Ohio State Still in College Football Playoff Position Despite Illinois Cancellation, But Another Cancellation Could Be Problematic

By Dan Hope on December 1, 2020 at 9:28 pm
Justin Fields, Master Teague, Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford

A second cancellation wasn’t enough to knock Ohio State out of the top four in the College Football Playoff rankings, but what about a third?

Even though it had to cancel its game against Illinois this past weekend due to positive COVID-19 cases, Ohio State held steady at the No. 4 spot in this week’s rankings. The College Football Playoff selection committee considered moving Texas A&M ahead of Ohio State after the Aggies improved to 6-1 with a 20-7 win over LSU, but ultimately came to the conclusion that it still views the 4-0 Buckeyes as a better team, in large part because of their explosive offense led by Justin Fields.

“It was talked about a lot, and specifically talked about in the room about whether or not Ohio State (stays at) 4 or if Texas A&M flips and goes to 4 and Ohio State goes to 5,” CFP selection committee chairman Gary Barta said Tuesday night. “At the end of the day, the offensive firepower of Ohio State, all the weapons they have … at the end of the day, the committee just decided that Ohio State was still a better team than Texas A&M, deserved to be 4.”

That said, the fact that there was “a lot of discussion” about Texas A&M jumping Ohio State because Ohio State didn’t play is enough to suggest that any additional cancellations for the Buckeyes could be problematic to their playoff chances. While the CFP hasn’t set a minimum number of games or any other hard-line benchmarks that a team must meet in order to qualify for this year’s playoff, Barta has now referenced in consecutive weeks that each game is another opportunity to evaluate each team, and the committee will now have only a maximum of seven opportunities to evaluate Ohio State.

“It’s not anybody’s fault, but trying to evaluate a team that has four games in versus a team that has seven, eight or nine games in is definitely a problem, and it’s created by the pandemic,” said Barta, who is also the athletic director at Iowa. “The more games a team brings to the committee, the more we have to evaluate.”

Even though every other team in the top 11 has now played at least as many games as Ohio State could potentially play before the CFP selects its field of four on Dec. 20, the committee isn’t penalizing the Buckeyes yet for playing only four games, recognizing that the Big Ten’s late start to the season put Ohio State in that position.

As such, Ohio State still appears to have a clear path to the playoff: Beat Michigan State this week, beat Michigan next week and win the Big Ten Championship Game the week after.

But what if Ohio State can’t make the trip to East Lansing on Saturday? What if Michigan, who has paused team activities for the last two days due to COVID-19 cases in its program, can’t make the trip to Columbus next week? If the Buckeyes play only five regular-season games, which would also keep them out of the Big Ten Championship Game, would a 6-0 record with a win over Wisconsin or whoever else they play during “Champions Week” be enough for the committee to remain sold that Ohio State is a top-four team?

Barta said Tuesday that conference championships are one criteria that the committee will ultimately consider in determining the playoff field, though not the only one. If Ohio State was to play in a non-championship game on Big Ten Championship Game weekend, a win in that game could still bolster its résumé, especially if it faces a team that is also ranked in the CFP’s top 25.

“If you play a highly ranked team at any time in the season, obviously we pay a lot of attention to that. So if you have two highly ranked teams playing each other, that’s a variable, that’s a measurement, that’s a game that makes for good evaluation,” Barta said. “One of our tiebreakers is conference championships. So those are two separate variables, both of which are really important.”

One thing that could help Ohio State in that conversation is the fact that the other five teams in the top six are all from either the SEC or ACC, meaning there can only be two conference champions among them. It would help the Buckeyes more if they can actually play in the Big Ten Championship Game, as it would give them an opportunity to add something to their résumé that at least three other top contenders for a playoff spot won’t have, but No. 5 Texas A&M is already unlikely to make the SEC Championship Game by virtue of its loss to Alabama; sixth-ranked Florida, if it beats Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, might be the biggest thread to jump Ohio State if the Buckeyes can’t win a conference championship themselves.

The bigger concern right now for the Buckeyes, though, is that the committee could get to a point where it decides Ohio State simply hasn’t played enough to establish itself as one of college football’s four best teams this year. As long as they don’t have any more games canceled, that won’t keep them out – and even if they do, the committee still might decide that Ohio State is one of the four best teams anyway. But it is evident Barta and the rest of the committee would like to see Ohio State play and win three more games to feel more certain the Buckeyes belong in this year’s playoff.

“It is absolutely something we talk about and have to consider as one piece of the evaluation, because the more games we’re able to watch, the more we’re able to evaluate as a team. And so while there’s not a set number, there’s not a minimum requirement, it is one of the factors that’s talked about when we talk about comparing different teams,” Barta said.

“That said, you still have wins and losses, and you still have teams against who they compete. You can look at the strength of the teams they play against, and then the final piece of that puzzle is you watch every one of those games and you just determine who has the better team to the best of your ability.”

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