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Ohio State in position for a playoff berth with win over Northwestern

If Alabama and Ohio State win, the Buckeyes are likely in.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

I will be the first to admit that even though I predicted Ohio State to beat Michigan, I don’t know that I actually believed it, and even if I did, I certainly didn’t anticipate it happening like that. A week ago, I wrote a column in which I admitted that I didn’t want Ohio State to make the College Football Playoff.

Of course, I wanted them to beat the Wolverines, and I want them to win the Big Ten Championship over the Northwestern Wildcats, but I’m trying (very hard) not to be a prisoner of the moment, because this moment is flipping awesome. Had OSU played like this all season — or even just in all of games following the Purdue loss — I would have been beating the drum on their CFP chances. But, they struggled against Nebraska and Maryland, so I am hesitant to believe that they can replicate this type of performance against anyone other than their rivals.

That being typed, my opinion doesn’t really matter, because should they win next week, the Buckeyes are legitimate contenders to earn a berth to the playoff for the third time.

I tried to put myself in the head space of the selection committee — which is dangerous to do considering that I’ve already made my feelings about the committee known — in order to predict how they might rank the top 10 come Tuesday night. I’ll be honest, I think that you could rearrange Nos. 4-6 in whatever order you want, and I don’t think that it would really matter, because what happens next week is ultimately going to be the determining factor.

College Football Playoff Standings

Rank Current Team Week 13 Result Projected Team Projected Team Next Game
Rank Current Team Week 13 Result Projected Team Projected Team Next Game
1 Alabama W, 52-21, Auburn Alabama SEC Champ. vs. UGA
2 Clemson W, 56-35, S. Car Clemson ACC Champ. vs. Pitt
3 Notre Dame W, 24-17, USC Notre Dame Bowl
4 Michigan L, 62-39, OSU Georgia SEC Champ. vs. Alabama
5 Georgia W, 45-21, GT Oklahoma Big 12 Champ. vs. Texas
6 Oklahoma W, 59-56, WVU Ohio State Big Ten Champ. vs. Northwestern
7 LSU L, 74-72 7OT, TAMU UCF American Champ. vs. Memphis
8 Washington St. L, 28-15, Wash. Florida Bowl
9 UCF W, 38-10, USF Michigan Bowl
10 Ohio State W, 62-39, Mich. Penn State Bowl

If those (or something close to those) are the rankings heading into Championship Weekend, there aren’t a ton of slots to fill. So, let’s take a look at what we know, and what needs to be figured out next week.

The Idle Irish

There are those out there that think that the fact that Notre Dame doesn’t have a conference championship to play next week means that they will be jumped by Oklahoma and/or Ohio State should either win their respective conference titles.

In FiveThirtyEight’s interactive College Football Predictions simulator, should the favorites in the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and SEC win, they predict that both OU and OSU would make the playoff, albeit by a very slim percentage over the Irish.

With all due respect to Nate Silver and his team, that ain’t happening. By virtue of their victory over USC on Saturday night, Notre Dame is in the playoff. That is a done deal. There’s no way that the committee is going to keep an undefeated Notre Dame (who has wins over three top-20 teams; Michigan, Northwestern, Syracuse) out of the playoff.

I understand the impulse to punish the Domers for clinging to the outdated idea of college football independence — especially when a conference title is one of the committee’s enumerated criteria — but there is no chance they are kept out. The only thing left to decide is their seeding.

If Alabama or Clemson Loses

Following last week’s rankings show, College Football Playoff Selection Committee chairman Rob Mullens gave a media conference call, and in his opening statement said that the committee discussed flipping Clemson to No. 1 last week, but ultimately decided not to. Based on that, as of last Tuesday, it seems pretty clear that the committee views the Tide and and Tigers as the top two teams by a significant margin.

“We see two well-balanced teams, efficient on offense, strong on defense, that perform week in and week out,” he said. “Again, I think when you look at those, we see Alabama and Clemson through week 12 as more complete teams with strength on both sides of the ball.”

Therefore, I think it’s safe to assume that should either ‘Bama or Clemson lose in their respective conference championship game next week, they would still remain in the top four. I think that’s a bit more of a spurious assumption with Clemson, since they would be losing to a Pitt team that is likely to be unranked (though probably in the top 30) by the time they play. Despite this first hypothetical loss, the Tigers would have wins over presumably top-20 Texas A&M and top-20 Syracuse. The loss to Pitt would likely move the Panthers back into the top 25, and would be a far better defeat than OSU’s to Purdue.

It wouldn’t be as “good” of a loss as OU’s to Texas, but seeing as how the committee views Clemson as a significantly better team as we stand now, I don’t think that a defeat will drop them out of the tour four.

However, if that’s the case, Clemson winning or losing doesn’t really impact the Buckeyes, as their opponent won’t be able to use the benefit of the upset to secure a playoff spot. But, that cannot be said for Alabama.

Should the Tide lose to Georgia, I think that it is safe to assume that both the Tide and the Dawgs are in, likely eliminating both Ohio State and Oklahoma from consideration.

If ‘Bama Stays Perfect

So, if we know that Alabama, Clemson, and Notre Dame are in not matter what happens, and UGA would claim the fourth spot should they win the SEC, the only thing left to figure out is what would happen if Alabama stays undefeated and wins the SEC Championship.

In that case, I think it is safe to assume that Ohio State or Oklahoma is in the playoff should the other lose. It only starts to get crazy if both teams win.

Now, let’s see how these two teams stack up after yesterday’s games in some of statistics that the committee might consider when splitting the hairs between them.

Statistical Rankings Before Regular Season Finale

Category Ohio State Oklahoma
Category Ohio State Oklahoma
S&P+ Ranking 8 4
Offensive S&P+ 4 1
Total Offense Rank 2 1
Scoring Offense Rank 7 1
Defensive S&P+ 35 84
Total Defense Rank 67 111
Scoring Defense Rank 56 99
Special Teams S&P+ 29 32
Resume S&P+ Rank 13 6
Bill C's Strength of Schedule 74 76

The Case for Ohio State

When discussing Clemson and Alabama, Mullens repeatedly said that those two teams have cumulatively performed the best on both sides of the ball. If the Buckeyes can beat their second-straight ranked opponent with a complete performance on Saturday, that could give them the advantage.

The numbers above, seem to suggest that the Buckeyes are the more well-rounded team, or at least are more capable of playing well on both sides of the ball. If OU and OSU are close in the committee’s minds come this Tuesday night, the Buckeye defense might be what seals the berth on Sunday.

As I said in the article linked above, the selection committee has had an illogical amount of love for Oklahoma this year, especially in comparison to Ohio State. But, should Ohio State turn in a quality defensive effort for the second week in a row, and the Sooners give up 40-plus points like they have in five of their last seven games, I think that the committee might view the late-season defensive progression by the Buckeyes as the differentiating factor when it comes to the fourth slot.

Another factor in the Buckeyes’ favor is that with the defeat of then-No. 4 Michigan, the nation’s best statistical defense, they now have the best victory of any team in contention; they also have the worst loss, but more on that in a minute.

The Case for Oklahoma

Last week, Mullens praised OU’s “dynamic” offense while seemingly dismissing concerns about their defense. However, short of pitching a shutout against Texas, the strongest argument in the Sooners’ favor is in their opponents.

While Oklahoma’s conference championship foe is certainly more traditionally impressive than Ohio State’s, both Texas and Northwestern will be top 20 teams, so that’s not likely to change things too much.

The respective wins would be the third against top-25 opponents for both the Bucks and Sooners; but, in beating the Longhorns, OU would be avenging the lone loss of their season, which could be an added feather in their caps when it comes to how the committee views them.

Then of course you have the biggest strike against Ohio State: the inexplicable 49-20 loss to Purdue on Oct. 20. It is an embarrassing blotch on their resume that might not be able to be covered up by two late season wins. Any turnaround that the Buckeyes have might be too little, too late.

Fool’s Errand

With all of this hypothesizing and analyzing and theorizing, it bears remembering that this isn’t the BCS. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee is made up of 13 individual humans. There are no formulas at play, there are no algorithms; just a baker’s dozen of opinions, and because of that, trying to predict what the committee will do (especially given their inconsistent set of standards) is little more than a fool’s errand. So, while we might think that we’ve deduced what is going to happen, there’s no real way to know, until we actually know.