What happens to Ohio State’s Playoff chances if it can’t play for a B1G title?
A nightmare scenario for the Big Ten unfolded this week and came to a head Friday night. Ohio State, the league’s premier program and best chance at reaching the College Football Playoff, experienced a COVID outbreak and forced the cancellation of Saturday’s game at Illinois.
The No. 4 Buckeyes (4-0) will now only play a maximum of 6 games, which is the minimum requirement, as of now, to qualify for the Big Ten Championship Game. Next week’s game against Michigan State is very much in doubt, as the Buckeyes will be shut down for at least 7 days if they met the Big Ten’s threshold of 5% of players and 7.5% of Tier 1 personnel (players, coaches and staffers) testing positive.
The question on the mind of the college football world, especially the CFP Selection Committee, is this: Can Ohio State still be a CFP team if it doesn’t even play in the Big Ten Championship Game?
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The answer is yes, the Buckeyes can still be in the CFP without playing for the B1G title. Winning a conference championship has never been a qualifier for the CFP, so why should it be now? If the Buckeyes are 1 of the 4 best teams in the country, as determined by the CFP Selection Committee, then they should be playing in 1 of the 2 semifinals.
Pay close attention to this line in a Q&A published on the College Football Playoff’s official website: “There is no minimum game requirement to be eligible for the College Football Playoff. The selection committee’s job is to select the top four teams beginning November 24 and continuing through the final rankings December 20. The number of games and wins by each team is certainly important in weighing its ranking, but it is not the only factor.”
Cased closed. The Buckeyes would still very much be alive for the CFP if next week’s game against Michigan State is canceled, too — which is a very real possibility, by the way, because Wisconsin and Maryland both had to cancel 2 games after their outbreaks. It should be noted that though the Big Ten could lower its minimum games requirement, that is unlikely because the Big Ten would need to have 12 of the remaining 14 games canceled. If that happens, there are bigger problems than the conference championship game, which would probably also be off the table.
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I think nearly everyone would agree that now, a loss eliminates the Buckeyes. I know Clemson is still very much in the CFP picture despite a loss without Trevor Lawrence, but the Tigers have played more games and will get a chance to avenge that loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game. That isn’t a luxury Ohio State has (thank you, Big Ten!).
But if Ohio State finishes 5-0 and does not play in the B1G title game, will that be enough? Will the Buckeyes have shown the Selection Committee that they are 1 of the top 4?
As of this week, they had, which is why the Selection Committee had them at No. 4. But as they miss out on this week and potentially next week, Ohio State’s resume will face more scrutiny. It has a quality win against No. 12 Indiana, but not much else, at this point.
If not playing in the B1G title game, Ohio State would probably get to play Wisconsin, or perhaps Iowa, in the crossover during Champions Week, and that would be a chance at another quality win. Michigan, unfortunately for Ohio State, does not look like a quality win. Style points become essential for the Buckeyes, as they are going to have to win big in order to convince the Selection Committee that they should get in over a potentially undefeated Northwestern team.
If Northwestern were to lose to Indiana in the B1G title game, then that’s easy—Ohio State would make it over a Hoosiers squad that it already beat, on the road, by the way. But can the Selection Committee possibly turn away an undefeated Power 5 conference champion (which is what Northwestern would be)? The answer, in a pandemic-ridden season, is yes. If Northwestern keeps barely skating by (it has won its last 4 games by an average of 6 points), and if Ohio State wins big in its remaining games (including a Champions Week game to finish 6-0), then it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Selection Committee to reach the conclusion that Ohio State is the superior team.
The Selection Committee may already know that Ohio State is the superior team, since there’s no denying Ohio State would be at least 2-touchdown favorite against Northwestern. And we all know that Ohio State would have been massive favorites in the games it has missed (Maryland, Illinois and potentially Michigan State). But if there is any doubt, Ohio State will need to win big to erase it, which is entirely possible.
The biggest roadblock for Ohio State will be if Florida beats Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and Clemson beats Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game. All 4 of those teams would have 1 loss and a very legitimate case over Ohio State. But if this is about Ohio State against an undefeated Cincinnati team, that’s a non-starter for me. The Bearcats have had a great season, but it’s obvious from last season’s game that these programs are still miles apart.
There’s also the issue that we don’t know which players tested positive, yet, and that could certainly impact what kind of team Ohio State puts on the field against Michigan. Any player who tests positive, according to the Big Ten’s rules, will sit for 21 days, meaning no Michigan game. If Ohio State needs to play 2nd- or 3rd-stringers in the regular season, it may not do enough to warrant real consideration. We already know Ohio State isn’t a perfect team, like it was at this point of last season. There’s a reason that the Buckeyes weren’t No. 3 and are behind Clemson, despite the latter having a loss. Ohio State showed some weakness during the game against Indiana, letting up only 500 passing yards and committing 3 turnovers.
There are a lot of unprecedented things that are going to be discussed over the next few weeks. There will probably be more cancellations, and the goal posts will move again. What has happened in the previous 6-year history of the CFP isn’t relevant to 2020. Some in college football will understand that and be comfortable pivoting, and some will be close-minded.
Conference championships are valuable, of course. But if there is another team that hasn’t lost any games on the field, then that has to be a consideration, too.
Most importantly, we have to view this Ohio State resume in the proper context. This is is a season in which not everything is going to be fair for everyone, but the Selection Committee still must do what is right, which is choose the 4 best teams.
The question, with a Big Ten Championship or not, for Ohio State should remain unchanged: Are the Buckeyes 1 of the 4 best teams in college football?