the biggest games of Week 5 will affect Saturday's winners and losers:
1. Ohio State at Penn State
If Penn State wins: With a win, Penn State's chances of reaching the playoff would increase to 58.9 percent -- not bad, but also a reminder that PSU still has to play Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions' Nov. 3 game at Michigan is currently the only game on the schedule that Penn State isn't favored to win, according to ESPN's FPI. If PSU beats the Buckeyes, but slips to the Wolverines, the picture would again change quickly. If Penn State wins on Saturday, Ohio State wouldn't be eliminated, but it would obviously need the Nittany Lions to lose twice to get back into the division race. The selection committee will consider the injury to standout defensive end Nick Bosa, but they will also evaluate if the Buckeyes are a top-four team without him.
If Ohio State wins: The Buckeyes' chances of finishing in the top four skyrocket to 73.3 percent, according to ESPN's playoff predictor. Ohio State would enter October with two of the most impressive wins of the season -- both against ranked opponents (TCU and PSU) and away from home (Arlington, Texas and State College, Pennsylvania.). Ohio State's game on Saturday is the only game left on the schedule that FPI doesn't project the Buckeyes to win (43.4 percent). If the Buckeyes prove otherwise, they have an excellent chance to enter the Nov. 10 trip to Michigan State undefeated. Three of their next four games are at home against Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska. They travel to Purdue on Oct. 20. Unlike Penn State, Ohio State doesn't have a crossover game against Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes get Michigan at home.
2. Stanford at Notre Dame
If Stanford wins: If it hasn't already, the Pac-12 spotlight will shift from Washington to Stanford, as the Cardinal will enter October with the league's most impressive playoff resume through five weeks. It would also increase the likelihood that Stanford is undefeated heading into the critical Nov. 3 game at Washington -- which, along with Saturday's game at Notre Dame is the only other game FPI doesn't favor the Cardinal to win. If Stanford beats the Irish, its playoff hopes increase to 21.8 percent. If the Cardinal is 9-0 after the Washington game? Its chances shoot to 71.6 percent. If Notre Dame loses, its playoff hopes would take a significant hit because the committee would likely call its strength of schedule into question. As of now, Stanford is the last remaining ranked opponent the Irish will face. It's not that Notre Dame can't afford to lose a game and finish as a one-loss contender, but without another ranked opponent to play in a conference championship game, the independent Irish have to impress the committee with a 12-game resume. Even if Michigan were to win the Big Ten title, Notre Dame's win against the Wolverines might not be enough to impress the committee if the Irish don't beat Stanford at home.
If Notre Dame wins: It could end up being Notre Dame's most impressive win of the season, as the only other ranked opponent the Irish currently have on their schedule is Michigan. Stanford can afford to lose this game, but then the pressure is on to run the table and win the Pac-12. Without this win, though, the committee would be looking at a one-loss Power 5 champion whose only other nonconference wins came against San Diego State and UC Davis. That wouldn't stack up to Clemson's win against Texas A&M, Ohio State's win over TCU, Auburn's win over Washington, or LSU's win over Miami -- just to name a few. And Stanford would then have to hope Notre Dame loses because it certainly wouldn't win the head-to-head argument should the Irish be in consideration for a top-four spot.
3. BYU at Washington
If BYU wins: Washington's playoff hopes sink to 1.3 percent and Stanford stands alone as the Pac-12's playoff contender. Don't think the home upset is possible? Wisconsin fans didn't either. Washington has lost four straight games against ranked nonconference opponents since beating No. 19 Boise State in 2013 -- when current head coach Chris Petersen was still with the Broncos. BYU's only loss so far was to No. 24 Cal (which snuck into the AP top 25 this week). Even with a win Saturday, it's highly unlikely the committee would put BYU into its final top four, but with wins over Wisconsin and Washington, the Cougars could certainly make a case for a New Year's Six bowl if they finish with one loss. In fact, there would probably be a debate in the room as to whether one-loss Notre Dame or one-loss BYU had the better resume. Notre Dame's remaining strength of schedule rank is currently No. 52, while BYU is No. 67.
If Washington wins: The Huskies earn their first win of the season against a ranked opponent, and continue on the collision course toward their Nov. 3 game against Stanford.