We're going to be in for a hell of a week, as Ohio State clings to a thin lead over Auburn for the #2 spot in the BCS. The conventional wisdom still seems to be that the Buckeyes control their own destiny, but that won't stop a PR onslaught by the SEC, nor the raging debate all over the internet. The reasons seem clear enough, with the biggest scorn heaped upon Ohio State's middling (by comparison) schedule.
It's easy to forget that Ohio State had some significant bad luck with their schedule leading up to the season. What if the Buckeyes had been just a little luckier with how that schedule turned out? Would we still be having this debate, or would Ohio State's computer lead be just large enough to be assumed safe?
To figure it out, we took a look at a few plausible schedule "what-ifs" for Ohio State, and consulted some BCS experts, including some of the folks who actually run the computer rankings for the BCS.
What scenarios are we looking at:
1) What if Vanderbilt never dropped Ohio State?
It seems like so long ago, but it's easy to forget that the Buckeyes weren't actually supposed to open the season with Buffalo. The Commodores bailed via a Dear John letter at the eleventh hour, forcing the Buckeyes to scramble for a replacement that ultimately ended up as San Diego State in Week 2. Vandy didn't set the world on fire this season, going 8-4, without an especially quality victory, but they did open the season receiving a fair amount of votes in the AP Poll (they would have been ranked preseason #33), and all the computer rankings hold them in higher esteem than San Diego State.
2) What if Ohio State scheduled BYU to replace Vandy, instead of SDSU?
We don't know exactly how far these talks went, but the Columbus Dispatch reported that they *did* happen. If such a game did occur, the most likely timing would have been Week 1, to replace BYU's trip to UVA. Even if BYU lost that imaginary game to Ohio State, they'd still finish 8-4, with a computer profile in the 20-30-ish area, and with a few quality wins. Given how terrible Taysom Hill was in the early season, I'd feel comfortable saying that Ohio State would have trucked BYU. Would that have provided much of a computer point boost?
3) What if Ohio State played Minnesota instead of Northwestern?
The Buckeyes were locked into playing the dregs of the league (Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue), by virtue of their divisions, but missed out on the top squads from the other side, in Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan State. The Buckeyes will get a crack at Sparty on Saturday, but would the perception of Ohio State be any different if they faced one of the better inter-league sides?
We reached out to a slew of BCS experts to gauge their thoughts on whether a slight schedule change would have altered the narrative and what OSU's chances are of holding of Auburn, should both teams win out.
First, BCS Guru, Samuel Chi:
Having Vandy (or even BYU) instead of SDSU would've helped a little, moving the Buckeyes up one more spot in a couple of computers (Colley, for example). As it is, tOSU is first on one computer, second on four and third on one. It really could not have substantially improved its computer standings. While tOSU's SOS of around 80 is not great, the fact is that most (maybe all) computers give preponderance to teams that are undefeated. That's why tOSU is as high as it is.
The Buckeyes already have enough of a cushion over Auburn in the computers, in my view. As long as they beat Michigan State, there is no chance for Auburn to jump them in either the polls or so much in the computers that would wipe out their poll advantage. So at the end of the day, it probably worked out better for tOSU, as Vandy would've been a much tougher team to beat.
Then, from Jeff Anderson, behind the Anderson & Hester computer rankings (which go to the BCS):
If Ohio St. (#2 in the Anderson & Hester Rankings) had played one of those opponents instead of San Diego St., and had won, it would have improved the Buckeyes' rating a little bit. But playing another non-current-top-30 team -- at home -- wouldn't have boosted Ohio St.'s strength of schedule rating all that much, especially since San Diego St. (.463 rating) isn't terrible. It wouldn't have changed the fact that Ohio St. has played only one current-top-25 opponent, with that game (vs. #21 Wisconsin) having been played at home.
Still, the Buckeyes' strength-of-schedule rating (.507) is only a shade behind Florida State's (.511), and all of the teams with truly imposing schedules (such as #6 Arizona St. and #7 Stanford) have at least 2 losses -- which is why the (12-0) Buckeyes are #2.
So maybe we'd be looking at a tiny impact on the margins (it's possible to imagine Ohio State's SOS overtaking FSU's SOS in the Anderson rankings, but not by a significant enough margin to appreciably change the rankings).
Ohio State currently leads Auburn in the Anderson rankings by .014. Is that...a lot?
That .014 margin isn't huge, but it isn't tiny, either. It's the largest gap in our top-10.
Is it small enough that Auburn could pass Ohio State should both teams win?
As for how our final rankings will come out, we'll have to wait and see. Perhaps the Auburn-Missouri winner will gain enough ground to catch Ohio State and/or Florida State; perhaps Ohio St. will gain enough ground to catch Florida State; or perhaps the top-3 will remain in the same order that they're in today. I will have to wait till Saturday night to know myself
Okay, that's fair enough.
Friend of the Holy Land Jerry Palm, numbers guru for CBS sports, was even more blunt.
First off, strength of schedule is not Ohio State's problem. Michigan State is the only thing that can keep them from playing for a title. Auburn isn't jumping them. If beating Alabama didn't do it, then it isn't happening. The only way to change the narrative for this week would be for OSU to join the SEC. SEC fans think playing for the national title is a birthright. Since that doesn't look likely, they're going to whine.
Kenneth Massey, of the Massey Rankings wrote me to say that he doesn't do counter-factual scenarios (fair enough), but he did point me to a What If generator for the Colley Rankings.
Currently, the Colley Rankings have Auburn ranked #1 at .92845, with Ohio State right behind at #2, with .92545. Missouri, interestingly enough, is at #3 with .91351, followed by Florida State at .90075.
If we assume that OSU beats Michigan State, and Auburn beats Missouri, then we have:
1) Auburn .95991
2) Ohio State .95186
3) Florida State .90027
4) Arizona State .89742
Let's see what would happen if we replace San Diego State with Vandy (and get rid of Vandy's win over Austin Peay):
1) Ohio State .93408
2) Auburn 0.92764
3) Missouri 0.91141
4) Florida State 0.90048
So that's neat. Moving from #2 to #1 in one computer ranking isn't a bad thing. What about if we swapped out SDSU with BYU, and took away BYU's loss to Virginia?
1) Ohio State 0.94110
2) Auburn 0.92832
3) Missouri 0.91312
4) Arizona St 0.89838
Florida State drops to 5th in this scenario, and Ohio State opens up a slightly larger lead on Auburn.
What would happen if Ohio State drew Minnesota instead of Northwestern in Big Ten play?
1) Ohio State 0.93742
2) Auburn 0.92844
3) Missouri 0.91352
4) Florida State 0.90075
Basically, it wouldn't take much of a bump to move Ohio State into first place.
Well...since this thing is already open....(switches out Ohio State's entire nonconference schedule with wins over Alabama, Florida State, Missouri and Arizona State)
1) Ohio State* 1.04819
2) Auburn 0.92308
3) Missouri 0.88646
4) Stanford 0.88035
Ohio State also qualifies as the 6-seed in the AFC Playoffs
But what about the human voters?
This is obviously a much harder trend to predict, but it's probably even more important than the computer rankings.
What we do know is that Ohio State started the season as a preseason #2 in both the AP (which serves as a decent stand-in for the Harris in the early season) and the Coaches Poll. After one week, the Buckeyes were passed by Oregon in the AP, and lost ground in the Coaches. By Week 4, the Buckeyes place in the pecking order was clearly established, behind Oregon, and eventually Clemson.
This does not happen if Ohio State beats either Vandy or BYU in week one. Both teams would represent the best out of conference victory of the OSU/Auburn/FSU/Oregon group, and depending on how you feel about Virginia Tech, perhaps even Alabama as well. Both Vandy and BYU, while not elite, or maybe even very good teams this year, carry enough cachet in college football circles to slow down the prevailing narrative, and might have given Ohio State a little more stickiness in their higher poll position once they hit Big Ten play.
It isn't hard to imagine Jordan Matthews being a major matchup problem for Ohio State, but it's difficult for anyone not named Paul Finebaum to seriously expect the Commodores to have beaten Ohio State in the 'Shoe, no matter how "underwhelming" the team looked against Buffalo. And while BYU improved significantly over the course of the season, Taysom Hill was one of the worst QBs (throwing, anyway) in FBS during the first three weeks of the season. It's even harder to imagine the Cougars upsetting Ohio State if he played like he did against Virginia or Utah.
Playing Minnesota, to me, is probably a wash. Ohio State enjoyed some measure of positive feelings after being Northwestern, since we all still thought the Wildcats were good at that point. The Gophers would have been more useful as a marginal computer improvement.
So what can we take from this exercise? We know that for any team to be in national title contention at this point in the season, they need a fair amount of luck (stares at Auburn. I watched the Georgia game too, you know). It's hard to play the what-if game and come up with a conclusive, definitive answer, but it's certainly fair to say the Buckeyes have been particularly unlucky when it comes to how their schedule turned out. If the dust settles and the margin between Auburn and Ohio State remains razor thin, it won't be hard for Buckeye fans to wish that things had turned out just a teensy bit differently.