The College Football Playoff Committee’s latest rankings will make for gloomy reading in Tuscaloosa — but how could it be otherwise? Following a defeat to Auburn that was significantly worse than the final score would suggest, the Tide’s chances of remaining within the top four were always remote, and perhaps even nonexistent. Alabama simply does not have a strength-of-schedule edge over the undefeated Wisconsin Badgers, and so #5 was the best the Tide could hope for.
Alabama’s playoff chances, it’s true, are not stone-dead. The Tide’s placement at #5 moved them onto life-support, and while the prognosis may be bad, it’s not yet fatal. Should Auburn, Clemson, TCU, and Ohio State all win this coming Saturday, the Tide can still make it. But even in that scenario, nothing is guaranteed. At the risk of hammering a point that will be made ad nauseum in the coming days, Nick Saban’s team does not have that one marquee win they can hold-up in the way Ohio State could last year following the Buckeyes’ victory over #3 Michigan. Outside of the loss to Auburn, nothing has held Alabama back this year quite like Florida State’s futility.
With the obvious exception of their Iron Bowl rivals, the principal benefactors of Alabama’s late season travails have been the Big Ten’s Ohio State and Wisconsin. A consensus appears to be forming that the winner of the Big Ten will make the playoff, even if that winner is a two-loss Ohio State. A key trend we have seen from this year’s committee is its propensity to emphasizes wins and shrug-off losses. Indeed, it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that this year’s playoff will feature a pair of two-loss teams (to date, a two-loss program has never made the playoff). We were thus wrong to assume that the Buckeyes’ playoff chances died in Kinnick Stadium.
But although Ohio State is likely in control of its destiny, the inclusion of an 11-2 Buckeyes team should not be axiomatic. Where Alabama’s insipid resumé has been widely publicized, Ohio State’s has in large part gone unnoticed. A lot of this, of course, stems from the fact that the Buckeyes have spent the season on the periphery of the playoff conversation, thus escaping the level of “scheduling-scrutiny” to which Alabama has been incessantly subject. A critical look, however, at Ohio State’s schedule reveals a deficient resumé. In the months of September and October, the Buckeyes faced a five-game stretch containing Army, UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska. This was by far the weakest five game stretch played by any contending team this year. Moreover, it’s worth keeping in mind that only four of Ohio State’s wins this year have come against teams with winning records. By contrast, Georgia has six wins against winning (FBS) teams; Alabama has five (plus one against 6-6 Ole Miss); and TCU also has four (along with wins against 6-6 Texas and Texas Tech).
During the softer stretch of Ohio State’s season we were reminded that the Buckeyes still faced a late-season gauntlet containing Penn State, Iowa, and Michigan State — a run of games decidedly tough enough to compensate for the unconvincing nature of the team’s mid-season resumé. At the time, most presumed that Ohio State would have to win each of these games to be considered eligible for the playoff. So what changed?
In short, Georgia’s loss to Auburn and Notre Dame’s loss to Miami changed the landscape, and shifted the balance in the Buckeyes’ favour. In the space of a single day, Georgia’s playoff bid was shredded following the Bulldogs’ loss to Auburn and Notre Dame’s (Georgia’s signature win) loss in Miami. A consensus quickly formed that the SEC would be reduced to just a single entrant, and from there, the door swung open for Ohio State.
The problem with this is that — based on what we’ve seen — Georgia is better than Ohio State. The Bulldogs have a single 23 point road-loss to what could be the best team in the country. Ohio State has a 31 point road-loss to unranked Iowa. Georgia also has wins over ranked Notre Dame and Mississippi State, as well as over (8-4) South Carolina. While Ohio State’s wins against Penn State and Michigan State might be marginally more impressive, the Buckeyes are carrying that additional loss.
Should Georgia lose to Auburn on Saturday in a close one, the Bulldogs will be eliminated from playoff contention. Either one of Ohio State (assuming it gets past Wisconsin) or Alabama will take their place. While this would be an inevitability, it would also be an injustice. If it so transpires that Auburn is the best team in the country, Georgia will be eliminated by the sheer misfortune of facing the Tigers twice. Alabama — a team that failed to make it to the conference championship game — should certainly not replace a losing Georgia that was at least able to make it to Atlanta. But neither should Ohio State, irrespective of what they do against an unproven Wisconsin. Last year, Ohio State set the precedent for including teams that failed to win their conference. An objective assessment of landscape would suggest that Georgia ought to be primed to take advantage of such a precedent this year.
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