INDIANAPOLIS – Ohio State’s seed in the College Football Playoff could ultimately depend on whether the committee puts more stock in how the Buckeyes played in the first half or the second half.
At halftime, Ohio State’s grasp on the No. 1 spot in the playoff rankings appeared to have slipped away. Had the Buckeyes lost to Wisconsin, they would have fallen to at least the No. 3 seed, even though their 12-1 record probably still would have been enough to keep them in the four-team field. Given that they were trailing 21-7 at the break, that appeared to be a real possibility.
In the second half, though, Ohio State returned to being the dominant team it’s been all season. The Buckeyes scored 27 points while holding Wisconsin to none in the third and fourth quarters to defeat the Badgers, 34-21, and wrap up a 13-0 season that ensures the Buckeyes will, at the very least, make the playoff and get a chance to compete for a national title.
Now, the question is whether the selection committee will decide that’s enough to keep Ohio State ahead of LSU, which has been in the No. 2 slot of the rankings behind the Buckeyes for the past two weeks but added a strong final item to its resume with a dominant, 37-10 win over Georgia – which was fourth in the CFP rankings – on Saturday.
Ohio State’s coaches and players feel strongly that they deserve to be in the top spot.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said during the Buckeyes’ postgame celebration. “When you look at all three phases, I think we deserve to be number one.”
Ultimately, the Buckeyes did what they needed to do to win their third consecutive Big Ten championship on Saturday night, which was the only thing they could truly control. The first half was certainly the most they’ve struggled all season – Ohio State had never trailed by more than six points at any point in any game before Saturday – but they believe the way they came back proved their resiliency.
“We had a group of guys in that locker room who were barking at each other that they weren't going to leave this place without a win,” Day said in his postgame press conference. “Then we all got together and said, ‘This is like life, it isn't always going to work out the way you want it.’ The challenge was we were going to find out what was really made inside of us. I think you saw that.”
By coming back and winning by 13 points over a team that was ranked eighth in the penultimate CFP rankings, Ohio State still has a strong case for being college football’s most dominant team this year and most deserving team for the No. 1 seed in the playoff. The Buckeyes have won all 13 of their games by double digits, good for an average margin of victory of 36.2 points per game. They just completed one of the most challenging three-game stretches that any team has played all season – beating three straight top-15 opponents in Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin – and will finish with five wins over ranked teams, also including their regular-season game against Wisconsin and a non-conference win over Cincinnati.
LSU’s end-of-season dominance made a strong case for its candidacy to be No. 1 – the Tigers scored at least 46 points in each of their last five games and won each of their last four games by at least 21 points – but the Buckeyes still have more wins over teams who were ranked in last week’s top 25 (five vs. four). The Buckeyes statistically still have one of the best teams in the country on both offense and defense, while LSU’s defense ranked outside the top 25 in points allowed per game and yards allowed per game and per play – though LSU allowed just 17 total points in its final two games combined, while the Buckeyes gave up 48 combined points in their last two.
Those are all factors that the selection committee has to consider in making its final decision on Sunday, which will revealed just after noon on ESPN, but the Buckeyes feel like their body of work should ultimately put them at the top.
“I think we’ve earned it,” said Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins. “We played some tough teams these past few weeks and we are a complete team.”
Ohio State defensive end Chase Young said he believes the Buckeyes should be No. 1 “point-blank, period.”
“I just feel like a team like this, that hit a lot of adversity, has been tested many times … to see us come back and not just come back but we came back and we dominated, I feel like a team that can flip the switch like that is a No. 1-worthy team,” Young said.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt.” – Ryan Day on whether Ohio State deserves to be the No. 1 seed
Ohio State was able to travel home to Columbus knowing that it will be playing in a national semifinal game on Dec. 28 one way or another, which is the only thing that really matters. While the Buckeyes believe they belong at No. 1 and will be anxious who and where they’re playing in the semifinals on Sunday, they don’t have to worry about whether they’ll get their shot.
“Whoever we play, we play,” Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade said after the game. “At the end of the day tomorrow, whenever they say who we play, that’s who we play.”
That said, being the No. 1 seed would seemingly present an advantage that is not insignificant. Clemson is expected to be the No. 3 seed because it played a weaker schedule than Ohio State and LSU faced this season, but those Tigers are also undefeated this year and have their own case for being the most dominant team in the country, winning all of their last eight games by at least 31 points. Oklahoma likely secured the No. 4 seed by winning the Big 12 Championship Game on Saturday, but the Sooners have looked far more beatable. Since losing to Kansas State on Oct. 26, four of their last five wins were decided by four points or fewer.
Given that, the No. 1 seed will seemingly have an easier path to the national championship game, and it will also be given preference in where it plays its semifinal game. That means whoever gets the No. 1 seed between Ohio State and LSU will be playing closer to home in Atlanta, while the No. 2 seed will face Clemson in Glendale, Arizona.
The location might not matter too much for Ohio State, given that it will likely have a home-crowd advantage in either destination, but there’s little question that Oklahoma would be a more favorable matchup than Clemson.
Ultimately, though, Ohio State knows it will have to beat at least one of Clemson or LSU to win the national title. Right now, the Buckeyes are just glad they’re in that position to have that opportunity – and now that they’ve gotten this far, they have confidence they can make that happen, provided they continue to play at the same level and work just as hard as they have all season to this point.
“I think after the first Wisconsin game, you hoped that maybe we have a shot at this thing,” Day said. “Then as we go, we play Penn State, kind of work your way through it. Then last week, as we started to pull away in the rivalry game, you start to think you might have a shot at this thing.
“Now that we've won this game here, I mean, we're two games away. It's real now. We deserve to be in it. I think we've done an unbelievable job of staying in the moment, not getting too far ahead of ourselves. But now it's real. We're in it now. I'd say after this game, now is when you can at least say, ‘Hey, we got a chance on this thing.’”
In arguing for his team’s case to be No. 1, Day said that “if there's a better team out there, I'd like to see them.”
Regardless of what the committee decides on Sunday, Ohio State – as well as LSU, Clemson and Oklahoma – will have the chance to prove it is the best team in the country through its play.