ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Before No. 9 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten) beat its rival Michigan (8-4, 5-4 Big Ten) 31-20 Saturday, its path to the College Football Playoff looked clear. If it wins and every team left expected to win does its job, Ohio State likely slips in as the first two-loss team to reach the playoff.
That path looked all the more clear after No. 2 Miami lost 24-14 to Pittsburgh Friday, all but eliminating the possibility of two ACC teams landing spots.
But four hours after the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines, their playoff chances took a major blow when No. 1 Alabama lost 26-14 to No. 6 Auburn, moving Auburn into the SEC championship game against No. 7 Georgia.
What makes this such a complicated situation for Ohio State is that it was in the exact same situation as Alabama last year, and it reached the playoff. It was a one-loss, non-conference champion that was picked ahead of two-loss Big Ten champion Penn State. The CFP committee deemed its wins against three highly ranked opponents in Oklahoma, Michigan and Wisconsin to be enough to make up for the lack of a conference title. This could also harken back to the 2015 Ohio State team, which was kept out of the playoff after one loss to Michigan State.
The season is not completely out of Ohio State’s hands. The Buckeyes have to win the Big Ten championship against undefeated No. 5 Wisconsin to even be considered in the playoff. Assuming Ohio State does that, it still requires either a tough decision by the selection committee or an upset in the Big 12 championship game.
The committee could decide to include Ohio State in ahead of Alabama should the Buckeyes knock off the Badgers. Alabama has defeated only two currently ranked opponents — No. 18 LSU and No. 14 Mississippi State, which just lost to Ole Miss — and an Ohio State win over Wisconsin would give the Buckeyes three wins over currently ranked opponents. There also is a chance No. 12 TCU defeats No. 4 Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, which at this point would likely not be enough for the Horned Frogs to leap the Buckeyes. A loss late in the season without a conference title could doom a Sooners team that came into Ohio Stadium and beat the Buckeyes 31-16 earlier this season.
With conference championships going on next week, the two guaranteed spots belong to the winners of the SEC, between Georgia and Auburn, and the ACC, between No. 3 Clemson and Miami. The remaining two spots will belong to either the Big Ten champion, Oklahoma or Alabama.
Ohio State’s playoff hopes have grown dimmer, but they are not gone.