“There’s no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 and win your conference championship and you’re not going to be in the final four. I don’t see that. That would shock me.”
The Ohio State Buckeyes are used to being on the outside looking in into the College Football Playoff--at least until the final rankings come out. In 2014, the Buckeyes were sitting at No. 8 in the week 12 playoff rankings. A win over Michigan in the final regular season game, even with a season-ending injury to JT Barrett, propelled Ohio State up two spots to No. 6. And then a week later, a domineering win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game was enough to allow the Buckeyes to jump two contenders from the Big 12 for a spot in the inaugural playoff.
Last season, hope was all but lost for the Buckeyes as they didn’t even make the Big Ten cChampionship game following a loss to Penn State. But chaos ensued and Ohio State found itself in the top-four of the final rankings.
This year, the Big Ten as a whole--not just Ohio State--can once again bring chaos to the CFP final rankings. Wisconsin, despite being one of just four undefeated teams in the rankings, has been sitting outside the top-four all season. While this consideration is owing mainly to their strength of schedule (Northwestern is the only ranked team the Badgers have beaten), a win over Ohio State and a Big Ten title would naturally position Wisconsin in the playoff, usurping a team which had previously been comfortable in one of the top spots.
On the flip side, should Ohio State win and a number of other factors come into play (‘Bama winning out over Auburn and Georgia, Miami defeating Clemson in the ACC title game, Oklahoma winning the Big 12), the committee would have serious consideration for even a two-loss Big Ten champ that is currently on a hot streak. The alternatives would be a second team from the SEC or ACC, like Clemson or Georgia, or a two-loss Pac-12 champion.
“It was a tribute to our senior class. But it’s not a goodbye, because we have a lot of ball in front of us.”
Senior day on Saturday may have been rainy, wet and unconventional for the 19 seniors recognized by the Ohio State football program, but it was undoubtedly an unforgettable experience. After receiving a final sendoff, having effectively buried the Illini in a hole too deep to dig themselves out of, the first string was called back to play another series in the third quarter, with some players even needing to be retaped to get back into the game unexpectedly. And the rain--a soaking rain which began in the first half and which did not taper until after the game was over--was relentless, creating a hideous environment that would have been miserable if not for the blowout win in a trophy game.
The fact remains that this senior class has done amazing things for the Ohio State football program and university. Despite the up-and-down criticism that has surrounded J.T. Barrett, he and the rest of the seniors have led the Buckeyes to 46 wins in less than four seasons while Barrett himself has broken every notable passing record at Ohio State and, in some cases, the Big Ten. Moreover, this class is not done, with a rivalry game on the line this week, and the Big Ten Championship versus Wisconsin looming ahead.
Emotions certainly ran high Saturday, though, in the seniors’ final game in the Horseshoe. Even Urban Meyer called out the moment: “It was an opportunity to tip a hat to the class...to say thank you to our group of players,” he said. “If you just look at their performance, you look at the way they live their lives, look at the way they represent this great university and represent their families with great honor and character and integrity, and that’s the Ohio State I’ve known since I’ve been a young person.”
“I heard days in the past where you saved the Little Eight and the Big Two. Those days are done.”
Once upon a time in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, coaches might have been able to save a sneaky play or two for the duration of the season for use against their final opponent of the year. Woody Hayes in particular was able to reserve a whole slew of offensive weapons for the rivalry game, given that Ohio State and Michigan, at the time, were so far ahead of the rest of the Big Ten. The Buckeyes didn’t need to pull out all the stops for fellow conference opponents.
Even Jim Tressel in 2006, when Ohio State entered the game as the top team in the country, with Michigan right behind at No. 2, famously lined up wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. as a tight end, opening up an opportunity for the speedster to beat coverage on a play action pass from Troy Smith. Tressel had not needed to use that play all year, having defeated 10 of 11 opponents by at least 17 points.
Now, however, Ohio State not only has to deal with a better-overall Big Ten, but also with improved out-of-conference scheduling which pits the Buckeyes against top national opponents earlier in the season. Opportunities to simply “keep one in the back pocket” become slim.
Until recently, Michigan was usually the best opponent that Ohio State would face all season. Such is obviously not the case this year. Already this season, Ohio State has faced a top-five Oklahoma team and ranked Penn State and Michigan State squads. Even Urban Meyer has acknowledged that holding onto plays for just the right moment in Week 12 is simply not realistic. However, unlike Tressel’s need to draw up a play to beat the No. 2 team in the country in 2006, Meyer’s squad has faced tougher competition up to this point in the season than what their storied rival brings.