End of discussion. Big Ten champ Ohio State is in the College Football Playoff
The question that college football fans are asking — especially those in Columbus and College Station — is, did Ohio State do enough?
The answer probably depends on whether you reside in Columbus or College Station, but to neutral observers, the answer should be, “Yes.” Saturday’s performance against Illinois doesn’t illicit an all-caps “YES” or even one that deserved to be topped off with an exclamation point, but it’s “yes” nonetheless.
The 4th-ranked Buckeyes most certainly did enough to remain in the top 4, ahead of Texas A&M, after beating No. 14 Northwestern 22-10 in the Big Ten Championship Game. That’s because all Ohio State needed to punch its Playoff ticket was a win.
The only way Texas A&M (8-1) could have leaped Ohio State (6-0) is with Northwestern pulling the upset. If the Buckeyes have been ahead of the Aggies the whole way, why would that change after Saturday? Ohio State beat the No. 14 team in the country by 12 (and it could have been 19 if the Buckeyes could’ve punched it in at the end), while Texas A&M beat a 3-7 Tennessee squad by 21, aided with a second-half burst. The Committee has had some puzzling rankings over the years, but dropping an undefeated Ohio State would after winning the Big Ten would take the cake.
If we’re supposed to take these midweek rankings that the CFP Selection Committee has been rolling out each Tuesday night seriously, that’s the end of discussion. How could beating a 3-7 team trump beating a top-15 team?
Sure, it took a record-setting performance from running back Trey Sermon (29 carries, 331 yards, 2 TDs) to push the Buckeyes, who were favored by 16.5, over the top. But so what? Ohio State still has had just a single 1-possession win over a Big Ten team since Justin Fields has been the starting QB, a span of 16 games.
One of the big selling points of Ohio State’s candidacy, besides the undefeated record, was the “eye test.” The Buckeyes, despite having played fewer games than other contenders, have just looked like a Playoff team. With all due respect to Northwestern (a program that deserves plenty of it), Ohio State didn’t really look like a Playoff team for most of Saturday afternoon. There’s no doubt that Ohio State was on the ropes for about 3 quarters. Fields had the worst game of his career in completing only 12 of 27 passes for 114 yards, 2 interceptions and no touchdowns. He was nursing a right thumb injury, but who knows how much that affected his performance. Northwestern, to its credit, kept the Buckeyes defense guessing early on by changing formations and using tempo, never letting Ohio State get set.
But it’s also important to remember that Ohio State was down 20 players due to COVID on Saturday. That’s the second straight game the Buckeyes have been significantly impacted by positive tests and contact tracing, as they were down 23 players 2 weeks ago against Michigan State. And it’s not like it was the same guys who were out. This was a mostly new batch, featuring star wideout Chris Olave, starting safety Marcus Hooker and starting linebacker Baron Browning. Olave, who had gone over 100 yards in 4 of 5 games this season, is Fields’ most-trusted receiver. Browning had the team-lead in solo tackles. That’s at least part of the reason Ohio State looked out of sorts.
Is all of that enough to penalize Ohio State? It shouldn’t be. The Selection Committee has held Clemson at No. 3 the whole way despite the Tigers losing to Notre Dame when it was decimated by COVID positive tests. Just because the Buckeyes weren’t their normal, dominant selves (they entered third in the country among Power 5 teams in margin of victory), doesn’t mean they aren’t 1 of the 4 best teams in the country. At full strength, they are.
Does Ohio State have to get better? And healthier? Yeah, of course. The Buckeyes will have nearly 2 weeks to get those guys back in the fold. I haven’t heard any pundits mention how difficult this season must have been for the Buckeyes given the late start and just how few games they’ve actually had their entire team on the field. It’s a credit to Ohio State to be able to overcome that sort of adversity. Shuffling the lineup isn’t easy.
Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher tried to make his case after the win over Tennessee, saying, “No 1-loss SEC team has ever missed the Playoff. If we can’t play in this league and be in the Playoff, something’s wrong.”
Well, no undefeated Power 5 champion has ever missed the Playoff, either. Despite Ohio State’s limited schedule, this isn’t the year to start.