Ohio State Could Start the College Football Playoff Rankings at No. 1, and Why That Would Matter

By Colin Hass-Hill on November 4, 2019 at 12:05 pm
Ryan Day

In the five years since college football eschewed the BCS system in favor of the playoff, Ohio State has had no shortage of success.

During that time, the Buckeyes have compiled a 62-7 record with three Big Ten championships and appearances in the Sugar Bowl (2014), Fiesta Bowl (2015, 2016), Cotton Bowl (2017) and Rose Bowl (2018). They never entered postseason play ranked anywhere below seventh, and capped off the 2014 season with a national championship by beating Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Yet, Ohio State has never found itself at the No. 1 spot in the playoff rankings. Not during the year it won the national title. Not during the 2016 season, the last year it earned a playoff bid. Not in the five years of the playoff's existence.

That could change on Tuesday night. Even though the Buckeyes are ranked third in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and fourth in the Coaches Poll, there’s a possibility that the committee could have them first when the initial rankings get released.

Given the continual fluctuation of committee members, it’s sometimes difficult to compare what it does in a given year with what it has done in the past. What isn’t hard, though, is to see that the committee never feels beholden to ranking teams the same way as AP voters.

In the five years of the playoff’s existence, the top-four teams in the AP poll that’s released days before the initial playoff rankings – either in late October or early November – have only been the same four teams in the opening playoff rankings once, and they’ve never been in the same order. Last year, there was only one difference, with No. 3 and No. 4 trading places between the AP poll and playoff rankings. Most years, though, there have been notably more changes.

Take 2015, for example. Not a single team in the top four of the AP poll was in the same spot in the initial playoff ranking. The top two teams in the playoff rankings were third and fourth in the AP poll. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the initial playoff rankings were ranked first and seventh, respectively, in the AP poll.

With that in mind, it’s certainly possible that regardless of where the Buckeyes are in the AP and coaches polls right now, they could open the rankings at No. 1. Would that matter? Not right away, and not to Ryan Day if you ask him publicly.

“You start looking ahead into rankings and where we're going to be, if you start looking into all that you'll get yourself in trouble,” Day said on Oct. 26. “We have not done that this year and we cannot do that moving forward.”

Chase Young

But if the playoff committee effectively forgoes the AP poll and coaches poll in order to place the Buckeyes at No. 1 ranking, the act would give credence to what Ohio State has done in its first eight games. It would also lend more potential leeway if the team slips up down the stretch, which includes games against Penn State and Michigan along with a possible Big Ten Championship Game appearance.

Ohio State has a clear path to the playoff: Win and it's in. But earning any benefit of the doubt this early can help later in the process.

If the committee opts to place the Buckeyes at No. 1, it would be choosing them over LSU, Alabama and Clemson, all of which have strong cases for the top spot. It would be a statement of respect for what they’ve done in their first eight games, even though they’d likely get jumped in the rankings the following week by the winner of the LSU-Alabama game.

The case for putting Ohio State first isn’t particularly complex. 

It has the best average margin of victory in the nation (40.4), which ranks as the second-largest in the past 15 years. Its offense is led by a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates – Justin Fields and J.K. Dobbins – and averages the third-most points per game and eighth-most yards per play in the country. Ohio State’s defense, led by Chase Young, is ranked first or second in every major statistical category. The on-field production has led to eight straight wins, all of which have come by at least 24 points. The Buckeyes’ strength of schedule is better than any other unbeaten team, per Sagarin and ESPN's SP+.

LSU is the odds-on favorite to open the rankings at No. 1, but Ohio State is right behind the Tigers with the second-best odds, per betonline.ag.

We'll find out where the teams are actually ranked on Tuesday at approximately 9 p.m., between the Kansas-Duke and Michigan State-Kentucky basketball games on ESPN.

Just one day out from the release of the initial rankings, here's a look at where the Buckeyes have slotted in the CFP rankings in each of the playoff's first five years.

The 2014 Season

Ohio State's 2014 CFP Rankings
Date Record Ranking
Oct. 28 6-1 16
Nov. 4 7-1 14
Nov. 11 8-1 8
Nov. 18 9-1 6
Nov. 25 10-1 6
Dec. 2 11-1 5
Dec. 7 12-1 4

In the five years of the College Football Playoff's existence, the Buckeyes have never opened the initial rankings lower than they did in 2014.

Due to an early season upset loss at home to Virginia Tech, Ohio State was ranked 16th on Oct. 28. The day after the rankings were released, Urban Meyer said, "There’s a lot of football left," and he was right. There was enough football, in fact, for his team to begin its slow climb up more than 10 spots over the next month-and-a-half.

A victory against then-No. 8 Michigan State on Nov. 8 moved the Buckeyes into the top 10. A 42-28 win against Michigan and the following weekend's 59-0 slaughter of Wisconsin were enough for the committee to place Ohio State fourth. Baylor (No. 5) and TCU (No. 6) were left out of the playoff.

Final rankings: No. 1 Alabama (12-1), No. 2 Oregon (12-1), No. 3 Florida State (13-1), No. 4 Ohio State (12-1)

The 2015 Season

Ohio State's 2015 CFP Rankings
Date Record Ranking
Nov. 3 8-0 3
Nov. 10 9-0 3
Nov. 17 10-0 3
Nov. 24 10-1 8
Dec. 1 11-1 6
Dec. 6 11-1 7

Often regarded as the most talented team in Meyer's tenure in Columbus, the 2015 Buckeyes opened the rankings at No. 3 even though the defending national champions didn't look particularly dominant in their eight wins.

They remained in that spot after two uninspiring wins against Minnesota and Illinois before the devastating, unforgettable 17-14 loss to Michigan State at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 21.

The next week, Ohio State bounced back to roll the Wolverines, winning 42-13. But since the Spartans headed to the Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes couldn't make a similar statement to what they did the year before and were left out of the playoff field.

Final rankings: No. 1 Clemson (13-0), No. 2 Alabama (12-1), No. 3 Michigan State (12-1), No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1)

The 2016 Season

Ohio State's 2016 CFP Rankings
Date Record Ranking
Nov. 1 7-1 6
Nov. 8 8-1 5
Nov. 15 9-1 2
Nov. 22 10-1 2
Nov. 29 11-1 2
Dec. 4 11-1 3

A 24-21 road loss to Penn State a couple weeks before the initial rankings didn't dash Ohio State's playoff hopes.

The one-loss Buckeyes opened up the rankings at No. 6 with a top-four placement well within their reach. In a single week, losses by three teams ranked above them – Michigan, Clemson and Washington – allowed them to move into the No. 2 spot by the third week.

Because Ohio State didn't play in the Big Ten title game – Penn State earned the East Division bid – it fell to No. 3 by the time the committee released its final rankings, but still earned its second playoff berth in three years.

Final rankings: No. 1 Alabama (13-1), No. 2 Clemson (12-1), No. 3 Ohio State (11-1), No. 4 Washington (12-1)

The 2017 Season

Ohio State's 2017 CFP Rankings
Date Record Ranking
Oct. 31 7-1 6
Nov. 7 7-2 13
Nov. 14 8-2 9
Nov. 21 9-2 9
Nov. 28 10-2 8
Dec. 3 11-2 5

For the second year in a row, the Buckeyes already had a loss before the initial playoff rankings in 2017 – a 31-16 defeat at home to Oklahoma, an eventual playoff team –but still started only two spots outside of the top four. 

The next week, though, they slipped seven spots following a 55-24 loss to Iowa. Despite the embarrassing defeat, the Buckeyes climbed their way up the rankings in the final month, beating Michigan State and Michigan before defeating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

That, however, was not enough to overcome the loss in Iowa City. Ohio State fell just outside of the top four, finishing fifth in the final rankings.

Final rankings: No. 1 Clemson (12-1), No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1), No. 3 Georgia (12-1), No. 4 Alabama (11-1)

The 2018 Season

Ohio State's 2018 CFP Rankings
Date Record Ranking
Oct. 30 7-1 10
Nov. 6 8-1 10
Nov. 13 9-1 10
Nov. 20 10-1 10
Nov. 27 11-1 6
Dec. 2 12-1 6

For the second year in a row, the Buckeyes' playoff hopes were dashed by a loss to a thought-to-be overmatched Big Ten West team in the middle of the season. Yet, once again, they remained in the hunt for a bid for the rest of the year.

This time, a loss at Purdue doomed Ohio State, which opened the rankings at No. 10 and remained in that spot until it beat Michigan, which leaped the Buckeyes up to sixth.

The 62-39 victory over the Wolverines and a win against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game couldn't propel the Buckeyes into the playoff field, however, and they ended at No. 6.

Final rankings: No. 1 Alabama (13-0), No. 2 Clemson (13-0), No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0), No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1)

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