Ohio State head coach Ryan Day was adamant after the Buckeyes’ 34-21 win over Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game: He thought Ohio State deserved to be the No. 1 seed in this year’s College Football Playoff, and he didn’t think there was any doubt.
Athletic director Gene Smith, now free to share his opinions on where he thinks the Buckeyes should be ranked after stepping down from the playoff committee following last season, agreed that Ohio State deserves to be in the top spot.
The College Football Playoff selection committee ultimately disagreed, however, moving LSU up to the No. 1 spot in its final rankings – even though Ohio State scored 27 unanswered points in the second half to come back and beat the eighth-ranked team by 13 points – after the Tigers’ 37-10 win over Georgia, which was fourth in the penultimate rankings, in the SEC Championship Game.
CFP selection committee chairman Rob Mullens indicated Sunday that there was a close debate on whether Ohio State or LSU should be ranked No. 1 but in the committee’s eyes, LSU’s blowout win over Georgia was enough to demonstrate that the Tigers deserved the top seed – and a matchup with No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl as a result – instead of Ohio State, which will now play No. 3 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl as the No. 2 seed.
“These are two teams that have been really close the entire time, and as we've explained, every weekend one of them has done something to move above the other. I think last night in watching the championship game, LSU's performance against a No. 4-ranked Georgia propelled the committee to put them just ahead of Ohio State in 1 vs. 2,” Mullens said Sunday on a teleconference with reporters. “Every game plays a role, and I think it was more about LSU's strong, dominant performance over a No. 4-ranked team that elevated them to No. 1.”
Whether the committee put too much stock into what just happened on Saturday instead of the two teams’ full bodies of work is now a reasonable topic for debate. Mullens said the committee looked at the entire résumé of both teams, noting that LSU had four wins against teams that finished in the top 13 of the rankings (No. 5 Georgia, No. 9 Florida, No. 12 Auburn and No. 13 Alabama), in comparison to Ohio State’s wins over No. 8 Wisconsin (twice), No. 10 Penn State, No. 14 Michigan and No. 21 Cincinnati. Mullens also said the committee was impressed by LSU’s defensive improvement, which was noticeable in its last two games as it held Texas A&M to seven points and 169 yards and Georgia to 14 points and 286 yards.
Mullens didn’t shy away, though, from suggesting that the change at the top of the rankings was influenced largely by the win over Georgia, which came on the same day that Ohio State faced its biggest scare of the season, trailing Wisconsin by 14 points at halftime before dominating the second half.
Smith, due to his experience on the committee, believes that is “probably what happened this weekend.”
“Keep in mind, the committee is in there all weekend watching every game,” Smith told reporters on Sunday. “They’re human, just like I was human. So you look at games and you develop an opinion of LSU vs. Georgia, and what they did. You develop an opinion of Ohio State vs. Wisconsin, and what we did and how we did it.
“The body of work is still there, and when you go into the room and you discuss, you still have that body of work and you discuss that and you have those metrics, but you still have the impression of what you just saw.”
Conversely, both Smith and Day argued that Ohio State made its case to be No. 1 by winning three straight games against top-15 teams in a three-week span, including a 56-27 blowout win over Michigan one week earlier. Mullens said that the committee does look at how games are scheduled and sequenced as part of its deliberations, but indicated that was not a major factor in comparing résumés.
“When you're comparing against a team that beat No. 5, No. 9, No. 12 and No. 13, that's all part of the conversation,” Mullens said. “Sure, the sequence is discussed and who they beat is discussed, but so is another team's resume who's beaten highly ranked teams, as well.”
In the end, Smith said he wasn’t upset with the decision the committee made because he recognized that LSU also had a strong case for the top spot.
“The issue is, you’ve got two teams that are very close,” Smith said. “We could make the argument, which I think is a good argument. We played three top-15 teams back-to-back-to-back and won a championship, but then you look at LSU and their metrics on the stats and the performance that they have, their defense has improved.”
Day, who coached LSU quarterback Joe Burrow at Ohio State for one year before Burrow transferred to Baton Rouge, expressed a similar sentiment on Sunday when he was asked the Buckeyes’ drop from No. 1 to No. 2.
“Do I feel like we should have been the 1 seed? Yeah,” Day said. “But LSU has had an unbelievable season. I think what Joe has done and what that team has done, they've done a great job.”
LSU’s move up into the top spot led to familiar accusations of “SEC bias” from Ohio State fans, but Smith – who recently told The Lantern that his decision to leave the CFP committee was, in part, because he was uncomfortable with the committee’s decision to rank Georgia ahead of Ohio State last year – said he “never witnessed” any bias toward the SEC during his time on the committee.
“The reality is, it was a tough call,” Smith said. “I just think different people had different opinions, and everyone in that room has different criteria by which they make their decisions. So I’m sure it was a lot of debate, and who knows what the debate was. Could have been 7-6 (votes for LSU over Ohio State).”
Now that the committee has reached its conclusion, Ohio State can’t dwell on where it’s ranked. The Buckeyes have less than three weeks to prepare to play Clemson on Dec. 28, and knowing how tough that matchup will be – on paper, a much tougher matchup than Oklahoma – they know they’ll need to play their best to reach the national championship game.
By the time Day met with the media on Sunday, less than an hour after finding out that the Buckeyes were the No. 2 seed, he said he had already moved on from thinking about the rankings.
“At the end of the day, you've got to beat the best to go win the national championship, and certainly Clemson is that,” Day said. “If we want to go win the whole thing, we have to be able to play everybody, so now we've got a chance to go play Clemson.”
“Do I feel like we should have been the 1 seed? Yeah. But LSU has had an unbelievable season.”– Ryan Day on LSU jumping Ohio State for the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff
The Buckeyes are confident that they can beat anyone, so instead of viewing their seeding as an unfavorable draw, they’ll approach it as an opportunity to prove they’re the best team in the country.
“No. 2 doesn’t matter to us, it’s just a ranking,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Jashon Cornell. “We’re still in the playoff. Each team’s got to line up against each other and play. So we’re ready to go play anywhere. It doesn’t matter where we’re at. We’re ready just to play ball.”
Ohio State center Josh Myers said the Buckeyes are “just so happy to be in this thing.”
“We’re No. 2 and we’re playing Clemson and we’re in the College Football Playoff, what else can ask you for?” Myers said. “We’re right in the run for it.”