All the hard work Ohio State has put in all year, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been focused toward the goal of competing for trophies.
Now, even though the Buckeyes haven’t lost a game this season, they’re going to need some luck and/or the mercy of a committee to ensure those opportunities exist.
Because Ohio State has now had two games canceled this season, the Buckeyes would be ineligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game if either of their final two regular-season games are not played. Given that Ohio State has paused all football team activities for the time being, and other Big Ten teams (Wisconsin and Maryland) that have had to pause team activities have ended up missing multiple games, next week’s game against Michigan State looks like it could be in jeopardy, too.
Unless the average number of games played throughout the Big Ten falls below six – and as of now, the average number of games is still above seven – the Big Ten East’s berth in the conference title game would go to another team if Ohio State plays fewer than six regular-season games, even if it finishes the regular season as the East’s only unbeaten team.
Ohio State would still be eligible to play an additional game during Big Ten Championship Game weekend, since the Big Ten is planning on all 14 teams playing that weekend – and that could mean a matchup with Wisconsin, given that the Badgers are now ineligible for a conference championship game berth after having three games canceled – but it would cost the Buckeyes a chance to defend their conference title for a fourth straight year.
Of course, Ohio State’s ultimate goal for the 2020 season isn’t to win another Big Ten championship, but to win a national championship. That goal could still be on the table even if the Buckeyes don’t get to compete for a conference title. But now that Ohio State is set to play only a maximum of seven games this season, the question of whether winning all of its games will be enough to make the College Football Playoff is one that’s becoming increasingly real.
The College Football Playoff has not set a minimum number of games for a team to qualify for this year’s playoff, so that’s good news for Ohio State. And the selection committee has said that its goal is to pick college football’s four best teams regardless of how many games they play. But that doesn’t mean it won’t still be a factor.
“There may become, there will likely become a number of games where it does make an impact, but we haven’t identified an absolute number that we would rest on,” selection committee chairman Gary Barta said after this year’s initial CFP rankings were unveiled Tuesday. “We want to pick the top 25 teams based on their ability and based on the way they’re playing and certainly the number of games that we’re able to watch is gonna play at least some factor.”
As long as Ohio State doesn’t lose a game, many will view the Buckeyes as one of college football’s most championship-caliber teams this year, and that’s why they were ranked fourth in the initial CFP rankings even though they’ve played only four games this season. But will a 4-0 record be enough to keep Ohio State in the top four for another week, or another two weeks if the Michigan State game doesn’t happen? If not, would a 6-0 record with wins over Michigan and whoever Ohio State plays its final Big Ten game against be enough to get the Buckeyes back in?
Given that the events of this college football season have been completely unprecedented, one can only guess how the selection committee will treat Ohio State’s lack of games played, but it doesn’t help the Buckeyes’ cause that Indiana is still the only team the Buckeyes have played with a winning record. It also doesn’t help that the Buckeyes could now potentially miss out on an opportunity to play Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game – especially if Northwestern wins out, as it could be difficult for the committee to justify selecting Ohio State over Northwestern if the Wildcats are undefeated, play more games and win the conference title.
All of that is out of Ohio State’s control, so all the Buckeyes can do now is try as hard as they can to avoid future COVID-19 outbreaks – which, quite frankly, is mostly out of their control too – and then focus on playing as well as possible in whatever games they are still able to play. Winning out is certainly Ohio State’s only path to the playoff now, and it might need to win its remaining games impressively, so the Buckeyes (who will be shorthanded for at least the rest of the regular season, as all players who tested positive this week will be sidelined for 21 days) have to come back focused whenever team activities resume to have any chance at winning a championship this year.
There would be no tougher pill for the Buckeyes to swallow, though, than losing the chance to compete for a championship because of something other than a loss on the field.
Ohio State already faced that possibility back in August when the Big Ten decided to postpone the football season – a decision that’s one reason why the Buckeyes are in the position they’re in now, as the late October start left them with no wiggle room to reschedule games that couldn’t be played. Now, instead of Big Ten presidents and chancellors, their chances of competing for a championship lie in the hands of a 13-person selection committee, and they’ll have to hope what whatever they are able to do on on the field, and their reputation as one of the best teams in the country, will be enough to give them that chance even though their opportunities to prove themselves are quickly running out.