A lot of ‘what ifs’ for Lions

There are a lot of “what ifs” still yet to be determined in the College Football Playoff picture, but one thing became clearer Tuesday night, and it does not favor Penn State.

If the last spot in the Final Four comes down between the Nittany Lions and Ohio State, all indications are the Buckeyes would be selected.

Which means Penn State’s hopes for reaching the CFP could come down to how its resume stacks up against Washington.

The latest developments Tuesday night:

• Penn State moved up a spot to No. 7 in the CFP rankings. There are four Big Ten teams in the top seven, the others being: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 6 Wisconsin. Washington is No. 5.

• Playoff committee chairman Kirby Hocutt indicated that Ohio State is considered a clear cut above PSU, even though the Lions beat the Buckeyes head to head.

“Does the selection committee see a small margin of separation this week between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State? We do not,” Hocutt said on a conference call.

If things go as expected Saturday — hardly a guarantee in this nutty season — Penn State will beat Michigan State and Ohio State will beat Michigan. That would put the Lions in the Big Ten championship game, against either Wisconsin or Nebraska.

A win over a top 10 team in Wisconsin would bolster PSU’s resume. But Ohio State already beat Wisconsin, on the road no less, so if the committee thinks there’s a big gap between the Buckeyes and Lions now, that’s not likely to change. Unless, perhaps, if PSU puts a 59-0 kind of whooping on Wisconsin, the way Ohio State did two years ago.

If Penn State wins the Big Ten, it would be champion of the toughest conference in football, and it would have a head-to-head win over Ohio State. Those two accomplishments combined, some have speculated, would be enough to get the Lions into the CFP, even though they have one more loss overall than the Buckeyes.

Hocutt pretty much dashed that theory, however, when he downplayed the significance of a conference title and head-to-head result. He said those two criteria are only to be used to break ties, but in the committee’s eyes, there is no tie because it already views Ohio State as a better team than Penn State.

“Head to head is a factor, but it’s one among many others as we continue to go further along in the season and in our evaluation,” Hocutt said.

Ohio State’s only loss was a close one on the road at PSU. But if the Buckeyes beat Michigan on Saturday, they will be 11-1 with four wins over current or former Top-10 teams (also Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Nebraska).

They would be in.

Assuming Alabama and Clemson take care of their business and win conference titles, it would leave only one more spot in the CFP. Things then would pretty much would boil down to Penn State vs. Washington.

The Huskies are 10-1. They play No. 23 Washington State this week. If they win, they’ll likely get No. 9 Colorado in the Pac-12 championship game.

Under the best-case scenario for both teams:

Penn State would be 11-2. Washington would be 12-1.

Penn State would have wins over No. 2 Ohio State and No. 6 Wisconsin. Washington’s best wins would be over No. 9 Colorado and No. 22 Utah.

Penn State would have won the nation’s toughest conference. Washington would have won a less difficult conference, but again it would have one less loss.

All of this can become a moot point if Washington loses again. If that happens, the Lions almost certainly would make the playoffs if they win the Big Ten.

But if Washington doesn’t lose again, there will be a lot of nerves for both programs leading into the final CFP selections.

As for this weekend’s games, Penn State finds itself in a strange situation where its future depends heavily on another contest that will be played directly before the Lions kick off.

The Ohio State-Michigan clash is set for noon Saturday, then Penn State plays Michigan State at 3:30.

James Franklin always has a singular focus with his own team, but he did acknowledge Tuesday that he will talk to his players about what’s at stake in the earlier game.

“We’re going to talk about it with the team,” Franklin said. “That game is right before ours. How that game plays out, who wins, who loses, how people look at that and how that impacts our future, there’s no doubt that’s going to be a factor. So we’re going to discuss it ahead of time. … That information will be out there the way social media is, the way the fans are, the reaction in the stadium, things like that. They’ll be aware of it.”

There will also be internal discussions about whether the Ohio State-Michigan game will be shown on the video board at Beaver Stadium before PSU kicks off. Franklin said he still has to hash that out with the administration.

“However that game plays out, it is going to have an impact on our future,” Franklin said. “But it can’t impact how we play on Saturday. That’s the important thing.”

Even if they wanted to, it will be hard for the Penn State players to avoid finding out what’s happening in the Ohio State-Michigan game.

“Am I going to take a look at the Ohio State game? No,” running back Saquon Barkley said. “But it’s 2016, media, you can see the scoreboards and everything. You’re going to be a little aware. I feel like as a team we can’t focus on that. We can only control what we can control, and that’s Michigan State right now.

“If it’s meant for us, the rest of it will take care of itself.”