Remember the Sooners and Buckeyes matchup from Week 2? They were national title contenders playing in the biggest game in the country. First-year head coach Lincoln Riley picked up his first career road win. Surely you remember the flag that was planted? It seems like an eternity ago that OU went into Columbus, Ohio, and beat the Buckeyes 31-16 in what was — and arguably still is — the most important nonconference win of the season.
Don’t forget about that game, because the 13 members of the College Football Playoff selection committee won’t, either. The question is how much they will still value it when they meet Monday in Grapevine, Texas, and whether OU’s head-to-head win trumps the progress the Buckeyes appear to have made since their loss. With its 39-38 win over No. 2 Penn State on Saturday, Ohio State now boasts the best win in the country.
But after nine weeks, that’s all it has — along with the loss to OU.
Had TCU and Penn State both won on Saturday and stayed undefeated, this could have been very neat and tidy for the committee. The Big 12 and Big Ten front-runners likely would have joined SEC heavyweights and unbeatens Alabama and Georgia in the initial top four, which will be released along with the entire top 25 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and in the ESPN App). Instead, this looks to be a muddy mess of comparable one-loss teams, with Ohio State and Oklahoma potentially causing a great debate within the Selection Central meeting room.
Alabama and Georgia seem like no-brainers, with the only debate being which order they will be placed in at No. 1 and No. 2.
But what about all those one-loss teams? Notre Dame is looking stronger by the week, having beaten NC State on Saturday, its second straight win over a top-15 opponent. The Irish’s only loss came by one point to Georgia, and they are making a strong case to be the top one-loss team. Ohio State has the best win. Clemson has the worst loss. Oklahoma’s loss doesn’t look nearly as bad now that Iowa State has cracked the Associated Press Top 25 and earned another signature win against TCU.
What makes the committee’s process so vastly different from the AP poll, though, is that its evaluation goes beyond those single games that highlight each résumé for better or for worse. As exciting, dramatic and meaningful as Ohio State’s win was, it’s only a fraction of what the committee will evaluate when it considers the Buckeyes.
It also has the liberty — and the established precedent — to deem Ohio State better than Oklahoma in spite of the head-to-head result if it thinks those teams are no longer comparable. We’ve seen it before with the Buckeyes, when they were chosen for a CFP semifinal spot instead of Penn State last year even though they lost to the Nittany Lions.
Who’s to say the committee wouldn’t do it again, this time at Oklahoma’s expense?
The Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett was a perfect 13-for-13 in the fourth quarter for 170 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner. He completed his final 16 pass attempts of the game, a far cry from his pedestrian performance in the Sept. 9 loss to OU. And Heisman Trophy contender Saquon Barkley rushed for a season-low 44 yards. Ohio State has had plenty of time to improve, and is the clear leader in the Big Ten East.
You will hear CFP committee chair Kirby Hocutt and executive director Bill Hancock say repeatedly over the next month that picking the top four is about a team’s entire body of work. Beyond the Buckeyes’ win over Penn State, they have done nothing that would otherwise put them into the top four. They’ve beaten Army and UNLV. None of their past three Big Ten opponents — Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska — is over .500. This was their first win over a ranked opponent this season.
But they didn’t lose to Syracuse, as Clemson did. Back to the whole-body-of-work thing.
Clemson’s win over two-loss Auburn certainly takes a backseat to Ohio State’s win over Penn State. But the Tigers have faced a more challenging conference schedule than the Buckeyes. Even Boston College, Wake Forest and an unraveling Louisville team have winning records.
On Saturday against Georgia Tech, Clemson looked like the team that started out 6-0, not the one that lost to Syracuse. The selection committee will factor in the injury to Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant in the Tigers’ loss to Orange, but defensively, Clemson did not perform well in that game.
We’ll get a sense of the committee’s thinking when it releases its rankings on Tuesday. It’s the first of six rankings, but it will reveal how highly the committee regards the Big Ten, and if it comes at a price to the Big 12.