Ohio State’s Strength of Schedule Compared to Other Unbeatens Gives It Strong Case to Be No. 1 in Initial College Football Playoff Rankings

By Dan Hope on October 31, 2023 at 9:20 am
Davison Igbinosun vs. Penn State
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

There’s a strong case to be made that Ohio State should be ranked No. 1 when the initial College Football Playoff rankings for the 2023 season are revealed on Tuesday night.

Ohio State is one of just five remaining undefeated teams in the Power 5 through the first two months of the college football season. Among those five teams, Ohio State is the only one with two wins over teams currently ranked in the AP and Coaches polls, having beaten both Penn State and Notre Dame.

Penn State is currently ranked ninth while Notre Dame is ranked 12th in both of those polls. Washington, who has a win over Oregon (ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 and seventh in the Coaches Poll), is the only other unbeaten team with a win over a team currently ranked in the top 12, but the Huskies have not beaten any other ranked opponents. Florida State has a win over 13th-ranked LSU, but none of its other wins have come against currently-ranked teams. None of Georgia or Michigan’s first eight opponents are ranked in the top 25 of either poll.

The College Football Playoff selection committee’s published protocol states that the committee is “instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head‐to‐head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree.” While there are no conference championships or head-to-head results to consider right now between the five undefeated teams, the Buckeyes have a clear edge in the strength of schedule category.

Ohio State’s eight wins so far this season include four victories over Power 5 teams or Notre Dame that currently have winning records. Florida State and Michigan have three such wins, but Georgia and Washington have only two. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are the only two unbeaten teams that have faced two teams with winning records on the road so far this season; the Seminoles and Huskies each have one such win, while the Bulldogs have zero.

Overall, ESPN’s Football Power Index rates Ohio State’s strength of schedule to this point as the 15th-toughest in the country – 34 spots higher than Florida State, 60 spots higher than Washington, 85 spots higher than Georgia and 96 spots higher than Michigan. Coupling Ohio State’s unbeaten record with its strength of schedule, the FPI ranks OSU first nationally in strength of record.

Strength of Schedule of Power 5 Unbeatens
Team Ranked Wins* Wins vs. Winning P5 Teams Total P5 Wins** FBS Wins Overall Opp. Record*** ESPN SOS
OHIO STATE 2 4 6 7 37-28 (.569) 15
FLORIDA STATE 1 3 7 8 33-31 (.516) 49
WASHINGTON 1 2 6 8 28-36 (.438) 75
GEORGIA 0 2 5 7 28-37 (.431) 100
MICHIGAN 0 3 5 8 31-33 (.484) 111
*Based on current AP and Coaches polls **Includes Notre Dame ***FBS opponents only

Strength of schedule is just one criteria the selection committee will consider as it assembles the initial rankings on Tuesday, and an argument could be made for any of the other four unbeaten Power 5 teams to be ranked above Ohio State entering November.

Georgia is the two-time defending national champion, hasn’t lost a game since 2021 and has been ranked at the top of both the AP and Coaches polls all season. The Bulldogs are the only team that ranks in the top eight nationally in both total offense and total defense.

Michigan has been the most dominant team in college football this season, beating its first eight opponents by an average of 34.8 points per game – more than 11 points better than any other FBS team. The Wolverines lead the nation in both total defense and scoring defense while also ranking sixth nationally in scoring offense.

Washington has one of the nation’s most explosive offenses and the best single win of any undefeated team, though its chances of topping the initial CFP rankings have taken a hit as the Huskies have eked out single-digit wins in their last two games against a pair of two-win teams (Arizona State and Stanford). Florida State’s season-opening 45-24 win over LSU was as impressive as any performance in college football this year and it has the most Power 5 wins so far this season, though none of its ACC wins particularly stand out with Clemson falling to 4-4 and Duke losing three of its last four games.

In a change from other recent seasons, the argument against Ohio State topping the rankings could be its offensive performance. While Florida State, Michigan, Georgia and Washington all rank in the top 10 nationally in points scored per game, Ohio State ranks just 38th in that category.

Conversely, however, Ohio State’s defensive performance should be a point in its favor. Ohio State ranks second nationally in points allowed per game and fourth nationally in yards allowed per game, and while Michigan is ahead of Ohio State in both of those categories, the Buckeyes’ defensive dominance is more proven against better competition.

Regardless of whether Ohio State is ranked first, fifth or anywhere in between in tonight’s initial CFP rankings, the Buckeyes’ primary path to the College Football Playoff will remain unchanged. If they win their next four games and the Big Ten Championship Game, they’ll be a lock to make the CFP. Staying unbeaten is the most important data point on Ohio State’s résumé, especially when it comes to the Buckeyes’ final game of the regular season against Michigan.

Being No. 1 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings would guarantee Ohio State nothing. Tennessee failed to make the CFP as the No. 1 team in last year’s initial rankings, as did Mississippi State in 2014. With four other Power 5 teams still undefeated and eight others holding only one loss, the Buckeyes must continue to approach every game as a must-win game.

But Tuesday night will be the first gauge of how highly the committee thinks of Ohio State, and a No. 1 ranking – or close to it – would suggest the Buckeyes’ strength of schedule carries significant weight with the committee. A lower ranking among the unbeatens, on the other hand, would indicate the Buckeyes have less margin for error.

That might not matter right now, but it will matter if Ohio State slips up at any point in the next five weeks. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, they have some clear data in their favor that should put them at or near the top of the rankings at the end of October.

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