It’s easy to feel like the season is over.
A 22-point home loss to Michigan has a funny way of inciting a sky-is-falling sensation for Ohio State. After all, a Wolverine win in Columbus hadn’t happened in 22 years before Saturday.
Yes, it’s true the Buckeyes no longer have a chance to win a Big Ten championship, and they may end up in a relatively meaningless New Year’s Six bowl. But that won’t be determined until after the coming weekend’s slate of games, which will give Ohio State a realistic shot at a backdoor College Football Playoff berth, depending on the results.
Even after Saturday’s crushing defeat in The Game, the Buckeyes still rank fifth in the AP and coaches polls, and should get the same placement in Tuesday’s new CFP rankings. Although 65% of voters in a recent Eleven Warriors poll said they don’t want to see the Buckeyes get into the CFP after losing to Michigan, it’s very possible the most significant game(s) of the season – as least as they pertain to a national championship – have yet to be played.
"You got to look at the body of work and what we've done. We've got a lot of good pieces on this team and came up short today. But I think if we were able to get a shot in the top four, we'd be a dangerous team.”– Ryan Day
You might not like Ohio State’s chances against Georgia or in a rematch with Michigan. Hell, I might not either. But a chance for redemption is still better than a second straight irrelevant Rose Bowl appearance, which could see even more Buckeyes opt out than in last year’s matchup with Utah.
Perhaps it was redemption driving Ryan Day as he supported Ohio State’s legitimacy as a CFP contender when asked about it after the Michigan loss, rather than punting on the question entirely. Judging by the reception from fans on Twitter, Day might as well have done the latter. But even though he said “I don't know exactly what is next” for the program, it’s clear Day stil has an eye on a future that could earn Ohio State college football’s ultimate prize.
“I thought we were in it, and we were fighting there at the end (against Michigan). It obviously got out of control down the stretch, but it wasn't like we were out-matched in terms of overall play,” Day said. “I don't think. As we get to those (CFP) decisions, I think you got to look at the body of work and what we've done. We've got a lot of good pieces on this team and came up short today. But I think if we were able to get a shot in the top four, we'd be a dangerous team.”
Funny enough, the aforementioned Utes – who gave the Buckeyes plenty of trouble in a 48-45 shootout last postseason – might be Ohio State’s best chance at sneaking into the playoff. Ranked 12th in the AP poll, Utah takes on No. 4 USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game this weekend. Oh, and Utah already holds a win over the Trojans this season.
USC is one of the hotter teams in college football entering the weekend, having rattled off five straight wins with no fewer than 38 points scored in each of them. The Trojans’ past two victories came against top-20 opponents, UCLA and Notre Dame, and USC will be favored to avenge its only loss of the season on Saturday.
Lincoln Riley and company have a clear path to the CFP, but Kyle Whittingham didn’t sound like a man who’s ready to roll over and allow that to happen. Especially considering Utah came out the victory in the first matchup, albeit a one-point win at home.
“Everyone has already decided that SC is winning and going to the playoff. We love that,” Whittingham said Monday. “We love that role. That chip on our shoulder.”
Utah was in a similar situation at the same time a year ago. The Utes had already knocked off Oregon in the regular season, and in a rematch with a team thought to be more talented in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Utah got the job done again – and in emphatic fashion.
Whittingham is 2-0 against the Trojans in the past 14 months, and even though only one of those games came against Riley and Heisman Trophy favorite Caleb Williams, Utah has plenty of confidence in its ability to beat USC.
With a USC loss, there’ll be no one-loss conference champion capable of holding Ohio State out of the playoff. Even if Clemson and LSU win the ACC and SEC this weekend, they’ll have two and three losses on their résumé, respectively. In fact, there’d be no other one-loss contender in general, assuming Georgia, Michigan and TCU all take care of business. And no two-loss team has ever made the CFP.
Even with championship game losses, Georgia and Michigan are all but assured playoff berths at this point. With TCU, though, there may be more of a conversation. If USC beats Utah, Ohio State’s best chance at the CFP will be a Horned Frogs defeat, although it won’t guarantee the Buckeyes a spot in the top four.
Ohio State and TCU would both have one loss, and while TCU would have one more win under its belt, its loss would come against a far less impressive team than the Buckeyes’ own. Kansas State ranks 13th in the country, and would surely see a boost after knocking off the 12-0 Horned Frogs, but would still have three losses on the season. Compare that to an undefeated Michigan team who could enter the playoff as the 13-0 Big Ten champion.
TCU already has five ranked wins on its résumé, but only one of those opponents (Kansas State) is still in the AP Top 25 as of Tuesday. TCU has also won five games by single-digit margins, with four of them coming by a touchdown or less. Ohio State, on the other hand, has won all its games by double-digits, save of course Saturday’s 22-point defeat.
USC and TCU are both favorites in their championship game contests, but not by much. The Trojans are just 1.5-point favorites over Utah, and the Horned Frogs are 2.5-point favorites against Kansas State. That means it won’t exactly take a miracle for Ohio State to find its way into the playoff come Sunday.
Some may be rolling their eyes at the prospect, and that’s understandable. Even C.J. Stroud swept the possibility of a playoff berth under the rug when asked about it after the Michigan game, given the gravity of a second straight rivalry loss.
“I definitely think there's still opportunity for us to make the playoff, but I mean, this is The Game, man,” Stroud said. “Like, this is the one.”
But it might not be the last one of significance after all, and a chance for a rematch of The Game this season isn’t out of the question either.