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The Path to the College Football Playoff for Indiana and Northwestern

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Should Northwestern or Indiana be taken seriously when it comes to the College Football Playoff photo?

Right now, the Allstate Playoff Predictor says no.

Those two teams currently have a 3% and 2% chance of reaching the playoffs respectively. That’s the bad news for those schools. The good news? They are both just a win away from teams with a real (but long) chance of the playoffs. And they can help each other: if they both win, each becomes a contender with a legitimate chance. Coincidentally, those wins must come against a pair of juggernauts.

Let’s break the numbers down. A win for Northwestern over Wisconsin this weekend would jump the Wildcats to an 18% chance of the playoffs. A win for Indiana over Ohio State would take the Hoosiers to a 10% chance. The reason Indiana’s chances of Saturday victory are lower than Northwestern’s has nothing to do with team quality – the two teams have the same FPI rating down to one-tenth of a point per game – and it all has to do with the fact that Indiana should play the Badgers later this season.

While a loss to Wisconsin in December would be irrelevant to Indiana’s divisional chances if it won all other games, including against Ohio State on Saturday, it would still hurt the Hoosiers’ playoffs as their spot as champions by one loss that would not be guaranteed. But back to Saturday. What if both underdogs win? That’s where things get really interesting.

The problem for the Hoosiers and Wildcats is that if they win alone, they are still staring at a likely match with Wisconsin or Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game respectively. If their opponent is expected to be just the other, it’s a fair fight. Of course there is only a 1.5% chance that both teams will win this weekend. But it is not impossible.

There are also significant ripple effects from the results of those two games.

While one of these underdogs winning Saturday would be good for them, it would be bad for the Big Ten, at least in terms of the odds of putting multiple teams in the playoffs. If the two favorites win, the conference has a good chance – 27% – with two teams in almost certainly the state of Ohio and Wisconsin. That number drops to 17% if Northwestern wins, 8% if Indiana wins, and 12% if they both win.

That impact can be felt even outside the conference. For example, the SEC would have a 19% chance of multiple teams in the playoffs with victories in Ohio State and Wisconsin, but their advantage is nine points higher – 28% – if the two underdogs win. The ACC sees a similar jump – from a 9% chance of multiple playoff teams in the former scenario to 16% in the latter. And the Pac-12’s chance of making a team make it to the playoffs jumps from 36% to 43%.

In other words, for fans of Oregon, Clemson and Texas A&M, Saturday’s Big Ten games have real meaning.

FPI makes Ohio State and Wisconsin more than a favorite each with two touchdowns over Indiana and Northwestern respectively. But if the underdogs can pull off one or more surprises, the impact will be felt around college football.

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