Alex Hickey: Why The Game may only be a must-win for 1 of the teams
The Game always matters, but rarely have Michigan and Ohio State played for quite so many marbles.
Saturday marks just the 3rd time ever that the Wolverines and Buckeyes will meet with both teams ranked in the top 3.
The stakes are pretty obvious. The winner moves to 12-0 and advances to the Big Ten Championship Game. The only hurdle in front of a College Football Playoff appearance is likely Iowa or possibly Purdue.
But for the loser of the 117th meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, the outcomes could be decidedly different.
Thanks to Notre Dame’s late-season resurgence, Ohio State may have some wiggle room with a loss. Michigan, on the other hand, will have a much tougher case to make for CFP inclusion at 11-1 without a conference championship.
Why Michigan needs a win more than Ohio State
The Wolverines have 1 victory over a CFP Top 25 opponent this season: Penn State.
The committee is likely to rank Iowa next week if the Hawkeyes beat Nebraska to clinch the Big Ten West, because the committee does stuff like that to strengthen the resumes of its top 4 teams. And in this case, the committee will be more than happy to give the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game an additional Top 25 victory to crow about.
Nonetheless, a 1-loss Michigan would still be vulnerable to being leapfrogged by USC and Clemson. The Trojans and Tigers both have the opportunity to move to 12-1 with conference championships to their name. It’s hard to see Michigan winning either of those battles.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has a potential Golden (Dome) parachute. And it’s not just because the 8-3 Fighting Irish are rising fast. Notre Dame offers an apples-to-apples point of comparison for Ohio State between Clemson and USC, because the Irish play all 3 of those teams this season.
The Irish pounded Clemson 35-14. And with the ACC looking more watered-down each week, Ohio State’s 21-10 win over the Irish could potentially be used as a point in its favor.
It might not be a strong enough point to overcome a conference title. But it’s an argument that Michigan can’t even make due to its weak non-conference schedule.
For that reason, Michigan fans need to do the unthinkable this week: cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame. The Wolverines absolutely need USC to pick up a second loss if they have any chance of sneaking into the CFP back door.
If Notre Dame can take care of business before USC plays in the Pac-12 championship game, all the better. And that would be advantageous to the Buckeyes, as well.
With a win over USC, the Irish would put themselves on the cusp of the top 10. Logically, a spot or 2 behind Penn State seems likely.
Should Ohio State have wins over both 10-2 Penn State and 9-3 Notre Dame, the argument to include the 11-1 Buckeyes over a theoretical 12-1 Clemson team gains steam. Clemson’s best wins would be over Florida State and North Carolina in the ACC title game.
And that scenario shows the value of quality non-conference scheduling. That Ohio State ended up with a Notre Dame team that plays 2 other CFP contenders is a stroke of good luck. But it also gave the Buckeyes a chance if they have a misstep against Michigan.
Michigan doesn’t have any margin for error. The Wolverines either need to beat Ohio State or get help elsewhere. And that help probably demands USC and Clemson finishing with 2 losses.
But the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan game may need another outcome to go their way in order to sneak into the College Football Playoff.
Beware of Tigers
Whether an 11-2 LSU team belongs in the CFP ahead of an 11-1 Ohio State or Michigan is worthy of a debate all its own.
But based on reality and history, we know what the CFP committee is going to do in this situation.
If LSU upsets Georgia in the SEC championship game, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game will move up to No. 1. The Bulldogs will be 2nd or 3rd. And there’s a very good possibility the Tigers will make it into the CFP at the expense of 1 or more 1-loss teams.
Texas A&M could make that moot by upsetting the Tigers this weekend, but that’s asking a lot of a $95 million head coach. Just to be safe, the loser of the Ohio State-Michigan game needs to root hard against LSU on Championship Saturday.
Not an elimination Game
Regardless of The Game’s outcome, the loser will have a keen eye on championship game results. There’s a chance every other Power 5 title game will have bearing on that team’s CFP future.
The good news, such as it is — the team that loses this game is not automatically knocked out of the College Football Playoff race. This isn’t as tense as 2016, when both Michigan and Ohio State entered The Game at 10-1.
The loser will need outside help, though. And Michigan will likely need more of that help than Ohio State.