COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State football’s original schedule, with all of its opponents at full strength, provided an almost optimum path to the College Football Playoff.
The Big Ten schedule featured a balance of lower-division walk-overs and potential upper-rankings contenders. A win at Penn State in a whiteout fortifies any resume. Flying out to Oregon and bringing back a victory sets the stage for a season that could end with a No. 1 seed.
The coronavirus pandemic robbed the Buckeyes of many of those potential advantages. No potential marquee non-conference victory. No hostile environment awaits when Ohio State visits State College to face a Nittany Lions team missing its best player. Michigan’s roster is also compromised by opt-outs and even potential Top 25 team Iowa will no longer visit Ohio Stadium.
For the latest Mark it Down Monday episode of Buckeye Talk, we pondered whether we still believe Ohio State is the favorite to win the national championship. Considering the Buckeyes, Clemson and Alabama appear to be the clear front-runners to reach the playoff, the No. 1 seed could again be critically important — as it was a year ago.
LSU and Ohio State battled for the No. 1 overall seed from the time the CFP committee made its first reveal last November. The margin remained thin going into the final weekend. When the Tigers rolled past Georgia for the SEC championship and Ohio State had to rally from a halftime deficit against Wisconsin to win the Big Ten championship, the committee had its answer.
LSU faced Oklahoma — the “one of these things is clearly not like the others” playoff team of 2019. Ohio State drew the tougher assignment in Clemson.
A very similar dynamic could be at stake in 2020. If those top three teams all run the tables in their conferences, Ohio State might actually most resemble 2019 Clemson — the dominant team with the weakest schedule who settles for the 3 seed.
Alabama has already toppled Texas A&M — knocking the Aggies all the way down to No. 21 in the AP poll — and will still face current No. 3 Georgia, No. 14 Tennessee, No. 17 LSU and No. 13 Auburn. Then a rematch with the Bulldogs or perhaps No. 4 Florida awaits in the SEC championship.
We still don’t know how much legitimacy to give Clemson’s ACC challengers. This week the Tigers face surprise No. 7 Miami. Later they have road dates with current No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 17 Virginia Tech. No. 8 North Carolina might be the most likely ACC championship game opponent, since it does not need to go through Clemson to get there.
Ohio State currently has a road date with No. 9 Penn State, the home finale against No. 20 Michigan and — what else? Maybe Wisconsin or Minnesota emerging from the West and meeting the Buckeyes in Indianapolis? It’s not a joke of a schedule, but does it compare to that of either of OSU’s primary national challengers?
So if all three go undefeated, OSU might be on the wrong side of the strength of schedule argument. But one could also look at the flip side of this argument. Which one of those three teams is the most likely to make it to the Dec. 20 selection show undefeated?
Look at it this way: If LSU had lost to Georgia in that SEC championship, and if OSU had not rallied to beat Wisconsin, it is possible both would have still made the playoff. But wouldn’t Clemson have definitely been the No. 1 seed, regardless of its flimsy schedule?
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