Ohio State's Back in the College Football Playoff Race, But It Won't Have Much Margin for Error

By Dan Hope on September 18, 2020 at 8:35 am
Ryan Day before the 2019 Fiesta Bowl

Ohio State received good news when the Big Ten announced it would begin its football season in October, giving the Buckeyes a chance to compete for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

The bad news for the Buckeyes and other contenders in the Big Ten: They won’t have much margin for error, if any at all.

With a season that is set to consist of nine games – eight games against prescheduled opponents, plus a final week of games based on division standings that will include a Big Ten Championship Game between the East and West division champions – Ohio State still has what should be a clear path to the playoff: Go 9-0 and win the Big Ten title. While nothing is certain in a season that every conference is on a different schedule, it’s hard to imagine an undefeated Power 5 conference champion being left out.

Because the Big Ten is playing a shorter season than the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, however – ACC teams are set to play 11 regular-season games and Big 12 and SEC teams are set to play 10 regular-season games, not including their conference championship games – even one loss could be enough to ruin any Big Ten team’s playoff hopes.

The CFP hasn’t yet laid out any updated criteria for this season, or a minimum number of games that teams will need to play and/or win to make the field. Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP, told ESPN’s Heather Dinich on Wednesday “there is no need to make a decision now.” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, the new chairman of the CFP selection committee, only said Thursday that he is confident the committee will be able to accurately determine the four best teams even though teams won’t be playing a uniform number of games.

“We’re going to take the protocols, and we’re going to meet every week, and we’re going to have 13 people in the room, and they’re going to have watched every team play, and based on whatever body of work is before us – and it will be different this year – but whatever body of work is before us, we’re going to select the best four teams,” Barta said during a press conference. “I have a lot of confidence in the 13 people in that room. They have a lot of knowledge, they’re going to watch every game, and we’re going to come out with the top four teams and then our full ranking, as well.”

Those answers don’t provide any clarity of what exactly a Big Ten team will have to do to make the playoff this year, but there is reason to think the shorter schedule could work against the conference. If Ohio State loses one of its first eight games, but wins the Big Ten East and then its fourth straight conference title to finish 8-1, will that be enough to get the Buckeyes in the four-team field? Or would the committee favor a 9-1 or 10-1 SEC, ACC or Big 12 runner-up that has more wins even without a conference championship?

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who previously served on the selection committee in 2017 and 2018, said he hopes conference championships will be weighed heavily in this year’s selection process, while he also believes the eye test – where the Buckeyes should stand out with all their talent – will come into play more than usual this year.

“I think it’s assumed, by the committee and others, that we may not have consistency in the number of games that a particular league will play,” Smith said Wednesday. “I think that they understand that and that they will develop criteria that will pay attention, I would assume, to first and foremost championships, and then overall win-loss record, and I think this year may be a little bit more of trying to identify which team, frankly, has the best look about it, so to speak. I hate to say that, but I think that that’s going to be something that’s going to have to enter into it.”

That said, Ohio State simply can’t afford to bank on any degree of leeway from the committee. The Buckeyes must enter the season with a mindset that they need to play their best football every week, knowing that just one loss could jeopardize their playoff hopes even more than in a normal season.

Even though Ohio State should be favored to win all of its games in the Big Ten season – and likely heavily favored in most of them – actually winning all of them is easier said than done, especially since the late October start date means the Buckeyes are scheduled to play nine straight weeks without a bye. But Ryan Day is confident his team will be ready for that gauntlet.

“There’s going to be times where we’re going to have to play a lot of guys, but that’s okay. And I think that sweet spot of 8-9 games is a good number,” Day said Wednesday. “I think that we’re in a really good place, and I think that season is perfect, actually.”

Beyond what could happen if they get beat on the field, another threat to the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes is one that will be at least somewhat out of their control: The possibility that games could be canceled if more than 5% of their roster or an opponent’s roster tests positive for COVID-19. Because the nine-game season includes no bye weeks, there likely won’t be any window to reschedule games that can’t be played as scheduled, creating the possibility that any team’s season could be shortened to eight games or fewer.

Should the Buckeyes play fewer games than scheduled, could that potentially prevent them from making the CFP even if they go undefeated? Barta wouldn’t speculate Thursday on how the selection committee would factor canceled games into their process, saying those are decisions that will be made in two months – when they meet to put together their first set of rankings – after they see how things unfold between now and then.

“What we all have agreed to is that we’re not going to play out hypotheticals on Sept. 17,” Barta said. “What we’re going to do is see what we’re looking at, our first week (Nov. 17), we’ll see how much the body of work has accumulated across the board and see what we’re dealing with, and then we’ll start to make that assessment. But prior to that, we’re not gonna guess how many games anybody’s going to play. We’re just going to let it accumulate, and then once we get together that first week, we’ll start evaluating based on what’s in front of us.”

“I think that sweet spot of 8-9 games is a good number ... I think that we’re in a really good place, and I think that season is perfect, actually.”– Ryan Day on the Big Ten season

Smith said he is confident, though, that the protocols the Big Ten has implemented for its return to play – including daily antigen testing, which should enable teams to identify and isolate COVID-positive players and staff quickly – will keep the season on track and hopefully allow the conference to avoid game cancellations.

“I feel confident that if every school embraces the protocols and if every school can frankly, with all due respect, do what our student-athletes have done, our football team has done, we should get to a point where we have a chance to have a clean, competitive field each Saturday,” Smith said.

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