At this time three years ago, during Week 12 of the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff, Ohio State sat at No. 8, one spot ahead of where they are this season after Week 12. The one-loss Buckeyes went on to win the national championship with their third-string quarterback in one of the sport’s most remarkable championship stories.
Ohio State never placed in the top four until the committee released its final rankings that season, and it only came after embarrassing Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game. The Buckeyes were a controversial selection, but one the committee would be vindicated in making. They were a champion that would never have been crowned in the old system.
In two weeks, Ohio State and Wisconsin will face each other in the Big Ten title game. Neither of them has appeared in the top four yet this season, and that’s unlikely to change on Tuesday when the committee releases its fourth of six rankings. Ohio State has a chance to be a CFP outlier, a role it has become quite familiar with, this time as a two-loss contender.
The Buckeyes have been a precedent-setting team in the CFP era. Last season, they went to a semifinal without even winning their division. In 2015, Ohio State probably was one of the four best teams in the country but never got a chance to prove it because of a loss to Michigan State on a last-second field goal. For better or for worse, the Buckeyes have always seemed to find a way to throw a curveball into the CFP conversation, and they might do it again.
Whether it’s Georgia, Auburn or Alabama — who all won easily on Saturday — the SEC champion is likely in. The ACC championship game between Miami and Clemson is becoming essentially a CFP quarterfinal, with the champion getting in. Oklahoma has clinched a spot in the Big 12 championship game and is two wins away from being a lock.
So, then what?
It would come down to a two-loss Pac-12 champion, the Big Ten winner or a second team from either the ACC or the SEC. The easy answer for the committee would be an undefeated Big Ten champ in Wisconsin.
“There’s no part of me that says if you go undefeated as a Power 5 and win your conference championship and you’re not going to be in the final four,” said Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who spent the past three seasons on the selection committee. “I don’t see that. That would shock me.”
But if Ohio State beats the Badgers, as ESPN’s Football Power Index projects it to, then Auburn isn’t the only two-loss team with a legitimate chance at the top four.
Those within the CFP will tell you they don’t rank conferences; they rank teams. With a Power 5-leading six Big Ten teams ranked in their top 25 for the second straight week, though, it’s clear the committee holds the league in high regard, and that has changed Ohio State’s outlook drastically. With undefeated Wisconsin leading the way, and Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern all winning on Saturday, the Big Ten should again have a heavy presence in next rankings. Wisconsin’s past two opponents, though, the Iowa and Michigan, should be out, which leaves the Badgers no margin for error. They have just one ranked win during the regular season (Northwestern) and a strength of schedule that ranks 55th in the nation, and last among the remaining CFP contenders.
Ohio State could enter the final rankings with a top-10 win against Penn State, a win against a ranked Michigan State, a road win against Michigan, and a win over a top-five Wisconsin team. Including Army, it has could have a total of five wins against teams over .500 — similar to the résumé that has helped Clemson compensate for its loss to Syracuse.
However, what if Alabama’s only loss is to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and Auburn wins the SEC title? Would the committee take an 11-1 Alabama team that didn’t win its division instead of a two-loss Big Ten champion Ohio State? Ah, karma.
The best-case scenario for the two-loss Buckeyes now would be for Alabama to win the SEC and Miami to win the ACC, because that would eliminate a second team from either conference. (There’s no way the committee would take a two-loss runner-up in either Georgia or Clemson). That projection — with Alabama, Miami and Oklahoma each winning their conferences — suddenly makes a two-loss Ohio State look pretty good.
The Buckeyes are in a familiar position in November, ready to toss a curveball to the committee, this time as the first two-loss team in a semifinal.