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Why Nebraska Should Lead Big Ten Charge in Playoff Committee Rankings

The College Football Playoff Committee will release the first weekly poll in about a week, and this will be the first opportunity to see what types of things this committee will value when selecting the best teams in the sport. Will schedule strength win the day for the SEC, or will conference leaders have an edge on a playoff spot? There are so many questions which will finally see some level of resolution with this first poll.

Among other interesting things, how the 12 members come to a consensus on Big Ten teams will be an important question that finally receives an initial answer. The Big Ten is down to four realistic candidates for these rankings long term, and each of these teams will come into the discussion with one loss already on the docket.

But there are only four teams in all of college football with pristine records left (and two of them are the Mississippi schools that play one another during rivalry weekend, while another is Marshall), so having one loss is far from enough to be eliminated from the playoff discussion.

Despite the many similarities in resumes, it may surprise you that Nebraska should be seriously considered as the top team in the conference in these initial rankings. If the committee favors certain team attributes, the Cornhuskers are best positioned for competing for a playoff spot.

Don’t believe it?

Check out the following comparisons of resume points between the Big Ten competitors.

Least Damaging Loss?

  • Michigan State lost @ Oregon 46-27 in Week 2
  • Minnesota lost @ TCU 30-7 in Week 3
  • Nebraska lost @ Michigan State 27-22 in Week 6
  • Ohio State lost at home vs. Virginia Tech 35-21 in Week 2

The only loss that stands out as bad in this set is Ohio State’s loss because Virginia Tech is 4-3 and is the only non-top 10 caliber team on this list of losses, plus OSU lost at home. Of the other three losses, Minnesota stands out because the Gophers were never even competitive against the Horned Frogs. Nebraska lost to Michigan State, but the final outcome was much closer than any of these other results. Of course, that distinction is negated a bit by the later date of the Nebraska loss and the fact that it was to MSU.

Verdict: When comparing losses, Michigan State and Nebraska stand relatively even while both hold a significant edge on Minnesota and OSU.

Best Wins?

  • Michigan State defeated Nebraska at home 27-22, defeated Indiana on road 56-17
  • Minnesota defeated Northwestern at home 24-17, defeated Michigan on road 30-14
  • Nebraska defeated Miami-FL at home 41-31, defeated Northwestern on road 38-17
  • Ohio State defeated Maryland on road 52-24, defeated Cincinnati at home 50-28

As far as quality of opponent, there’s little doubt that Nebraska will be the highest-rated team on the list of wins for anyone so far, although Miami-FL and Maryland are not too far behind. The remainder of these teams are all middle-of-the-road opponents, so the lack of a top-flight or good win knocks Minnesota out of this one. Although the quality of opponents is roughly equal for these top wins among the other three teams with a slight edge to MSU, the Spartans fall behind because Nebraska and OSU have largely dominated their top games while Michigan State has had full quarters or more of struggles in its biggest games.

Verdict: Ohio State and Nebraska share top honors here, with Michigan State next and Minnesota lagging behind.

Schedule Strength?

  • Michigan State ranked 64th in Sagarin schedule rankings
  • Minnesota ranked 76th in Sagarin schedule rankings
  • Nebraska ranked 58th in Sagarin schedule rankings
  • Ohio State ranked 72nd in Sagarin schedule rankings

Well, those numbers are not inspiring. Furthermore, none of these stand out by a wide margin in either direction from the middle of the pack in college football. That said, Nebraska and Michigan State played a better non-conference schedule based on what we know to this part of the season, and that is reflected in the schedule rankings. This “strength of schedule” may not help any of the Big Ten contenders jump those from other conferences, but the slight differences still favor Nebraska here.

Verdict: Nebraska and Michigan State lead the way, but the margin for this item is incredibly narrow.

Points Per Game Margin?

  • Michigan State scores 47.0 points per game and gives up 21.6, which is a net +25.4
  • Minnesota scores 28.7 points per game and gives up 21.4, which is a net +7.3
  • Nebraska scores 41.0 points per game and gives up 19.9, which is a net +21.1
  • Ohio State scores 46.5 points per game and gives up 20.2, which is a net +26.3

The way a team handles the opposition, especially with mediocre schedule strength as set forth above, will be a critical factor in judging the worthiness of teams for the playoff. Three of these teams have been putting up comfortable margins in the final scores, while Minnesota has struggled with a highly ineffective offense. Anything over +20 is great, so three of the teams are in great shape to set the eye test narrative with blowouts.

Verdict: Slight edge to Michigan State and Ohio State, with Nebraska close behind and Minnesota hurting.

Yards Per Game Margin?

  • Michigan State gains 525 yards per game and gives up 293, which is a net +232
  • Minnesota gains 349 yards per game and gives up 364, which is a net -15
  • Nebraska gains 523 yards per game and gives up 339, which is a net +184
  • Ohio State gains 534 yards per game and gives up 320, which is a net +214

Perhaps even more indicative of a team’s dominance of the opposition and overall team quality is the yards per game margin. Regardless of whether a defense is shut down dominant or an offense is an unstoppable force (or both), the better teams in the country tend to outgain the competition more than others. So far, these numbers are fairly close to being in line with the point margin per game statistic above, but that is not always the case. But for now…

Verdict: Slight edge to Michigan State and Ohio State, with Nebraska close and Minnesota way back.

Eye Test?

Now here’s where it gets tricky. Every person evaluating college football teams, including those on the CFB Playoff Committee, will have a different set of priorities valued over others. However, there is just a sense when teams are improving and heading in a positive direction. That’s typically the type of team that fans want to reward and see in the championship setting, as a team resting on laurels or name power only usually does not fare well when the games get tougher.

Here, Ohio State has apparently taken the biggest steps forward to date, moving from an offense that was lost against Virginia Tech to a consistently dominant attack that puts inferior opponents away early in games. Michigan State has lost focus at times early in the season against Oregon and more recently against Purdue, Indiana and Nebraska, which is not a good sign. Nebraska has been dominant outside a clunker outing against McNeese State early and the game against MSU, while Minnesota keeps squeaking by most weeks. In this subjective person’s opinion, the results play out like this…

Verdict: Ohio State is a clear leader, with Michigan State and Nebraska tied for second.


Final Verdict

There are many factors that will go into the final analysis for the committee, especially as the season continues and more data on these teams becomes available. Some things like conference championships are not known yet and will not be known until the end of the season. However, the first snapshot of the rankings next week will set the narrative by letting the world know which teams truly have a shot at the playoff and which do not.

Based on the numbers and information above, assigning 1 point for leading a category and 4 points for trailing it, Nebraska has a total that is just below Ohio State and Michigan State. Thus, using these factors known to date and this methodology indicates that it is Nebraska, not OSU or MSU, that should be leading the Big Ten contingent in the initial and early CFB Committee rankings next week.

At a minimum, Nebraska needs to be competing for the Top 10 alongside the Spartans and the Buckeyes.

So while there may be one or two bigger stories that develop when the initial rankings come out next week. look for Nebraska to stack up much better compared to Big Ten competition than is indicated in the polls currently.

Go forth Cornhuskers…lead the way in this new era!

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 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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