Ohio State College Football Playoff analysis: Buckeyes may wind up battling a 2016 version of themselves

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Thoughts on where Ohio State, ranked No. 9 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, stands as we enter the 11th game of the regular season.

1. The Buckeyes are No. 9, but three of the teams ahead of them are guaranteed to take a loss.

* No. 1 Alabama and No. 6 Auburn play their rivalry game on the last day of the regular season.

* The winner of that game will win the SEC West and play No. 7 Georgia, the winner of the SEC East, in the SEC Championship game.

* No. 2 Clemson and No. 3 Miami will play in the ACC Championship game.

That doesn’t guarantee the losers of those games dropping below Ohio State, but it’s good to know the shakeups that must take place.

2. Chaos in the Big 12 would help. One-loss Oklahoma, No. 4 in the rankings, is in control of a playoff spot after consecutive wins over Oklahoma State and TCU. The Sooners have a sure thing this week vs. 1-9 Kansas, but 7-3 West Virginia will be a game. 

I think the Sooners would have to lose twice for the Buckeyes to move past them. But with West Virginia and a Big 12 title game, likely against TCU, two more losses isn’t impossible. 

That would then leave two-loss TCU as the Big 12 champ. I think Ohio State might win that battle against TCU, which is currently ranked No. 12. But TCU would have a win over a common opponent, Oklahoma, which beat Ohio State. And that’s one of the first committee factors in comparing teams.

If Oklahoma beats West Virginia, then loses to TCU in the title game, and Oklahoma, TCU and Ohio State all have two losses, and TCU and Ohio State have conference titles, but Oklahoma has the win over Ohio State and the regular-season win over TCU, I don’t think we can make any assumptions about how the committee would rank those three. 

We don’t know.

3. There’s a lot left that could happen, so it’s just easier to operate under the assumption of the SEC, ACC and Big 12 each taking a spot, and Ohio State competing for the fourth playoff spot.

The toughest competition for that spot would come from a version of themselves — a one-loss non-champ like the 2016 Buckeyes, who wound up as the No. 3 team in the playoff.

Depending on the scenario, the Buckeyes could wind up like 2016 Penn State, the two-loss Big Ten champ that was out of the playoff as No. 5.

4. The two candidates to serve as the 2016 Buckeyes would be Alabama and Miami. 

Ohio State in 2016 had wins over the No. 6 (Michigan), No. 7 (Oklahoma) and No. 8 (Wisconsin) teams in the final rankings, and a loss to No. 5 (Penn State). The wins over No. 7 and No. 8 were on the road, as was the loss.

“Ohio State, also with just one loss, built one of the best resumes in the country against one of the most difficult schedules, capped by its win over Michigan,” committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said of the Buckeyes in the conference call last year after the final rankings were announced.

Let’s see what Alabama and Miami would be like in a similar situation. We’ll look at Miami at 12-1 and losing to Clemson in the ACC Championship. And we’ll look at Alabama at 11-1 and missing the SEC Championship after a loss to Auburn, and at 12-1 and losing to Georgia in the SEC Championship.

Miami’s best wins in that scenario would be over Notre Dame (currently No. 8 in the rankings), Virginia Tech (just fell out of the top 25) and, honestly, there isn’t a third good win. 

Alabama, if it beat Auburn and lost to Georgia, would have wins over Auburn (currently No. 6), Mississippi State (No. 16) and LSU (No. 19). 

If Alabama lost to Auburn, its best wins would be over No. 16, No. 19 and 6-4 Texas A&M. 

Neither of those resumes would match what the one-loss non-champ Buckeyes had a year ago. The case for these one-loss non-champs would be tougher to make.

5. Now let’s compare 2017 Ohio State to 2016 Penn State, I team that I felt should have made the playoff last year. The Nittany Lions wound up in more of a comparison to one-loss Pac-12 champ Washington, the No. 4 seed, and lost out there. Here’s what Hocutt said last year about the Nittany Lions compared to Ohio State, and about Penn State compared to Washington.

“I had said I think a number of weeks earlier that in the eyes of this Selection Committee, Ohio State was a better football team than Penn State. Obviously our rankings continued to reflect that analysis and that decision,” Hocutt said of the OSU-PSU talk.

On Penn State-Washington:

“Penn State had two losses, to an 8-4 team, and then they were non-competitive in their other loss in this college football season (to Michigan),” Hocutt said. “We spent considerable time talking about strength of schedule as a Selection Committee.

“Obviously, as you know for certain, I think everyone does, Penn State had the edge when it came to the strength of schedule that they played over the course of this season. I think because of Washington’s strength of schedule, their margin for error was very slim. I think our discussions and our decision would have been much easier if Washington would have had a stronger strength of schedule this college football season.”

So a weak Washington schedule is what made the discussion between the one-loss champ and a two-loss champ very close, though the one-loss champ won out.

As for Ohio State, they just thought the Buckeyes were better. That resume helped.

6. Now finally to 2017 Ohio State vs. 2016 Penn State.

Penn State last year had wins over No. 3 Ohio State, No. 8 Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota, who were both 8-4.

Their losses were to No. 23 Pitt by three points and to No. 6 Michigan by 39 points.

Ohio State, if it wins out, would have wins over No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 10 Penn State, No. 17 Michigan State and No. 24 Michigan.

The Wisconsin and Michigan games are ahead, and those teams also play each other this week, so the Badgers and Wolverines both won’t be ranked as high at the end as they are now.

The losses are to No. 4 Oklahoma by 16 points and to 6-4 Iowa by 31 points.

The best wins for both teams are similar. The Ohio State losses are worse, in that the blowout came against a team not in the top 25.

7. So what are Ohio State’s chances then?

Clearly, the one-loss non-champs won’t make as strong of a case as Ohio State made last season, based on resume. 

Obviously, Ohio State could be similarly hurt by a blowout loss, the way Penn State was.

In the scenarios we’re talking about, Ohio State wouldn’t be up against a one-loss champ that could keep the Buckeyes out of the No. 4 spot, the way Washington kept out Penn State last year. The one-loss champs would be in, and the other champ in the mix would be a two-loss Pac-12 champ.

So it would be the one-loss non-champ that would be the greatest worry. The same question could be applied to a two-loss non-champ like Georgia or Clemson, if those teams lose in the title game. Clemson, currently No. 2, would be the biggest issue there.

8. OK, this wasn’t the plan, but let’s do Clemson quickly, as a two-loss team that lost the ACC Championship to Miami. The committee is already counting Clemson’s only loss so far as a half-loss, or something less than a full loss, since it came while starting quarterback Kelly Bryant was hurt.

Clemson would have losses to Syracuse (currently 4-6) and Miami, which would be ranked in the top four.

The Tigers would have wins over No. 6 Auburn, No. 19 North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, which just fell out of the rankings, and South Carolina (currently 7-3).

The committee has been unnaturally high on the Tigers this year, brushing off the loss and loving its six wins over team with winning records. 

But two-loss Ohio State, with a conference title, would appear to have a better resume to me than two-loss Clemson.

9. In the end, remember this. All the talk from the committee chair, the public face of the process, is only to justify what already happened. And those 13 people on the committee all thought different things.

So they can do whatever they want — and then explain it however they need to.

Ohio State’s task in its last three games is to look like one of the four best teams in the country while winning out. Do that, and the Buckeyes will have a strong chance to get in, because there will be a way to justify it.

That’s why there’s a committee format — to get people in a room to do what seems like the right thing, without hard and fast rules. 

10. Complicating the fact this year are blowout losses like Ohio State going down in flames at Iowa. I asked Hocutt if scattered results — a big win and a big loss just a week apart, for instance — make it harder to drill down on the true nature of a team.

“I think it’s what is a part of the enjoyment of serving on the Selection Committee is the discussion and the debate, and we talked about how we are ranking inconsistent teams, an inconsistent product week to week,” Hocutt said. “And that’s why I think it’s important that we study the full body of work, the full resume, and I think that’s why this Selection Committee has been good for the game of college football, because what’s different is we’re watching these games week to week, and we do see the inconsistencies and we do see the performance of these teams.

“It comes with our charge and our duty and one that we take very seriously and one that is challenging each and every week, one that makes it challenging to sit in that Selection Committee room and debate what is separating four to six particular teams at a time, and which team is the better team and deserves to be ranked higher.”

It is hard. That means there’s no right answer.

Like Ohio State did in 2014, all a team needs to do is make the committee like you while having enough of a resume to rationalize the choice to put you in.

We talked a lot about the playoff, and other things, in our latest Buckeye Talk podcast.

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