COLUMBUS, Ohio — Get ready, Ohio State fans. The best theories as to why the Buckeyes won’t get into this year’s College Football Playoff are on their way.
By the time Wisconsin and Penn State kick off in Saturday’s Big Ten title game, the most pessimistic Ohio State fans will have themselves convinced that if f the Nittany Lions win, the Buckeyes will be on the outside looking of at this year’s playoff.
But rest easy, Ohio State fans. That almost assuredly is not the case.
Of course, nothing can be 100 percent certain when it comes to a human-based committee, but with the information we have available, the Buckeyes appear to be all but a lock when it comes to this year’s College Football Playoff — regardless of what happens this championship weekend.
What? That’s not good enough for you? You still have more questions? Well, let me do my best to put your mind to rest, with this FAQ-style Q&A.
Q: No nonconference champion has made the College Football Playoff in its first two years of existence. Why will Ohio State?
A: While it’s true all of the playoff’s first eight participants have doubled as conference champions, the committee will be dealing with an unprecedented non-champion resume when it comes to Ohio State.
A week ago, the committee ranked the Buckeyes second — and that was before they bolstered their playoff case with a win over No. 3 Michigan. With an 11-1 record to its credit, Ohio State lays claim to three wins over teams currently ranked in the committee’s top-10 and four in the top-25. Even the Buckeyes’ loss — a three-point defeat at the hands of now-No. 7 Penn State on the road and at night — is “decent.”
No resume of any non-playoff team in the past two years even came close to Ohio State’s current case.
In 2014, co-Big 12 champion Baylor finished fifth with just one top-10 win and two top-25 wins to its credit. The Bears’ lone loss that year came to fellow co-champion TCU, which finished the year ranked sixth with one top-10 and three top-25 victories. The highest ranking nonconference champion that year, No. 7 Mississippi State, possessed two top-25 wins, neither of which came against top-10 opponents.
In 2015, the committee’s first team out was No. 5 Iowa, which could claim just one top-25 win. Stanford, meanwhile, won the Pac-12 championship, but ranked sixth with three top-25 wins, including one in the top-10. Ohio State ranked seventh, as its 11-1 season included just one top-10 win.
So while a no nonconference champion has yet to make the playoff, none has possessed a resume nearly as impressive as Ohio State’s in that small sample size either.
Q: But isn’t the real issue that the same team that beat Ohio State — Penn State — is also the team the Buckeyes will be compared with?
A: The committee states on its official website that two of its four tiebreakers for comparable teams are championships won and head-to-head matchups. So yes, that would be an issue — if the Nittany Lions’ resume was comparable with Ohio State’s to begin with.
Right now, it’s not. The committee has even said as much.
“Does the selection committee see a small margin of separation between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State?” committee chair Kirby Hocutt asked rhetorically on a conference call last week. “We do not.”
Could the committee change its collective mind by the time it releases its rankings tonight? Perhaps. But it’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions’ home victory over a 3-9 Michigan State team shrinking that gap. In fact, when factoring in the Buckeyes win over the No. 3 Wolverines, Ohio State’s advantage likely widened over the weekend.
Penn State’s resume currently includes just one top-25 win, which came against the Buckeyes. That, however, could change this weekend in the Big Ten title game against No. 6 Wisconsin.
Would a beating of the Badgers be enough to not only make the Nittany Lions’ and Buckeyes’ cases comparable, but give Penn State the edge?
Considering Ohio State would have the advantage in the other two tiebreakers — strength of schedule and record against common opponents — it seems far-fetched.
Q: So Ohio State will essentially receive a bye week while the rest of the playoff field plays a 13th game?
A: Essentially, but that’s basically an unintentional byproduct of all of this. It’s not like the committee is purposely rewarding Ohio State. For the Buckeyes, it’s more of a happy coincidence than anything else.
Plus, it’s much easier to justify Ohio State receiving a “bye” when considering the schedule the Buckeyes have played, with four top-10 opponents, three of which they faced on the road.
Ohio State’s unintentional bye is also the biggest reason why I believe that if/when it is selected for the playoff, it will be headed to the Fiesta Bowl in a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup. Even if the Buckeyes’ possess the fourth-most deserving resume, I don’t think the committee will punish likely No. 1 Alabama with a matchup against a relatively fresher and uber-talented Ohio State.
At the moment, Ohio State is one of four teams still in the playoff picture with one or fewer losses. The Buckeyes’ loss just happened to come against a team in its division which shared the same conference record as they did. That defeat will give the Nittany Lions an opportunity to add to their resume while Ohio State sits at home — but even a convincing win over Wisconsin won’t erase a Penn State’s two losses this season: A blowout 49-10 defeat at the hands of Michigan and a 42-39 loss at Pitt in the second week of the season.
Q: So that’s what will keep the Nittany Lions out of the playoff? A three-point loss in a rivalry game three months ago?
A: Pretty much. You can put all the qualifiers you want on the blemishes on Penn State’s resume, but a loss is still a loss — and two losses are still two losses.
If the Nittany Lions’ defeat at the hands of Pitt isn’t going to count, then what’s the point of playing the game? And why did Ohio State schedule Oklahoma, when it apparently could have scheduled any random mid-major opponent and received just as much credit if all that’s going to matter is conference play?
Q: But what if the Nittany Lions blow out the Badgers, as the Buckeyes did in the Big Ten title game in 2014?
A: Even if Penn State matches or exceeds Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin from two seasons ago, I still don’t think it matters. In its official protocol, the committee makes a big deal out of not focusing on margin of victory. Either a win is convincing to the committee or its not. There aren’t degrees.
Should the Nittany Lions pick up a convincing win against a quality opponent this weekend, it will mark just their first of the year. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, already have two (at Oklahoma and vs. Nebraska). It’s just hard to find any scenario where Ohio State is left out of the playoff at this point.
Would it be unprecedented for a team that didn’t even make its conference title game, let alone win it, to make the playoff? Technically, yes.
But with just a two-year history, it’s hard to consider much of anything that’s happened in the first two playoffs a true precedent. The reality is that every year, a new field of candidates will emerge, with different dynamics than its predecessors.
The committee’s goal is to select “the four best teams from among several with legitimate claims to participate.”
If the committee doesn’t already find Penn State to be one of those teams, it’s hard to imagine one more week doing the trick — conference championship or no conference championship.
Plus, I think Wisconsin wins this weekend anyway.