B1G 5: Let me make this really simple, OK? Ohio State is going to the Playoff
College football insider Matt Hayes dishes on the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Reality
I’m still trying to process this nonsensical drama, this desperation among Ohio State fans about missing the Big Ten Championship Game, which means missing the College Football Playoff, which means why the hell play the season, anyway.
People, settle down.
If you really think Ohio State potentially – and I say potentially because this thing is far from over – might be left out of the Big Ten Championship Game, there are two easy responses.
The first, and most important: Who cares?
A conference championship is nice, it’s not – and never has been (see: precedent) – a qualifier for the College Football Playoff.
Secondly, Big Ten officials have proven over and over since the debacle of canceling the season and pushing the concept of spring football – spring football!! – that they’re more than willing to move lines in the sand when it suits what makes sense. Or when they collectively get around to seeing what everyone else sees that makes sense.
When I reached out to a Big Ten coach this weekend about the possibility of unbeaten Ohio State missing out on the postseason, he texted back, “not on your life.”
Before we get into all the machinations that have to happen to get Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, understand this: The CFP was built to place the 4 best teams in the Playoff.
What the CFP folks won’t tell you is the CFP was also built to give its television partners the best possible matchups. It is here where we talk about precedent and Ohio State.
Twice in the 6-year history of the CFP – that’s 33% – the Buckeyes have been selected to the Playoff when they probably shouldn’t have. In 2014, Ohio State – with a 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech — was selected over Baylor, which had a 14-point loss at West Virginia and a better win (vs. TCU) than anything on the Buckeyes’ résumé.
Ohio State got the No. 4 spot, and went on to back up the pick by winning the first CFP national title. Two years later, Ohio State lost to Penn State, and Penn State won the Big Ten championship – but 1-loss Ohio State was selected ahead of 2-loss Penn State.
The Buckeyes then lost 31-0 to Clemson in the national semifinal.
In both instances, the brand that is Ohio State (see: make your television partners happy) was a major factor, purposefully or subconsciously, in the selection. This is commonly referred to as – in an effort to avoid real discussion on merit – the “eye test.”
I was part of the first mock poll the CFP used during the 2014 season to detail the process to the media. We debated the 2008 season. We all sat in the same room as the committee, looked at the same information, voted on the same computers and debated the same way the committee debates.
I can tell you without hesitation that “eye test” is the No. 1 factor in the final ranking. How else do you explain Oklahoma ranked higher than Texas in our final poll?
That year Texas beat Oklahoma by 10 points, and its only loss was on a last-second touchdown at Texas Tech – which also had only 1 loss, a blowout loss to OU. In our mock poll, Oklahoma was No. 2, and Texas was No. 3.
Had that been a typical BCS season, Texas would’ve been left out with our mock, too.
I use this example to further explain the value of “eye test” – and why Ohio State, as long as it continues to win impressively when it plays, is a lock for the CFP. The push for OU over Texas in our media mock was the very thing that pushed OU over Texas with the BCS system (also an “eye test” by pollsters and computer programmers who fed their programs with data points, but I digress): the impressive showing by the Sooners after the loss to Texas.
How will the eye test work with Ohio State, you ask? It begins with Indiana. That’s right, Indiana.
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Hoosiers’ starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr., is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Utah transfer Jack Tuttle takes over. The impact of Tuttle – who completed 5-of-5 passes last week after Penix was injured – will go a long way in supporting Ohio State’s CFP résumé.
The more Indiana wins – the Hoosiers finish the season with games against Wisconsin and Purdue – the better Ohio State looks. The Hoosiers were No. 12 in the first CFP poll, but will more than likely be in the top 10 this week.
After that, Tuttle is the key. The higher Indiana climbs, the easier it is to use the eye test with Ohio State.
And that’s what this thing is all about, anyway.
2. The guts of the issue
On the outside looking in, and with the stringent Big Ten protocols as the backdrop, how in the world does Ohio State play this week against Michigan State?
The 10-day coach quarantine, the 21-day player quarantine. There simply doesn’t seem to be a way.
If Ohio State didn’t have enough players to safely play a week ago, how will they this week with the 21-day player quarantine still affecting roster management?
“A lot of what we’re seeing now in our league is driven by contact tracing,” a Big Ten coach told me. “The devil is in the details. It’s the overabundance of caution. This is what we all agreed to just to get a chance to play.”
Think about this: If Ohio State doesn’t play 6 games and falls under the league minimum (for now), Indiana is a lock to win the East Division – and maybe without playing a game. IU has beaten everyone in the East except Ohio State, and could lose both its remaining games and still be East champion if Maryland doesn’t reach 6 games or loses 1 of its 2 remaining games (Michigan, Rutgers).
For now, let’s put that crazy on the backburner. The easiest path to the CFP for Ohio State is still technically available: playing the league-mandated limit of 6 games to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game, and winning that game is a direct ticket to the CFP.
If COVID protocols eliminate either of the final 2 regular-season games (Michigan State, Michigan), all hope isn’t lost. The conference office can still change the rules midstream (there is precedent in 2020), or the Buckeyes can rely on the eye test from the CFP committee.
The Big Ten wants its best team to represent the conference in the CFP and doesn’t want to get shut out of the Playoff. The conference office could easily step in and declare, because of the unique events surrounding the 2020 season, Ohio State’s 5 games are enough to qualify it for the Big Ten Championship Game.
Who could argue with it?
3. Staying true to the framework
OK, now it’s time to get really crazy.
We aren’t far from a Northwestern vs. Indiana Big Ten Championship Game. The thought of that must have Fox Sports collectively puking with the Big Ten office.
Unless the rules change, IU vs. NU has greater odds than any other scenario.
After Northwestern’s game with Minnesota this weekend was canceled, the Wildcats officially clinched the West Division. The easiest road for IU to clinch the East: Ohio State and Maryland each have another canceled game.
No need for IU (5-1) to play another regular-season game. No help needed from any other team.
There are 3 teams that can win the East under the league’s current framework (which, again, could be tweaked at a moment’s notice): Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland.
Ohio State and Maryland have played 4 games with 2 to play. Any cancelation puts each under the 6-game minimum, and IU automatically is the division champion.
If Maryland plays 6 games, Indiana needs 1 win or 1 Maryland loss to win the East.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Big Ten Power Poll – and one big thing.
1. Ohio State: Remember when the argument was a simple as “can Justin Fields win the Heisman Trophy playing only 8 games?”
2. Indiana: The Penix injury is awful on numerous fronts, but more than anything, because it’s the same injury that forced one of the Big Ten’s top young stars to miss his freshman season.
3. Iowa: I gotta be honest, I’m digging “new” Kirk Ferentz. Or whatever they’ve been calling him in Iowa City. The attitude, the spunk, the I don’t give a flip aura. In a shocking revelation (this is sarcasm, folks), the Iowa team is playing like a reflection of its coach with 4 straight wins.
4. Northwestern: Breathe deep, Wildcats fan. You’re not that far from having to beat Indiana with a backup quarterback to win your first (non-shared) Big Ten title since 1995. Then the CFP has an intriguing debate on its hands.
5. Wisconsin: The Badgers have given up 35 points in 3 games, and in a typical season, would be hitting their stride offensively in late November under QB Graham Mertz. They’d be a dangerous game for anyone in the nation. Instead, they’ll be lucky to play 5 games.
6. Maryland: They’re only 4 games into the weird season, and the Terps’ personality falls right in line. Out of their element one week, precision moves the next. Get back to me in fall 2021 to get a better read on how far this team has come in Year 2 under Mike Locksley.
7. Michigan State: I don’t know what to make of the Spartans from week to week, which is pretty much typical of most teams with first-year coaches. I will say this: Mel Tucker won’t put up with nonsense. You’re either on board, or get the hell out. Sort of like Mark Dantonio before it slipped late.
8. Minnesota: The Gophers have had 47 COVID positives this season. That has to be an FBS high, and it also underscores the greatest fear of coaches going into this uncertain season: when winning a championship no longer becomes attainable, how committed are players and staff to the bubble concept?
9. Illinois: Biggest winner from last week. Illini weren’t forced to play Ohio State, deal with Fields and get blown out. Illinois has games remaining against Iowa and Northwestern, and the cross-division game on Dec. 19. Lose out (a very real possibility), and a 2-6 record might get Lovie Smith fired.
10. Michigan: One Big Ten team has given up more points than Michigan, and the Wolverines still must play an underrated Maryland offense and a team whose coach (Ryan Day) promised to score 100 on them this season. That call from the NFL can’t come fast enough for Harbs.
11. Rutgers: I don’t know what Rutgers is paying Greg Schiano (actually, I do, but the joke doesn’t work), but I’m guessing it’s less than what Tennessee is paying Jeremy Pruitt. (This joke requires B1G fans to know Tennessee had Schiano, but … forget it.)
12. Purdue: Imagine the Purdue offense if crazy-good WR Rondale Moore told coach Jeff Brohm he can take as many touches as Brohm can give him. WR, TB, KR, PR; the utter joy at the thought of it.
13. Penn State: The Lions must turn a feel-good moment against Michigan into momentum for 2021. The only way is to get winnable games against Rutgers and Michigan State
14. Nebraska: You’re from the 1990s, and you’re plopped into 2020 and told the Huskers moved to the Big Ten. You’d be absolutely giddy – until I told you Illinois was 1 of 4 teams who have beaten you. How much lower can it get, Huskers?
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread.
- Maryland (+4) at Michigan
- Ohio State (-24) at Michigan State
- Nebraska (+2) at Purdue
- Penn State at Rutgers (+10)
- Indiana at Wisconsin (-14)
Last week: 1-2 (2 cancelations)