Best and worst-case scenarios for Ohio State's College Football Playoff hopes

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State is on a path to reach the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive season.

In the latest rankings released Tuesday night, the Buckeyes remained at No. 4, holding the final spot required to clinch a playoff berth.

Two weeks are left in the season before the final rankings are unveiled on Dec. 20, setting the field for the four-team postseason that begins on New Year’s Day.

Now that the stretch run has arrived, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for Ohio State’s hopes for another spot in the playoff, a bid that offers it a chance to win a national championship and comes with a $6 million payout to the Big Ten for revenue distribution.

Ohio State football players go through pregame drills last Saturday before playing Michigan State.

Best-case: Maximum games  

The Buckeyes find a replacement game for the upcoming weekend after their rivalry clash with Michigan was canceled on Tuesday due to rising coronavirus cases within the Wolverines’ program.

The addition to the schedule would allow them to meet the minimum-games requirement for eligibility in the Big Ten championship game and build a larger body of work for impressing the 13 members of the selection committee.

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By playing on Saturday, the Buckeyes potentially would be able to add two more wins to their résumé. Winning out also would include a triumph in the conference title game against a ranked Northwestern team on Dec. 19 in Indianapolis, giving Ohio State a 7-0 record and making the best closing case possible.

Other events also could work in Ohio State's favor. A victory by top-ranked Alabama over Florida in the Southeastern Conference championship game on Dec. 19 would eliminate the Gators from contention. They have been sitting at No. 6 for consecutive weeks and lingering as a threat to the Buckeyes, especially if they beat Alabama.

Also, a second win by Notre Dame over Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game would potentially remove another contender and likely improve the seeding for the Buckeyes, who could overtake the Tigers at No. 3 in the standings.

A rise in the rankings might allow Ohio State to avoid a semifinal matchup with Alabama, which has the third-highest scoring offense in the country led quarterback Mac Jones, a leading Heisman Trophy contender. That would be a break for a still-growing OSU secondary.

In another possible development, the Big Ten reportedly is expected to amend its championship game requirements, reducing the six-game threshold for qualification.

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The step allows Ohio State to reach the league’s title game without playing on Saturday and claim a conference championship with an ensuing win.

But without a replacement game for Michigan, the Buckeyes are capped at six games, leaving a smaller body of work for evaluation by the committee and potentially one less impressive showing. Other playoff contenders will have played in nearly as twice as many games.

Worst-case: Chaos

What happens if Alabama and Notre Dame, the top teams in the playoff rankings, are upset in narrow losses in their conference title games? 

If there’s a doomsday scenario awaiting the Buckeyes in the weeks ahead, this is it.

Falling by thin margins, the previously unbeaten teams drop only slightly in the rankings and remain in the top four. But Clemson and Florida winning could propel each one-loss team into the playoff picture.

That would leave the College Football Playoff with two teams each from the SEC and the ACC, but those two conferences have played more games than either the Big Ten and all would be one-loss teams.

Since the playoff was introduced in 2014, it has always included the winner of the SEC title game.  

Other outcomes could also impact the odds for Ohio State.

In the time of the coronavirus, there is no guarantee games will be played as scheduled, including on the weekend of Dec. 19. Either the Big Ten championship game or another divisional crossover game involving the Buckeyes could be impacted by virus outbreaks among the teams.

Through the first seven weeks of the Big Ten’s regular season, eight of 49 scheduled games were canceled, not including the Ohio State-Michigan game or other contests for the coming weekend that are in jeopardy.

The Buckeyes know this fate well. They have lost a total of three games due to virus-related cancellations, including two outbreaks among scheduled foes.

Of course, the ultimate threat to the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes would be a loss at any point in the next two weeks. While they secured a berth in 2014 and 2016 despite losing a game, 2020 may prove different. With an already diminished schedule, defeat could end their playoff chance.