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Nebraska Path to College Football Playoff Still Exists, But Barely

Although certainly buried underneath the bigger story lines near the top of the third College Football Playoff committee rankings this week, Nebraska’s drop three spots during a bye week is telling. Apparently the committee continues to be willing to punish teams severely for losses that look worse as the season goes along, and the Big Ten also fails to get the benefit of the doubt when comparing similar records.

Thus, Michigan State loses for a second time and Nebraska ends up suffering the consequence. The Cornhuskers are one of only ten teams in the Power Five conferences with fewer than two losses, but eight of those teams are in the top 8 of the CFP rankings while Nebraska sits at No. 16 (it could be worse, Duke is 8-1 and even lower at No. 21).

The general consensus is that Ohio State at No. 8 will have a hard time making the top 4 by the end of the season, while Nebraska has been apparently written off. However, a back-loaded schedule and some mitigating factors from previous opponents may create a small window of opportunity for Bo Pelini’s team to shoot back up in the rankings.

Despite what Andy said earlier this week about the Big Ten getting more respect from the committee, Nebraska will have to earn this jump in the rankings the hard way. They need to win big, and hope for more chaos than we’ve seen since the 2007 season, when a two-loss LSU squad took home the national title.

But it could happen, and here’s how.

The first step is obvious, win out and do so convincingly. The schedule is actually respectable the rest of the way, as Wisconsin and Ohio State/Michigan State (B1G Championship Game opponent) will be ranked when playing Nebraska, and Minnesota could be if the Gophers upset OSU this weekend. The road game at Iowa is also no simple task, as the Hawkeyes will have a winning record also. So 12-1 is a must.

Although Ohio State, UCLA, Arizona and Georgia each jumped past the Cornhuskers this week, it is unlikely that the next teams behind Nebraska will do the same thanks to LSU having three losses already and Notre Dame and Clemson being shells of their former selves this season. That means Nebraska must move past 12 of the 15 teams in front of them. Let’s break it down by conference:

  • SEC: (1) Mississippi State, (5) Alabama, (9) Auburn, (10) Mississippi, (15) Georgia
  • Pac-12: (2) Oregon, (6) Arizona State, (11) UCLA, (14) Arizona
  • ACC: (3) Florida State
  • Big 12: (4) TCU, (7) Baylor, (13) Kansas State
  • Big Ten: (8) Ohio State, (12) Michigan State

The most important piece of the puzzle and the most straightforward will be Florida State losing, preferably this weekend against Miami, which Nebraska defeated in non-conference play. Although FSU would not immediately drop behind Nebraska, the Cornhuskers would likely overtake the Seminoles at the end as a 12-1 conference champion, considering all of the struggles FSU has experienced in games this season (plus the Miami game comparison would be used). The Seminoles could hypothetically be knocked out by Florida or Duke as well, but Miami makes for a better case overall for Nebraska to jump past the Seminoles.

For the Big Ten, it may seem beneficial to have Minnesota be ranked next week when Nebraska plays them, but a more impressive victory at the end against a potential top-4 foe in Ohio State would be even better. Therefore, Nebraska needs to hope for OSU to win out and then lose in Indianapolis to the Huskers. Michigan State preferably needs to take on one more loss as well, and Maryland this week would be a good opportunity for that. However, if Nebraska defeats OSU convincingly, the Big Ten champion would likely jump a 10-2 MSU team despite the head-to-head result when these teams played in East Lansing. So winning out should jump Nebraska past both Big Ten teams ahead of it.

That leaves three conferences, and the goal will be to have each conference end up with only one legitimate playoff contender. Here’s how that can happen:

In the Big 12, Kansas State still faces tough road games at WVU and at Baylor. West Virginia knocked off the Bears and nearly did the same to the Horned Frogs in Morgantown, so it would be no surprise to see Kansas State take on a critical third loss there. Then the Wildcats need to take down Baylor, which is anchored down by a weak overall schedule already. There’s no way a two-loss Baylor squad ends up ahead of a 12-1 Big Ten champion, so that would leave only TCU ahead of Nebraska.

As a side note, TCU could also hypothetically lose at Texas, which is the last tough-ish game remaining for the Horned Frogs. If that happens, Nebraska may be able to survive having Florida State stay undefeated, as then the Big 12 would not have a playoff representative. So to summarize, only one of TCU or FSU can win out.

In the Pac-12, the easiest path will be to have all the South Division competitors lose another game, and this is totally plausible. UCLA has been inconsistent and must still play USC and Stanford, so the Bruins need to lose one of those games. Then the loser of Arizona and Arizona State would be eliminated on the last week of the season, with the winner going on to be eliminated in the Pac-12 title game by Oregon. An alternative path would be for Utah to beat Arizona, then Arizona to beat ASU, which would put UCLA in position to lose to Oregon again. Either way, all three of these teams need another loss and then a 12-1 Nebraska will jump everyone but Oregon in the Pac-12.

In the SEC, we will first assume Georgia takes on another loss either against Auburn, Georgia Tech or in the SEC championship (assuming Missouri loses again and lets Georgia get there). It just seems more likely that the SEC West champion will be the winner, anyway. Although it would be nice for Georgia to take out Auburn this weekend, that is not necessary for Nebraska to jump all but one of the SEC West teams.

Thanks to having all games left at home (and perhaps the strongest team in America when playing at home), Alabama is the logical choice to win out and stay ahead of Nebraska. That would mean Mississippi State has to lose twice, at Alabama and at Mississippi in the Egg Bowl. To keep Ole Miss from using that win to stay in front of Nebraska, the Rebels must be upset at Arkansas next weekend as well. Auburn would take a loss at Georgia and/or at Alabama in this scenario. Thus, the biggest reach necessary in the SEC is to have Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks finally win a SEC game, which would open the door for Nebraska.

So the playoff dream is a mighty long shot at this point, but it is still plausible. Essentially, Nebraska needs two major upsets from the following list:

  • Miami or Florida defeats Florida State
  • Texas defeats TCU
  • Arkansas defeats Ole Miss

Never say never Huskers fans, but the results must begin this weekend. Taking care of Wisconsin in Camp Randall will be task enough, but hope is still there for at least one more week.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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