Brace yourself, Washington.
Be cautiously optimistic, Penn State.
Keep your fingers crossed, Wisconsin.
No. 2 Ohio State is looming like a bully, ready to pluck the College Football Playoff dreams from somebody who earned a conference championship. The Buckeyes have elbowed and earned their way into the selection committee's top four in each of the past two weeks and should stay there again on Tuesday after knocking off No. 3 Michigan in double overtime. The biggest question facing the committee, though, will come on Dec. 4, when it has to determine the value of a conference championship and what to do with an Ohio State team that didn't even win its own division.
In each of the past two seasons, speculation swirled about how the committee would handle an independent like Notre Dame or a team that didn't win its conference title, but that debate never came to fruition -- until now. With four wins against Top 25 teams -- at Oklahoma, at Wisconsin, Nebraska and now Michigan -- Ohio State has a playoff résumé that rivals that of any other team in the country save for undefeated Alabama. Penn State, though, clinched the East Division and will play Wisconsin for the Big Ten title, guaranteeing the conference a two-loss champion.
And there sits one-loss Ohio State, which beat Wisconsin but lost to Penn State.
This will be quite the conundrum for the selection committee, which has been directed by the 10 FBS commissioners in its protocol to use head-to-head results and conference championships as tiebreakers when résumés are comparable.
Because Penn State has two losses, though, is it comparable? Don't forget: PSU lost to an unranked Pitt team and lost by 39 points to Michigan -- hence its current No. 7 ranking.
The Nittany Lions and their fans need to prepare for the fact that Penn State could win the Big Ten and be left out of the playoff in favor of a team they beat in October. As of today, the gap between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State is significant, according to committee chair Kirby Hocutt, but it should shrink after PSU's convincing win over Michigan State to clinch the East. The more justifiable scenario for the committee would be to have Penn State AND Ohio State in their top four.
At the expense of ... ahem ... Washington.
Told you to brace yourself, Huskies.
Washington's nonconference schedule -- wins against Rutgers, Idaho and FCS foe Portland State -- is Bayloresque. Worse than that, in fact. Those teams are a combined 12-22 right now. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Washington's nonconference schedule is ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams. (Only Boston College's is worse.) An undefeated record could compensate for that, but one loss opens the door for debate. The good news is that Washington will have earned wins over ranked opponents Stanford, Utah and Washington State, plus a top-10 team in Colorado if it wins the Pac-12 title.
None of those wins, though, is as good as Ohio State's win over Michigan. It's also possible No. 23 Washington State drops out of the committee's Top 25 this week. If the committee puts Washington in, it will send a message contradictory to everything it has hammered home to this point about strength of schedule. Athletic directors and coaches would then be less inclined to schedule aggressively if they could get away with playing a nonconference lineup like Washington's and still get in, despite losing a game.
And yet ... don't dismiss the possibility that the top four could include Ohio State AND Washington -- but not Penn State.
Here's what we know: Alabama and Clemson should be locks if they win their respective conference championships, and somebody from the Big Ten is getting in.
Maybe two somebodies.
The best-case scenario for Ohio State would be for Wisconsin to win the Big Ten because the Buckeyes beat the Badgers back in October. That head-to-head result would certainly make it easier on the selection committee to explain why it put Ohio State in.
What would be difficult to justify would be keeping Michigan in after its second loss of the season. Yes, it was a double-overtime loss on the road to the No. 2 team in the country, and it's certainly reasonable to make a case that the Wolverines are one of the best teams in the country with wins over the two Big Ten teams that will be playing for the league title.
But Michigan also lost to Iowa. And it now loses the head-to-head argument against the Buckeyes. Michigan should still be ranked ahead of Wisconsin and Penn State this week -- but that will likely change once one of them has the Big Ten title. The Wolverines aren't just competing against the Big Ten champ's résumé: Michigan would now have to compete against the Buckeyes' résumé, a battle it's unlikely to win -- again.
Big Ten fans want answers. Washington wants in. The problem is that plenty can and will change with one more week of games. The conference championship games -- and in the Big 12's case, Bedlam -- are the final pieces to the puzzle. Only then will the committee have the "full body of work" to evaluate.
But we're only three years into this fledgling system, powered by 12 humans who are impossible to predict.
They haven't been faced yet with a team like Ohio State. The system was constructed this way, though, so they have the freedom to pick the four best teams -- not necessarily four conference champions.
The Big Ten will force them to determine what matters most -- and it's something not even they know the answer to yet.