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Column: Notre Dame is a must-win for Ohio State, but the reasons are strange

Related, it’s helpful to set expectations.

CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There are few opportunities for hiccups in today’s college football landscape. Ohio State, as we well remember, barely made the College Football Playoff in 2014 after a single, early loss.

What does that mean for this Saturday’s matchup against No. 5 Notre Dame? Ohio State has to win. Obviously. Or maybe not so much.

Granted, it’s hard to extrapolate this data for Ohio State, because the Buckeyes simply do not have that many losses. Ryan Day has amassed a 34-4 record through four full seasons at Ohio State (plus three games in 2018). Last season was by far the worst showing a Day-coached team has had, and the Buckeyes remained in the playoff discussion until the bitter end.

The Buckeyes have made the College Football Playoff four total times. In 2014 and 2016, Ohio State made the Playoff after losing to unranked Virginia Tech and Penn State teams, respectively. Of course, Penn State ended up running the table in the Big Ten in 2016.

The other two times Ohio State made the CFP, they were undefeated (2019 and 2020). Those undefeated seasons sure make it easy for the CFP committee to make their selections.

However, the times Ohio State has missed the Playoff included:

  • 2015: Loss to No. 9 Michigan State
  • 2017: Losses to No. 5 Oklahoma and unranked Iowa
  • 2018: Loss to unranked Purdue
  • 2021: Losses to No. 12 Oregon and No. 5 Michigan

Early losses are generally more forgivable than ones later in the season. In 2021, even with an early loss to Oregon, Ohio State was in the Playoff conversation leading up to November’s loss to Michigan. The narrative was that the winner of that game, assuming a follow-up win in the Big Ten Championship, would be Playoff-bound. In other words, the early loss didn’t matter so much.

When it comes to forgivable losses, the opponent also plays a role — but it’s not as clear-cut as you might think. When Ohio State loses to a highly ranked team that loses games throughout the season (like last year’s Oregon team), Ohio State’s initial loss tends to matter less. That’s because the CFP committee doesn’t want to see rematches in the Playoff between two teams that remained highly ranked — unless, of course, it’s two SEC teams. Cue eye roll.

Losing to a highly ranked opponent clearly positions Ohio State behind the other team, but losing to an unranked opponent means Ohio State had a bad day.

Take Ohio State’s loss to Purdue in 2018 compared to its loss to Michigan in 2021 as examples. Here, we have another instance where the transitive property doesn’t apply in college football. Losing to a bad team does not mean that the losing team is worse than the bad team. No one would argue that Purdue was a better team than Ohio State in 2018. The Boilermakers finished the season 6-7, including a 5-4 conference mark. Ohio State, meanwhile, wrapped the season with Purdue as its only loss. Ultimately, the Buckeyes beat Washington in the Rose Bowl.

Meanwhile, against Michigan, two teams with similar records and rankings were essentially racked-and-stacked against one another. In short, a loss meant Ohio State was the comparatively worse team in 2021.

Perhaps it’s because teams like Purdue are not in the consideration set for the College Football Playoff year in and year out. When Michigan played Iowa for the Big Ten Championship last year, there was only discussion of Michigan wins and they’re in. There was little consideration of the Hawkeyes making a Playoff run. We saw a similar discussion, or lack thereof, around Northwestern in 2020.

Some of that has to do with the record. The Hawkeyes had two regular-season, in-conference losses. It would be hard to make an argument for them to go to the CFP. But branding plays a big part, too — and for brands as big as Ohio State, the story tends to revolve around them. Again, the narrative around the loss to Purdue was how Ohio State had a bad day.

This brings us to expectations. The over-under for Ohio State regular season wins is just 10.5, which is absurdly low. The Buckeyes are one of just six teams favored to win all their games and the only team in the Big Ten.

Knock on wood, but Ryan Day has not dropped the ball on regular season games in the same way Urban Meyer seemed to. Sure, losses for both coaches have been few and far between, but it takes a high level of discipline to do what Day has in his tenure at Ohio State. The closest Day has come to such a loss, in many ways, was the Buckeyes’ loss to Oregon last season — and even that is a stretch.

The curse of having a team as great as Ohio State is that anything less than 11 regular season wins means a disappointing year. While the CFP committee might forgive an early loss to a Notre Dame team over the course of a season, Ohio State fans will remember. And, as a result, Saturday is a must-win for the fanbase.

Moreover, it’s a heck of a lot easier to make the College Football Playoff as an undefeated conference champion.