Even when they’re not playing, Ohio State looms large in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Buckeyes are at the center of two key questions regarding the New Year’s Six bowl games in general, and the four CFP teams in particular. And how the Committee answers those questions will tell us a lot over how much they really value a conference or division title.
The first of those in the big one that everyone in the nation is wondering about—what happens if Clemson or Alabama, the 1-2 teams in the rankings, lose their conference championship games? Ohio State is sitting at #6. We already know that either #4 Iowa or #5 Michigan State will lose in the Big Ten Championship game at Indianapolis. An upset loss by the Crimson Tide or Tigers would open the door for the Buckeyes to naturally elevate into the top four, where #3 Oklahoma is safe and idle.
It wouldn’t take a monumental upset either. Granted, Alabama losing to Florida, with the Tide favored by (-17.5) would be as big of a big-game upset since Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl nine years ago, but the Clemson-North Carolina battle should be a good game. The Tar Heels have won 11 in a row, have explosive playmakers on offense and the Tigers are only a (-5) favorite. That’s not exactly a gimme.
I personally believe North Carolina deserves to control its playoff destiny. If they beat Clemson, then the Tar Heels should just replace the Tigers in the Playoff. UNC’s early-season loss to South Carolina is ugly, but no uglier than Ohio State getting smacked by Virginia Tech last year was. Buckeye fans don’t have a leg to stand on in demeaning the North Carolina loss. The Tar Heels are currently ranked #10, but who knows what the value of a win over Clemson, plus the value of a conference championship will do to their standing.
There’s also Stanford, who has lost twice, but is in position to win the Pac-12 title against USC. The Cardinal have played a demanding schedule—in the non-conference alone, they took on Northwestern and Notre Dame. The Pac-12 also plays nine conference games. On that basis alone, you can justify jumping Stanford over almost any one-loss team (including North Carolina, whom I just argued on behalf of) and certainly over an Ohio State team that did not win its conference title.
We saw last year that the rankings going into the final week aren’t the most important. TCU was ranked #3 and blew out Iowa State in last season’s finale, but Ohio State winning the Big Ten title in impressive fashion and Baylor sealing the Big 12 title against a good Kansas State team caused the Horned Frogs to tumble to #6. Perhaps Ohio State would slip behind a victorious North Carolina or Stanford team after Saturday.
If the Committee is serious about conference championships, that’s what would happen. And everyone, including here in the Big Ten (I live in Wisconsin) is better off if that’s the case. It makes our two-month long league schedule and championship game that much more meaningful.
Then there’s still the question about who goes to the Rose Bowl. After placing the four playoff teams (in either the Orange or Cotton Bowls), the Committee must decide who fills out the other four major bowls that will be played on either December 31 or January 1 (Peach, Fiesta, Rose, Sugar). They’re going to send a Big Ten runner-up to Indianapolis. Would it be Ohio State or the loser of Iowa-Michigan State?
If Iowa loses, I can see choosing Ohio State. Each team would have one loss, the Buckeyes play in the superior division and the team that won that division (Michigan State) would be getting a higher calling to the Playoff. An Ohio State pick here would be reasonable.
But if Michigan State is the loser, than the Spartans deserve the Rose Bowl bid. Yes, MSU would have two losses to Ohio State’s one, but only because they won the division both teams share. We would essentially be penalizing Michigan State for playing a game they had earned solely because they beat Ohio State in Columbus.
In the pre-Committee era, when major bowls made their own decisions on who to invite, this was a common injustice. The loser of a conference championship game was the ugly stepchild of the bowl party. Their fans had already spent money traveling, they were presumably dispirited after a loss (and Spartan fans definitely will be that if they lose Saturday night) and had lost momentum. There’s no question under that old way of doing things, Ohio State would be chosen for the Rose.
If the Committee is serious about rewarding the teams who have earned it, then a defeated Michigan State team still deserves the Rose Bowl prize. The one exception I would make is if both the Spartans and Buckeyes were chosen for a major bowl spot, and the Committee sent Ohio State, since Sparty was just there in 2013 (against Stanford, who could be the Pac-12 opponent again). If that’s the case, no problems since the major bowls all have equal prestige, at least theoretically and definitely monetarily.
The bottom line is this—we watch college football for months, locked in on who’s going to win division titles and conference championships. It serves no one’s interest for the Committee to send a message that it’s all irrelevant. That’s what they would be doing if they chose Ohio State over North Carolina or Stanford for the Playoff, and if they chose the Buckeyes over a two-loss Michigan State for a New Year’s Six bowl spot.