An absolutely insane Saturday in college football seemed to mean instant euphoria for one team in particular: Ohio State.
The Buckeyes entered the weekend as the No. 5 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, the first team to move into the much-desired top four in case one of those top-four teams tripped up some time in the regular season’s final three weeks.
Well it happened. Boy, did it happen. The Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams in the rankings all went down Saturday: previously unbeaten Clemson lost to Pitt, previously unbeaten Michigan lost to Iowa, and previously unbeaten Washington lost to USC.
So Ohio State won’t just inch forward in next week’s rankings. It should vault up to the No. 2 spot after taking care of its business, putting a 62-3 whooping on Maryland a week after beating a ranked Nebraska team by the exact same score.
The Buckeyes look deserving of that No. 2 spot, and while the regular-season finale against the aforementioned Wolverines remains titanic, wrapping the regular season at 11-1 should have Ohio State in a perfect position to earn one of those Playoff slots, right?
Well hold everything, because that’s not exactly the case.
The Buckeyes boast a stellar 9-1 overall record and are getting plenty of warranted love from the selection committee and others nationally. But it’s important to remember that one loss, a defeat that came at the hands of Penn State, a team also playing great football at the moment. The Nittany Lions are currently ranked 10th and will probably move up a few spots thanks to the chaos in the top 10 — two other teams, No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 9 Auburn, lost in addition to the three teams in the top four.
But that loss means that Penn State holds the head-to-head tiebreaker with Ohio State, so if the two teams tie at the top of the division standings at season's end, it’ll be the Lions, not the Buckeyes, playing for a conference championship in Indianapolis.
And that looks like a mighty possible scenario at the moment. If Ohio State wins out, it will beat Michigan State and Michigan, handing Michigan its second conference loss and knocking the Wolverines out of the current three-team tie at the top of the East. But if Penn State wins out, it will beat Rutgers and Michigan State — two teams with one combined Big Ten victory this season — and finish with one conference loss. If both those things happen, there’s a two-way tie between the Buckeyes and Lions, which the Lions win.
Obviously, if Michigan beats Ohio State in The Game, the Buckeyes won’t be competing for a conference title, either. Michigan plays Indiana next weekend, and should it win that one and the regular-season finale, it will finish with one conference loss, Ohio State will finish with two. Even if Penn State wins out in that scenario, Michigan goes to Indy because of the head-to-head tiebreaker owned by the Wolverines.
So the only way Ohio State plays for a conference championship is if Penn State trips up in its final two games. That’s possible, sure, but very unlikely considering the quality of the Lions’ final two opponents.
So after all that — Michigan losing to Iowa and two other top-four teams losing to boost Ohio State up to No. 2 in the rankings — the only team in the Big Ten East that still “controls its own destiny” is the Wolverines.
And it’s going to take a lot of luck for the No. 2 team in America and the highest-ranked team in its conference to reach its own conference championship game.
That’s a big deal. The Playoff has only been around for two years, but the eight playoff spots have all gone to conference champions. Obviously the day will come when a non-conference champ has a resume better than conference champs, or at least one worth considering. Maybe that day is rapidly approaching and that team is the Buckeyes.
But if the selection committee holds a conference championship as a prime criterion in determining Playoff worthiness, then Ohio State could be in real trouble. Despite being one of the two best teams in college football.