Michigan’s upset loss at Iowa over the weekend might have been particularly amusing to Ohio State faithful, but it also unquestionably complicated the Buckeyes’ potential path to the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State, as you’ve probably heard by this point, no longer controls their own destiny in the Big Ten East race. Not only do the Buckeyes need to sweep the Michigan schools, but they need Penn State to drop a game to either Rutgers or Michigan State in order to guarantee themselves a shot at the Big Ten championship.
Now, could Ohio State still make the playoff at 11-1, even if they don’t pass Penn State and make a trip to Indianapolis? Sure, that’s possible, thanks to Ohio State’s strength of schedule, but it would require the selection committee to break (limited) precedent and pick a non-conference champion.
But at this point, there’s still a pretty good chance that Ohio State won’t make the playoff. So what are their other possible bowl destinations? It would appear there are three. Let’s take a closer look:
The Rose Bowl
If the Buckeyes can’t make the playoff, a trip to the Granddaddy of Them All isn’t the worst consolation prize in the world. The Buckeyes haven’t played in this game since 2010 (a 26-17 win over Oregon), and have only made the trip west twice in the past 30 years (the other being the memorable 1997 win over Arizona State). Given Ohio State’s massive fan base, it seems a fair bet that Rose Bowl officials would love to get the Buckeyes back to Pasadena.
If Ohio State wins out in the regular season but say, loses in the Big Ten championship game, the Rose Bowl also seems likely. Should Ohio State lose to Michigan, it’s even possible a two-loss Ohio State team could get picked over say, a three-loss Wisconsin. The Rose Bowl, after all, is not obligated to pick a division winner.
If the Pac-12 fails to send a team to the playoff, it is most likely that the opponent would be Washington, but Washington State, Utah, Colorado, and even USC are all possibilities.
The Orange Bowl
The Orange Bowl is slotted to pit an ACC team against the highest ranked opponent from the SEC, Big Ten, or Notre Dame. We can safely rule Notre Dame out — they’re 4-6, in case you forgot — and given that the Sugar Bowl is already obligated to take the next best SEC team after Alabama, the Orange Bowl slot will almost certainly go to a Big Ten team. If the Buckeyes are passed up by the Rose, this would be the next obvious spot for them.
Assuming Clemson is the only ACC team to make the playoff, the Orange Bowl opponent would be Louisville, which, while not the playoff, would still be fun as hell. In the unlikely event that Louisville and Clemson both make the playoff, this game suddenly looks much less enticing, with Florida State or Virginia Tech potentially getting elevated.
The Cotton Bowl
This year, the Cotton Bowl will select an at-large team to face off against the top ranked Group of 5 (e.g. non-automatic qualifier conference) program. Given the way the rankings look right now, it’s a fair bet that the at-large team will also be a Big Ten squad, and a two-loss Ohio State team could, hypothetically, fall this far. Ohio State vs. Western Michigan might have some sort of appeal, but given the location, and this being a relative down year for G5 programs, this probably would not be an ideal landing spot for the Buckeyes.
It’s also worth noting that these projections are based on the assumption that Ohio State, at worse, drops one of their remaining games. Should the Buckeyes lose to both Michigan State and Michigan, they may slip off the New Year’s Six rotation completely, and fall to say, the Citrus Bowl, where they would play an SEC team.
We’ll have a slightly more clear idea about the pecking order once the playoff rankings are released tomorrow, but if Ohio State beats Michigan State, at the very least, they will almost certainly be playing in a New Year’s Six bowl for the second straight season. And with one of the least experienced teams in college football to start the season, that’s not a bad floor, all things considered.