Buckeyes’ path to playoff is narrow

Staff Writer
Buckeye Xtra

According to the ESPN College Football Playoff Predictor, the “possibility factor” of Ohio State winning the national championship is 2 percent.

So you’re saying there’s a chance?

Of course, but given the way OSU has underperformed over its last two games it would be dumb to predict a College Football Playoff appearance; dumber to pick the Buckeyes to win it all. Those breadcrumbs lining the path represent slim pickins more than marking the trail to the playoff. ESPN’s predictor puts Ohio State’s chance of landing one of the four playoff spots at 16 percent.

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Still, a path exists.

• First things first. At No. 10 in the playoff rankings, Ohio State needs to get its act together on the field just to merit moving into legitimate playoff contention.

While true that if the Buckeyes keep winning they will move up simply due to teams above them losing, style points also matter. Committee chair Rob Mullens said of the Buckeyes on Tuesday, “They did struggle a bit against a 2-7 (Nebraska) team, and that’s two weeks in a row that they’ve struggled a little bit.”

Ohio State is doing little to impress the committee, which likely comes into play if, for example, the final decision comes down to a one-loss OSU or one-loss West Virginia.

“We see a team that’s still pretty good on offense,” Mullens said.

Pretty good will not be good enough if the Buckeyes’ linebackers and secondary continue to struggle. Ohio State needs to give the committee reason to partially overlook its defense, which means its offense needs to impress against Michigan State on Saturday and next week at Maryland. Then comes Michigan.

• In the four years of the playoffs, no school with two losses has made the cut. Ohio State came the closest, finishing No. 5 at 11-2 last season. But unless the committee changes course, two losses spell doom. That is good news for the Buckeyes, who if they win out are looking at automatically moving up at least two spots, ahead of No. 7 LSU, which already has two losses, and either No. 6 Oklahoma (8-1) or No. 9 West Virginia (8-1), which play Nov. 23 in Morgantown.

• Given the two-loss “rule,” Ohio State is guaranteed of positioning itself no lower than No. 8 when Michigan visits the Horseshoe on Nov. 24. The Wolverines likely will be No. 4 or No. 5, which means the Buckeyes automatically jump to at least No. 7 by defeating UM and passing an inferior one-loss Washington State.

• Even if they defeat Michigan, the Buckeyes face potential roadblocks in Georgia and Oklahoma/West Virginia.

First, Georgia. The No. 5 Bulldogs control their destiny more than any team outside the top four, because they play No. 1 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 1. Upset Alabama and one-loss Georgia likely gets in, even if Ohio State beats Michigan and wins the Big Ten championship game.

Georgia would benefit from the Bama “bounce,” where the committee is so impressed with the Tide that any team knocking them off deserves a playoff invitation. Ohio State fans should be rooting for Alabama to defeat Georgia, which would eliminate the Bulldogs.

That leaves Oklahoma/West Virginia to contend with, and the Buckeyes need help there, too. The best-case scenario for Ohio State is for the Sooners and Mountaineers to trade W’s when they meet in the regular-season finale and again in the Big 12 championship game a week later, which would give each team two losses. It’s possible OU and WVU could lose before then. Both still play Oklahoma State, but the Cowboys are crumbling.

• Buckeye Nation need not concern itself with undefeated No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson, both of which can lose a game and still make the playoff. I don’t see either losing. Notre Dame also is undefeated, but the No. 3 Irish don’t want to risk their status as a near-lock playoff pick by losing to No. 13 Syracuse on Nov. 17 or at Southern California to end the regular season.

It is worth noting that only five teams — Florida State in 2014, Clemson in 2015, Alabama and Western Michigan in 2016 and Central Florida in 2017 — came out of the final playoff rankings undefeated.

Still, instead of rooting for the Tide, Tigers or Fighting Irish to lose, the Buckeyes should be cheering for Purdue to win the Big Ten West, which would be a challenge because the Boilermakers are one loss behind Northwestern and lose out in most tiebreaker scenarios involving the Wildcats.

Playing Purdue in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 would allow Ohio State to avenge its only loss and show the committee that the 49-20 meltdown against the Boilermakers on Oct. 20 was an anomaly similar to last season’s 55-24 loss at Iowa.

• Even if everything plays out favorably for Ohio State, it appears that only the No. 4 playoff spot would be up for grabs, which means the Buckeyes likely would play Alabama in the playoff semifinal.

Careful what you wish for, but at least OSU would have a chance. What more could you ask? Well, maybe a 50-0 pounding of Michigan.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD

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