This college football season has certainly been anything but normal. Instead of breaking down the film from the latest Ohio State game and arguing over now seemingly pedantic topics like play-calling and personnel adjustments, we find ourselves wrapped up in the same concerns as the rest of the world at large: the effects of the pandemic.
For the second time over the first six weeks of this odd shortened season, the Buckeyes were stuck sitting on the couch this Saturday. After the team’s game against Maryland was cancelled two weeks ago following a COVID-19 outbreak among the Terrapins, Ohio State was hit with the virus this time around, leading to the program cancelling its game against Illinois out of precaution.
The result: OSU teetering on the edge of Big Ten Championship Game eligibility.
For seemingly no coherent reason, the Big Ten set forth before the beginning of the season a six-game minimum requirement to qualify for the conference title game. This, of course, came after the B1G cancelled its original pandemic-inspired schedule for a fall season which included 10 games over 12 weeks with two off weeks to allow for make-up games and plenty of additional wiggle room. Instead, we got eight games in eight weeks with zero room for error heading into what we knew would be a second wave of the virus once the weather cooled off again.
As things currently stand, Ohio State is still scheduled to play the six minimum games required to qualify for the conference title game, but that is increasingly in jeopardy. The Buckeyes did return to the Woody on Monday for some small-group workouts, which would indicate there is confidence in their latest round of testing numbers that they have prevented a significant outbreak, but Saturday’s game against Michigan State is still not a guarantee.
On top of that, the Michigan football program went on pause today after an increase in positive test results, and who knows what will happen between now and The Game.
All things considered, there is at least a non-zero chance that the Buckeyes do not wind up playing the necessary six games to qualify for the Big Ten title game. If that is indeed what winds up happening, what does this mean for Ohio State’s chances of making the College Football Playoff?
Let’s first start with what this would mean in the scope of the Big Ten. With the rest of the B1G East being an absolute dumpster fire, Indiana would represent the division in Indianapolis. Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, they would have to do so without Michael Penix, who tore his ACL in the team’s win over Maryland this past weekend. With Wisconsin well below the threshold in the West division, Northwestern would represent that side of the conference — even though they just lost to Michigan State.
So where does that put Ohio State? Well, the one good thing the Big Ten has done this year is institute championship weekend, which will give every team in the conference an additional game on the same day as the B1G title game. With the way the standings currently look and the matchups that still have to (hopefully) take place, the Buckeyes will likely find themselves up against Wisconsin — a team ranked No. 16 in the initial CFP rankings.
This means that the Big Ten Championship matchup will be a one-loss Northwestern against an Indiana team that already lost to Ohio State. Meanwhile, the undefeated Buckeyes (in this scenario OSU played and defeated Michigan to go 5-0 in the regular season) will be matched up against a potentially Top-15/Top-10 Badgers team. If OSU were to win that game, do we really think the playoff committee would select an Indiana team that lost head-to-head to Ohio State OR a one-loss Wildcats squad over the Buckeyes simply because of the B1G’s dumb arbitrary games requirement?
The answer seems to be pretty obviously no. While the CFP committee does seem to attribute some weight to the number of games played, they themselves don't have a minimum games requirement set for the College Football Playoff. If the goal of the committee is to choose the nation’s top four teams, they would have a hard time justifying that either Northwestern or Indiana is better than Ohio State simply because they played more games. If the Big Ten is getting a team into the CFP this season, it will be Ohio State.
This means the only roadblock for a spot in the playoff for Ryan Day’s crew (other than a loss, obviously) would be the Big Ten being left out of the playoff entirely. However, for this to happen, it would have to mean that there is some team from another conference that is clearly good enough to push the Buckeyes out of a spot.
Let’s take a look at the current national picture of college football and where teams stand in regards to those top four spots. It seems pretty obvious that at least two if not three of the final four seeds are already locked up. Alabama is in, even with a loss in the SEC title game. Notre Dame is in, even with a loss to Clemson in the ACC title game. Clemson, if they were to defeat Notre Dame in the rematch in said ACC title game, would then also be in. If these teams continue on their current trajectories, there is really only one spot up for grabs in this year’s playoff field.
So who is left out there fighting for that final spot besides Ohio State? The Big 12 has cannibalized itself to the point where it is realistically eliminated. With Oregon losing to Oregon State, the Pac-12 is most likely out as well. The only teams with a pulse in the ACC are Clemson and Notre Dame, and they are already both projected to make the playoff. With Ohio State being the only Big Ten team with a realistic shot at the CFP, this just leaves a second SEC team or a non-P5 program.
A second SEC team making the playoff seems like the only potential scenario where the Buckeyes could find themselves on the outside looking in — and this is only if Alabama is upset in the conference title game. Florida checked in at No. 6 in the initial CFP rankings, and if they were to defeat the Crimson Tide to win the SEC, then in all likelihood they would jump Ohio State as both they and Bama would make the field of four. Texas A&M is sitting there at No. 5, but with a mostly unimpressive resumé and no SEC title game appearance on the schedule, they don't really have a path into the playoff.
I have been pro-Cincinnati in the CFP all year long. I think the Bearcats have without a doubt been one of the best and most consistent teams in college football throughout this season, especially on the defensive end where even the top dogs have struggled. However, I don't think the committee is quite ready to put a G5 team over an undefeated P5 team just yet. We could see it happen once the field is inevitably expanded down the road, but if there is going to be a team from Ohio in this year’s playoff, it is going to be Ohio State.
So that is where things stand. Getting games cancelled obviously isn’t ideal, and there is certainly room for discussion as to whether or not Ohio State has played like a championship-caliber team to this point. However, with the way the rest of the college football landscape has shaped up, I don't think the lack of a Big Ten title would erase the Buckeyes’ chances of competing in the College Football Playoff.
Could it happen? Could the committee leave OSU on the outside looking in after playing only five or six games and not exactly dominating in any of them? Absolutely. But with everything else happening around the sport in this weird COVID-19 season, I don't see Justin Fields and the gang being left out of the CFP solely because they didn’t play Illinois and/or Michigan State in November.