I’ve never believed that the transitive property applies in sports. For those who need a refresher of high school math, the transitive property states that if A=B, and B=C, then A=C. How does this apply to sports? Just because one team beats another team, and that team beats a third team, does not mean that the first team would beat the third team.
That’s because, especially at the collegiate level, schemas are diverse and complex enough that teams will have near certain advantages over some and significant disadvantages against others. Rock, paper, scissors is a much more applicable principle, then, than the transitive property. Take the round robin of Utah, Oregon and Ohio State: Utah beats Oregon, Oregon beats Ohio State, Ohio State beats Utah.
Regardless of which principle is applied, there’s none that would reasonably position Ohio State as a team that should have been in the College Football Playoff this season. It’s easy to want to believe that the Buckeyes, one of the most prominent brands in college football, would turn things on in the postseason and make a reasonable Playoff run.
The fact Ohio State finished just two spots out of the top-four, at No. 6, made the near miss that much more painful. It was easy to dump on both No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 4 Cincinnati, assuming that by virtue of strength of schedule or whatever else, the Buckeyes could have needled their way into the fourth spot and made a run.
While there are few who actually advocated for the Buckeyes to jump other teams to land in the top four, especially after the blowout performances witnessed on New Year’s Eve during the CFP semi-finals, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “Ohio State would have performed better than [Cincinnati/Michigan] in those matchups.”
Part of this mindset is because of a certain nostalgia: Up until its finale, the 2021 season had all the vestiges of 2014, including a fresh quarterback, an early, out-of-conference loss and a run in the Big Ten with a rapidly improving team. As a friendly reminder, in 2014, Ohio State beat Michigan, demolished Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship and went on to upset Alabama after just barely fitting into the top four of the inaugural CFP. Oh, and they beat Oregon to claim the title.
Fast forward to where it all fell apart in 2021. The Buckeyes were effectively dismantled against Michigan in the regular season finale. The offense had its lowest production of the year with just 458 total yards. The defense had no answer for Michigan running back Hassan Haskins.
Sure, it was a dispiriting end to what could easily be perceived as a title run, no doubt made more disappointing by the fact the rankings heading into the final week of the regular season reflected that confidence that, should Ohio State beat Michigan, they were effectively in.
Then the CFP semifinals happened on New Year’s Eve. First, Cincinnati lost to Alabama 27-6 (it was actually a close game through the third quarter). Then, Michigan lost to Georgia 34-11 in a game that was largely decided in the first quarter.
Once again, it’s easy to argue that the Ohio State offense is better than the Michigan offense and may have put up more than 11 points against Georgia in the CFP semi-finals.
From there, it becomes easy to argue that Ohio State is actually similar in structure to Alabama in terms of its offensive character. The combo of Bryce Young and Jameson Williams feels eerily similar to CJ Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — a feeling solidified after the pair’s performance in the Rose Bowl Saturday. Plus, if the Buckeyes had been in a position for a Playoff berth, Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave would have opted to play, thus shoring up Stroud’s arsenal of receiving threats. However, no amount of offensive firepower makes up for an utter lack of strength on defense, which brings us to the idea of being a complete team.
As much as we hate to admit it, Georgia and Alabama are both complete teams in ways that Ohio State was not this season. Georgia has the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense and No. 9 scoring offense — the only program to be top-10 in both categories. Alabama isn’t far behind, with the No. 3 scoring offense and No. 13 scoring defense in the FBS.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, was fifth in scoring defense and 13th in scoring offense. Michigan was just behind: The Wolverines’ scoring offense was 16th nationally, with their defense ranked eighth.
Further, Michigan (Aidan Hutchinson), Georgia (Nakobe Dean) and Cincinnati (Ahmad Gardner) all have stars on defense who are projected first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Yes, it’s easy to point to Ohio State’s offense this season, which was nothing short of prolific, as reason enough for the Buckeyes to get into the Playoff. The offense was tops in the FBS by a long shot, scoring 45.7 points per game. But, as was clear from the outset, the defense was the struggle all along. Ohio State finished with the 38th-ranked scoring defense in the FBS, giving up just under 23 points per game. Additionally, to the point above, there are no projected first-round picks on defense for the 2022 draft.
The bottom line is that none of the Playoff teams’ offenses were as good as Ohio State’s this season, but all were well above average. All their defenses were much, much better. The marginal benefit of a superior offense was not enough to make up for the gap in defensive capacity.
While, once again, few actually advocated for the Buckeyes to earn a Playoff bid following their performance against Michigan, the more challenging pill to swallow is that, Playoff revenue aside, it is actually better for Ohio State that they did not make the cut, which brings us back to 2016.
The damage Ohio State’s reputation sustained after getting shutout 31-0 to Clemson in the 2016 CFP semis was severe, and pervaded the rest of the Big Ten. That stigma took two seasons to assuage. The Buckeyes won Big Ten titles in 2017 and 2018, but didn’t make the College Football Playoff again until 2019.
It was a creepily similar situation to what we saw at the end of this season. While few argued this year that Ohio State should jump to the No. 4 spot in the final CFP rankings, that’s what happened in 2016. Penn State won the Big Ten, including holding the tiebreaker over Ohio State and defeating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Of course, the Nittany Lions had two regular season losses to Ohio State’s one, including an out of conference defeat to Pitt — the difference between 2016 Penn State and 2021 Michigan.
That’s when Ohio State fans first saw the story of what could have been this season: an embarrassing loss, a hit to the brand, a bar from the top tier for a sustained period. Ohio State already lived Michigan’s nightmare scenario of showing up and getting shown up on a national stage in the CFP. In the end, only four teams make the Playoff in a given season, and it’s better, when the team is down, to wrap things up with a win in the Rose Bowl than a blowout loss on a bigger stage.