We all might have overreacted after Ohio State’s loss to Iowa two Saturdays ago.
In the hours following that game, the impact of that loss on Ohio State’s College Football Playoff hopes seemed obvious: the Buckeyes had lost their second game of the year, by 31 points to an unranked team, almost certainly ending their national championship hopes. In my postgame story following that game, I wrote that Ohio State’s national championship hopes had “imploded,” that the Buckeyes’ biggest goal was “off the table” and that a season without a national title was a reality the Buckeyes would have to accept.
Less than two weeks later, however, it looks like the Buckeyes might have survived the blast.
After climbing four spots in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, moving back up to No. 9, it looks as though a trip to the playoff could realistically be on the table once again.
That’s not to say the Buckeyes came out of the blast unscathed. After all, Ohio State will still need to climb five more spots to get into the field of four, and there’s only three weeks left for that to happen. The Buckeyes certainly need to win the rest of their games, including a prospective Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, and they still might need some other games to break their way. Even if the Buckeyes do win out, they will be in a position where their résumé is being compared alongside teams with arguably better résumés, and they’ll go into decision day on Dec. 3 uncertain of whether they’ll be in or out.
That, though, isn’t new territory for the Buckeyes, who were never ranked in the top four until decision day in 2014, when they received the No. 4 spot in the field and ended up winning the national championship.
The question now, of course, is what the Buckeyes still need to have happen to have a chance. First and foremost, once again, is they need to take care of business in the rest of their games before decision day – a task that’s easier said than done, given that the Buckeyes still need to beat their rivals in Ann Arbor and win a conference title game against the Badgers, who are currently undefeated and ranked fifth in the CFP rankings. If the Buckeyes can do that, though, their path to the playoff is starting to look promising once again.
Why the Buckeyes appear to have a real shot
- At least three teams in front of Ohio State will lose
No. 1 Alabama plays No. 6 Auburn at the end of the regular season, while of the winner of that game will play No. 7 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, which means at least two of those three teams will lose another game.
No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami are set to play each other in the ACC Championship Game, so we also know that at least one of those teams will lose another game.
Should Ohio State win out, that also means No. 5 Wisconsin will lose, which means at least four teams currently ranked ahead of the Buckeyes will lose between now and Dec. 3 if the Buckeyes win out.
That doesn’t guarantee that Ohio State will jump all of those teams. The biggest threats to remain ahead of the Buckeyes even with another loss would be Alabama and Miami, given that both of them are currently undefeated, so Ohio State fans should probably be rooting for the Crimson Tide and Hurricanes from here on out. A third loss by Auburn would eliminate those Tigers, however, while conference championship game second losses for Georgia and Clemson would also likely be good news for a two-loss conference champion Ohio State.
- Buckeyes should jump Notre Dame if both win out
No. 8 Notre Dame is ranked ahead of Ohio State right now because the Irish have a better resume than the Buckeyes. The Irish have wins ahead of three teams who are currently ranked in the top 25, while both of their losses came against teams who are currently ranked in the top seven; Ohio State, meanwhile, has only two wins against current top-25 teams and a loss to an unranked team.
Playing in a conference with a conference championship game, however, gives the Buckeyes an opportunity to eventually have a resume that’s better than Notre Dame’s. While Notre Dame still has one remaining game against a team currently ranked in the top 25 (No. 22 Stanford), Ohio State has two (No. 24 Michigan and Wisconsin), and the simple fact that Ohio State could win an 11th game and a conference title on the day before decision day – while Notre Dame will not be playing that weekend – would probably be enough to propel a two-loss Ohio State ahead of a two-loss Notre Dame, even if that doesn’t happen until the final set of rankings.
"Auburn is the best two-loss team in the eyes of the Selection Committee this week. When we got into discussions on teams I would say 7 through 11, there was not a lot of separation in 7 through 11,” College Football Playoff committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said Tuesday night in response to a question about Ohio State, suggesting that the Buckeyes are not far behind Notre Dame in the committee's eyes.
What the Buckeyes still need to happen
- CFP committee must value conference championships
All the speculation that Ohio State could have a path back into the playoff is contingent on the notion that the College Football Playoff committee will ultimately reward teams who win their conference championship games, and that the Buckeyes still have a real chance to do so.
It’s true that a two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff, but it’s also true that two teams from the same conference have never made the playoff in the same year. It’s also true that with the exception of Ohio State last year, 11 of the 12 teams who have made the first three playoffs have been conference champions.
Two spots in the playoff field will likely go to the SEC champion (Alabama, Auburn or Georgia) and ACC champion (Clemson or Miami), assuming those teams don’t lose games they shouldn’t before then. The third spot in the playoff field will likely go to Oklahoma (currently ranked fourth) if it wins the Big 12 championship. The fourth spot, though, looks as if it could very well be decided by who wins the Big Ten championship game – with Wisconsin and Ohio State both ranking ahead of every Pac-12 team – if the Badgers and Buckeyes both win their final two regular-season games.
- Buckeyes must continue to win with authority
This, once again, remains the Buckeyes’ most important step. Ohio State must win its final two regular-season games and the Big Ten Championship Game, and because it is in a position of needing to convince the committee it belongs in the field despite that might speak to the contrary, whether Ohio State makes the playoff might ultimately depend on if the Buckeyes can win those final three games convincingly.
Had Ohio State squeaked by Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, instead of demolishing the Badgers in a 59-0 blowout, the Buckeyes very well might have been left out of the playoff that year in favor of Baylor or TCU.
The Buckeyes could be in a similar bubble situation this year with the SEC and ACC runners-up and Notre Dame, but the potential chance to knock off an undefeated Wisconsin team – especially if they can win convincingly, though that won’t be easy to do – could be what they need to get them over the hump.
No matter how well the Buckeyes play over the next three weeks, nothing is guaranteed for Ohio State. Considering that they have two losses on their resume, including a 31-point loss to Iowa, nothing should be.
That said, the math suggests that if Ohio State is able to win three more consecutive games to close out its season, the Buckeyes have a good shot at jumping five teams and earning the fourth spot in the playoff. That looks especially true if Alabama, Miami and Oklahoma can all win out, which would likely position the Big Ten Championship Game between Wisconsin and Ohio State as a de facto playoff game of its own for the fourth spot.
Should all of that happen, Ohio State could end up in the exact same position it was entering the 2014 playoff: ranked No. 4 and headed to the Sugar Bowl to play No. 1 Alabama.