Big Ten East tiebreaker, explained: What happens if Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan all finish 11-1?

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No. 7 Penn State meets No. 3 Ohio State at Ohio Stadium on Saturday in a battle of unbeaten teams in the first of a three-act play that will decide the Big Ten East champion. 

The Nittany Lions (6-0), Buckeyes (6-0) and No. 2 Michigan (7-0) will participate in those blockbuster matchups. The three top-10 teams have the three best scoring defenses in the FBS at this point in the season. The Wolverines (6.7), Nittany Lions (8.0) and Buckeyes (9.7) all allow less than 10 points per game. 

DATE MATCHUP
Oct. 21 No. 7 Penn State at No. 3 Ohio State
Nov. 11 No. 2 Michigan at No. 7 Penn State
Nov. 25 No. 3 Ohio State at No. 2 Michigan

It should be entertaining, but what happens if all three teams finish 11-1 at the end of the season? That would have a huge impact on the Big Ten, College Football Playoff and perhaps national championship race. It could rest on a quirky Big Ten tiebreaker. 

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Big Ten tiebreakers if Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all are 11-1

Let’s walk through that scenario based on the divisional tiebreakers listed on the Big Ten official website.

The first four tiebreakers would come into play if one of those teams loses outside the round-robin among the three schools. In order, those tiebreakers are: 

  • The records of the three (or more) tied teams will be compared based on winning percentage in games between the tied teams.
  • The records of the three (or more) tied teams will be compared based on winning percentage within their division.
  • The records of the three (or more) teams will be compared against the next highest placed teams in their division in order of finish (4, 5, 6, and 7).
  • The records of the three (or more) teams will be compared based on winning percentage against all common conference opponents.

Those tie-breakers will be put to use if one of the three teams loses outside their games against each other.

So, what happens if Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan all finish 11-1 and go 1-1 in their games against each other? That is where the quirky Big Ten fifth tiebreaker comes into play. The first four tiebreakers would not have an impact. 

  • The records of the three (or more) teams will be compared based on the best cumulative conference winning percentage of non-divisional opponents

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Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan’s Big Ten West opponents results

That means that the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Wolverines would have to count on their three Big Ten West opponents to have success within the conference. 

Here is a look at how those opponents have fared in 2023 and which Big Ten East school has the edge at this point: 

RANK SCHOOL BIG TEN WEST OPPONENTS RECORD PCT
1. Penn State Illinois, Iowa, Northwestern 5-6 .454
2. Ohio State Minnesota, Purdue, Wisconsin 4-6 .400
3. Michigan Minnesota, Purdue, Nebraska 3-7 .300

So, Iowa’s victory against Wisconsin in Week 7 was a huge help for the Nittany Lions should the Big Ten East race come down to this tiebreaker. In that event, the Nittany Lions would go to their first Big Ten championship game since 2016. 

Here is this week’s schedule involving the Big Ten West teams that may impact the Big Ten East tiebreaker:

Minnesota at Iowa, 3:30 ET, NBC

Wisconsin at Illinois, 3:30 ET, FS1

Northwestern at Nebraska, 3:30 ET, BTN

When was the last time Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan tied in Big Ten East? 

It hasn’t happened, but the 2016 Big Ten championship race had similar qualities. Penn State beat Ohio State 24-21 in the regular season, but the Nittany Lions lost 42-39 to Pitt and 49-10 to Michigan. The Wolverines lost 14-13 to Iowa and 30-27 to Ohio State. 

So the final Big Ten standings were Penn State (10-2, 8-1), Ohio State (11-1, 8-1) and Michigan (10-2, 7-2). The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship game in a 38-31 victory against Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes went to the College Football Playoff by virtue of having just one overall loss. 

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When was the last time a three-way tie impacted the playoff picture? 

Go back to the BCS in 2008 and the Big 12 conference. Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all finished 11-1 in the regular season, and here were the final scores of their head to head games: 

DATE MATCHUP
Oct. 11, 2008 No. 5 Texas 45, No. 1 Oklahoma 35
Nov. 1, 2008 No. 7 Texas Tech 39, No. 1 Texas 33
Nov. 22, 2008 No. 5 Oklahoma 65, No. 2 Texas Tech 21

Similar tiebreakers were applied with the first four steps, but the fifth tiebreaker was based on the BCS standings. The Sooners had the highest ranking, so they went to the Big 12 championship game. 

It is somewhat of a surprise that the Big Ten is not using the College Football Playoff rankings for that fifth tiebreaker. As a result, the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Wolverines should keep an eye on those Big Ten West scores.

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