Since the College Football Playoff debuted in 2014, Ohio State has been in the thick of the race for a spot in the four-team field every single year.
The Buckeyes made the inaugural playoff as the No. 4 seed in 2014 and were the No. 3 seed in 2016, and they’ve never finished lower than seventh in the final rankings. They entered Selection Sunday with realistic hopes of making the playoff in each of the last two seasons, though they ultimately finished fifth in 2017 and sixth in 2018.
Ohio State has never been as well-positioned to make the playoff from the first rankings of the year, though, as it is this year.
The Buckeyes are ranked No. 1 in this year’s initial College Football Playoff rankings, announced Tuesday night on ESPN, a clear sign that Ohio State’s 8-0 start to the season – in which it has won every one of its games by at least 24 points and has been dominant on both offense and defense – has made a big impression on those who will ultimately decide on Dec. 8, following the conference championship games, which four teams deserve to play for a national title this year.
It's the first time Ohio State has ever been No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“When you watch Ohio State, they have performed at a very consistent level,” College Football Playoff selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said on Tuesday night. “Really good on both sides of the ball, explosive offensive playmakers and Chase Young's probably as disruptive a defensive player as there is in the country. You look at their resume, they perform at a consistently high level every week.”
Being ranked first doesn’t change Ohio State’s objective for the rest of the season; the only way the Buckeyes can guarantee they’ll have a spot in the playoff is to win their four remaining regular-season games and the Big Ten Championship Game, and that will certainly be the message from Ryan Day to his team.
“It doesn't matter if we don't continue to win,” Day said Tuesday. “What matters is the record at the end of the season and where you're ranked at the end.”
Members of the CFP selection committee have repeatedly insisted that they start from scratch in ranking the teams each week, so just because Ohio State is ranked ahead of every other team right now doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay there, even if it keeps winning each week.
That makes it important for the Buckeyes to not only keep on winning – and that’s far from a foregone conclusion, considering that they will finish up their regular season with games against No. 4 Penn State and No. 14 Michigan – but keep winning impressively, especially in their next two games against Maryland and Rutgers, two teams that should be overmatched.
All of that said, Ohio State’s early ranking does hold some weight. It improves the Buckeyes’ chances of earning the top seed if they win out – in three of the past four years, the No. 1 seed has been the team that started at No. 1 in the initial rankings – which could potentially result in a more favorable matchup than they would get as the No. 2 or 3 seed.
It also opens up the possibility that Ohio State could lose a game in the final stretch of the season and still make the playoff, a position that the Buckeyes have never been in before.
That’s certainly not a possibility that the Buckeyes want to tempt – they learned that the hard way in 2015, when they dropped from the No. 3 spot in the rankings to out of the playoff with a November loss to Michigan State – but their case for earning a bid as a one-loss team over other one-loss teams would likely be stronger this year because of how dominant they’ve been so far and how highly they are ranked now.
In the first five years of the College Football Playoff, only two teams have ever been ranked in the top two in the initial rankings and failed to make the playoff, and both of them lost at least two games in November (No. 1 Mississippi State in 2014 and No. 2 LSU in 2015).
Only five teams have made one of the first five playoffs after losing a game in November, but three of them were ranked in the top two in the initial rankings.
There’s still five weeks to go until the final playoff rankings will be set, and five more games that could potentially trip the Buckeyes up between now and then, but right now, Ohio State is sitting pretty – and with more reason to feel confident about its chances of making the playoff than it’s ever had at this point of the year.
In the two previous years the Buckeyes made the playoff, they had to sweat it out all the way to the end because of earlier losses. They were never in the top four until the final rankings in 2014, when they suffered a September loss to Virginia Tech. They were in the top four for the final four rankings of 2016, but still had to hold their breath on conference championship weekend because their October loss to Penn State kept them out of the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State was in a similar position to where it is now in 2015, when it was undefeated before its loss to Michigan State, but the Buckeyes hadn’t made the impression on the selection committee that year – when they were often underwhelming against unranked opponents, and ranked behind one-loss Alabama even while they were still undefeated – that they clearly have this year.
The Buckeyes can’t get complacent to the point of failing to play up to their ability, because that could undo the work they’ve done to put themselves in this position, but their path to a playoff berth is the clearest it’s ever been right now.