In the painful moments after his Michigan team lost to Ohio State in a double-overtime thriller, Jim Harbaugh struggled to see the big picture.
The coach — amid griping about officials and proclaiming himself to be “bitter” — was asked if the Wolverines deserved a spot in the College Football Playoff.
“Uh,” he replied, “I don’t know.”
That pretty much sums up the conundrum now facing the CFP system, particularly when it comes to how the selection committee will deal with the Big Ten Conference.
Ohio State and Michigan ranked among the best teams in the nation before Saturday’s showdown, yet neither qualified for their conference’s championship game later this week.
That honor goes to Wisconsin and Penn State, who reside a little farther down the list.
So the Big Ten becomes problematic, if not a thorn in the CFP’s side, with the playoff bracket to be issued next Sunday.
As the selection committee protocol states — in its very first sentence — “ranking football teams is an art, not a science.”
At some point on Monday, the 12 men and women of the committee will gather in a room in Grapevine, Texas, to begin discussing the matter. Last week, committee Chairman Kirby Hocutt was asked about a possible logjam in the Big Ten.
“We start new each and every week based upon what’s taken place up to that point in time,” he said. “I just cannot look forward and speculate.”
Hocutt can’t, but we can.
Top-ranked Alabama is the easiest choice, undefeated and headed for the Southeastern Conference title game. The Crimson Tide might make it even if they lose to No. 15 Florida.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, No. 3 Michigan looks like the biggest loser from the weekend, nudged to the edge of the playoff picture by a second loss in three games. The challenge for the selection committee could be choosing between — or among — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 7 Penn State.
If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten title in Indianapolis on Saturday, it would be no big surprise for the committee to bypass the Badgers and keep Ohio State in the playoff.
Remember, the CFP protocol was established to provide “enough flexibility and discretion to select a non-champion or independent under circumstances where that particular non-champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country.”
Though conference championships matter, they are merely one of several criteria for choosing between teams the committee deems to be roughly equal.
Besides, the Buckeyes defeated Wisconsin in mid-October, and head-to-head results represent another selection criterion.
The picture grows a little muddier if Penn State wins Saturday, because the Nittany Lions upset Ohio State the week after the Buckeyes beat Wisconsin.
So would committee members choose two-loss Penn State over one-loss Ohio State? Or might they take two teams from the Big Ten?
The latter scenario could leave No. 4 Clemson or No. 5 Washington out in the cold. Both of those teams play for their conference championships this week and could bolster their resumes with a victory.
Clemson faces Virginia Tech for the Atlantic Coast Conference title. Washington, which has faced doubts about its strength of schedule, would certainly benefit from defeating No. 9 Colorado to win the Pac-12.
“Hopefully we’ll play our best game of the year,” Huskies Coach Chris Petersen said.
There are other teams lurking on the periphery with hopes — slim hopes — of sneaking in.
Colorado would need a decisive victory on Friday to stand any chance. The same could be said for No. 8 Oklahoma, which faces No. 10 Oklahoma State for the Big 12 title.
Last season, the one-loss Sooners made the final four after a 58-23 win over their cross-state rivals. This fall they have two early defeats on their record, but Coach Bob Stoops remains optimistic.
“I think they pay attention to how you’re playing at the end,” he said of the selection committee. “A year ago, that was a major case for us being in the playoffs.”
If nothing else, this fall’s jumble has strengthened the argument for expanding the playoff to eight teams. Sure, there would be disagreements over who gets the last spot, but it wouldn’t be anything compared to what we’re likely to hear over the next few weeks.
In the Big Ten, players know that fans are already skeptical about Wisconsin and Penn State vying for the title.
“I’m sure there’s plenty of people who didn’t expect it,” said Michael Deiter, an offensive lineman for the Badgers. “But they’re a good team, we’re a good team.”
The rest of the conference — and the rest of college football — can only watch and wait. Next weekend, the selection committee will meet for a final time to make sense of it all.
Or, at least, render a final decision.
“It’s really out of our hands,” Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said. “It’s up to the committee to do their thing.”