INDIANAPOLIS -- When the top four teams won this weekend, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee won a reprieve. The 12 representatives who will bask in the glow of their computer screens on Selection Day don't have to choose among equals.
One can argue that No. 4 Washington's 41-10 rout of No. 8 Colorado, coupled with No. 3 Clemson's 42-35 defeat of No. 23 Virginia Tech, means that the Huskies and Tigers should switch. But it's hard to argue against rewarding the only four Power 5 teams that finished the season with one loss or fewer.
No. 7 Penn State can make a compelling case, given that it won the Big Ten by a score of 38-31 over No. 6 Wisconsin on Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium and defeated No. 2 Ohio State during the regular season. But the Buckeyes won't be the first team to lose and advance beyond a team that beat them.
Florida State won the 1993 wire-service national championship over Notre Dame, a result that will send former Irish head coach Lou Holtz's blood pressure off the chart to this day. Seven years later, the Seminoles lost to Miami yet finished ahead of the Hurricanes in the BCS standings. It didn't help the young BCS' credibility when Oklahoma pounded Florida State in the national championship game.
Now, in Year 3, the credibility of the College Football Playoff will be tested on Selection Day. Those of us who like sports because there are clear-cut winners and losers hoped for no upsets and hoped the committee wouldn't have to make an impossible decision. After Penn State won Saturday night, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany refused the opportunity to pick among his constituents.
"I don't know what it means," Delany said. "Is the Clemson game over?"
The Tigers had won.
"All the votes are in," Delany said. "I'll be watching like everybody else."
If No. 5 Michigan is mad about playing in the Capital One Orange Bowl, then the Wolverines should have done better than 2-2 on the road.
Penn State could, like No. 10 USC, make a case that it is one of the four best teams in the country on Dec. 3. Picture a world, if you will, in which the roles this weekend were reversed. Penn State would be No. 2 and Wisconsin No. 5, and No. 6 Ohio State would play No. 7 Michigan for the Big Ten Championship. Does anyone think that Big Ten champion would be left out of the playoff?
When the commissioners assembled the playoff four years ago, Delany pushed for the field to be the four best conference champions. He lost that argument. The College Football Playoff is trying to identify the four best teams based on -- all together now -- their entire body of work.
That means games in September matter. That's why Stanford didn't make the playoff a year ago, after it lost to Northwestern on Labor Day weekend. Penn State lost to Pitt 39-36 in Week 2, which should bring a warm feeling to every Panther fan of a certain age who wants to resurrect the once-bitter annual rivalry with the Nittany Lions. Hey, Pitt, you just cost Penn State a shot at the national championship.
The Nittany Lions mostly chose to not make their case for the playoff. The players did so with a smile. Junior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, asked if he had any doubt that Penn State is one of the four best teams in the nation, said, "That's what I believe. We can hang with anybody in the country. No doubt."
That's where he stopped.
"We'll hear what's announced," Cabinda said. "We'll be really appreciative of that opportunity. We can't wait to play that next game, regardless of who it's against."
The head coach spoke up a little more, which James Franklin does with the way he breathes. It's an involuntary muscular contraction.
"Every time I turn on the TV or read an article, people said this year the Big Ten Conference was by far the strongest conference in college football," Franklin said. "I've heard that over and over again. We just won the Big Ten Conference championship. ... So I think we can make a great case for ourselves."
Barring a change of heart by the selection committee, Penn State will play in the Rose Bowl, the first prize among consolation prizes. It pains me to type that sentence.
But there is, as Franklin went on to say, a lot to celebrate. Penn State won its first Big Ten championship since 2008 -- a lifetime ago if you're a Nittany Lion. Everyone in the Happy Valley was a lot younger then.
The discord and travails of the past five years in State College might be why this team becomes as beloved as the 1992 Kentucky basketball team, the Unforgettables, the Wildcats who lost to Duke and Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater in a regional final. All Kentucky had to overcome was NCAA probation.
The Nittany Lions displayed a microcosm of their entire season: they started slow, falling behind the Badgers 28-7 in the second quarter. But once Penn State got a little momentum, the Nittany Lions couldn't be stopped. Quarterback Trace McSorley threw for 384 yards, a personal best and a Big Ten Championship Game record, and four touchdowns, also a game record.
"We don't want to be a second-half team," senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton said after the game. "That's just how things worked out for us all season. ... We never had a sense of panic. That's what makes this team special."
This year, that will have to be enough. This year, it just might be.