CFP chair explains why Penn State isn't even close to Ohio State right now

At this late stage of the season, every word spoken by College Football Playoff Selection Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt gets dissected for a larger meaning with these weekly mock rankings. So it was Tuesday when Hocutt said this: "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."

This opens the door even wider to the theory Ohio State-Michigan on Saturday is a play-in game and the Buckeyes would make the playoff with one loss even without playing for the Big Ten championship. That would happen if Penn State wins Saturday against Michigan State, a 3-8 team that barely lost 17-16 to the Buckeyes last week.

Ohio State has one less loss and better wins than Penn State. Well, except for the fact Penn State beat Ohio State head to head. Because if you judge teams by best win, nobody has a better win than the Nittany Lions, who also have a 39-point loss to Michigan and a three-point loss to Pittsburgh.

What's unknown is how the committee would treat a two-loss Penn State that wins the Big Ten compared to a one-loss Ohio State. Hocutt's comments about a not-so-small separation between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions could suggest that gap would only be maintained or increased if Ohio State adds a win over No. 3 Michigan.

"We always have a focus on who are the best football teams up to this point in the season," Hocutt said.

Hocutt said there is very small separation between teams ranked 2-5 (Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson and Washington) and between teams 7-10 (Penn State, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oklahoma State). Presumably, the committee views Wisconsin as Goldilocks and just right at No. 6.

The Badgers lost a ranked win when LSU (6-4) fell out of the top 25. Even so, Hocutt said LSU remains a "very talented team" that the coaches on the committee wouldn't want to play. Thus, Wisconsin, whose highest-ranked win is No. 16 Nebraska, didn't get penalized by LSU's loss to Florida.

Read between the lines: If there's not a small gap between Ohio State and Penn State, then Wisconsin could face a similar dilemma if it wins the Big Ten championship over Penn State. The Badgers could really use Ohio State or Michigan on the opposite side of the Big Ten Championship Game.

No. 5 Washington's highest-ranked wins are now No. 22 Utah and No. 24 Stanford. The Huskies could still add wins over No. 23 Washington State and either No. 9 Colorado or No. 12 USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Hocutt continued to note the Huskies' only loss is to a "very good" USC team, though the committee didn't have the stomach to move the three-loss, red-hot Trojans any higher than 12th.

"There's a lot to like about Washington," Hocutt said. "The strength of schedule still gives the committee pause at this time to rank them any higher."

Left unspoken about speculating over mock rankings is the value placed on conference championships in two weeks. Also, of course, there will actually be more games to evaluate.

For instance, the committee will likely get another chance to see Michigan backup quarterback John O'Korn, who is filling in for injured starter Wilton Speight. O'Korn was 7 of 16 for 59 yards, though he did have a key 30-yard run to spark the offense. Quarterback injury questions can factor into evaluations of teams. See Ohio State and Cardale Jones in 2014.

"The committee continues to be very impressed with a Michigan team who's the only team with three wins against CFP top-10 teams," Hocutt said. "They continue to be impressed with Michigan's defense. We discussed the quarterback situation. We're aware of it, but obviously that didn't change our opinions."

On Saturday, after whatever result Ohio State-Michigan spits out, the committee also gets a chance to see Penn State face the same Michigan State team that nearly beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes, who have wins over No. 6 Wisconsin, No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 16 Nebraska, didn't get dinged by the committee for the close win.

"They're an extremely talented football team," Hocutt said. "The committee continues to be impressed with their three wins over CFP top-25 teams. We were obviously aware of the conditions [strong wind] in which that game was played in, but we continue to be impressed with Ohio State."

You know the end is near when weather conditions get used as a qualifier to justify a team's poor weekly performance. This is what you get with weekly rankings: The very strong hint that Ohio State is in the CFP -- if the Buckeyes win their most challenging game of the year in four days.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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