Just a few weeks ago, then-No. 6 Ohio State (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten) seemed in prime position to slide into one of the four College Football Playoff spots. It had the potential to finish the season with a single loss and a Big Ten championship. No team with that resume has been left out since the playoff was created.
Then the Buckeyes played Iowa on Nov. 4, and everything changed. The Hawkeyes blindsided them, decimating Ohio State, 55-24.
All playoff talk ended. The discussion turned to how the Buckeyes, a team loaded with a decorated quarterback and a talented corps of players featuring mostly former four-star and five-star recruits, could lose to an Iowa team that lost to Northwestern.
But after taking down Michigan State 48-3 Saturday afternoon, the playoff optimism began to seep back into the minds of Ohio State fans. No two-loss team has ever made the playoff. Even last year, a two-loss Penn State — which had a similar resume to Ohio State’s this season — was left out.
If the Buckeyes beat Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and defeat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, they would have a solid crop of victories.
But head coach Urban Meyer is determined to quash all playoff discussion.
“There will be zero conversation around here, especially when you guys talk to the players,” Meyer said. “There will be zero conversation about what happened before and what’s going to happen in the future. Zero.”
Whether Ohio State’s players and coaches discuss the playoff does not matter. They are at the mercy of the teams ahead of them in the rankings. They need certain teams to lose to even have a chance at being chosen for a spot by the selection committee.
If, for example, No. 1 Georgia, which lost to Auburn Saturday, defeats No. 2 Alabama in the SEC championship game, Miami or Clemson win the ACC championship game and Oklahoma wins the Big 12 championship, a two-loss Ohio State team would likely be left out even if it wins its final two regular-season games and the Big Ten title.
Some Ohio State players, including sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa, have let their minds wander about what the season would look like had the team not lost twice, putting the fate of the playoff out of its control.
“Yeah, I mean, I sometimes do that, but the older guys tell me to focus on what’s at hand and I know that’s the most important thing,” Bosa said after Saturday’s game. “So we’re focusing on obviously what’s in front of us right now.”
For Ohio State, right now, the most important thing is to beat Illinois and Michigan and win the conference championship. Without winning those three games, playoff hopes — which, even now, seem somewhat far-fetched — would finally, mercifully dissipate.
Prior to the Michigan State game, Ohio State had a team meeting and addressed the Big Ten standings, redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said.
“It was mentioned that if we win this game, we’re two spots ahead in the Big Ten East and that was our focus,” Hubbard said after Saturday’s game. “We needed to win this game and our laser lights were on what we needed to do to win this game.”
Now in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten East, the plan is simple: Beat Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, and beat them by as many points as possible. Style points matter to the selection committee, which picks the four best teams, not the four teams with the least losses.
Sure, Ohio State needs help with higher-ranked teams losing. But in the meantime it can help itself by winning its final games — including the Big Ten championship — by large margins, just as it did down the stretch of the 2014 season, which ended with the Buckeyes sneaking into the playoff.
Meyer might be determined to have zero conversation about the playoff, but it is a good problem to have — and one many people did not think would be happening after the Iowa loss.