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Why is Ohio State ahead of Gators, Texas A&M with so many fewer games?

In 2014, the Buckeyes used an extra data point to take the final playoff spot. Now they’re benefiting from playing fewer games.
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen said that how the College Football Playoff selection committee rewards (or punishes) strength of schedule will determine future schedules in the sport.
Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen said that how the College Football Playoff selection committee rewards (or punishes) strength of schedule will determine future schedules in the sport. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Dec. 9, 2020
Updated Dec. 9, 2020

As the College Football Playoff draws closer, the toughest challenge for the selection committee remained obvious in Tuesday night’s weekly rankings release.

How do you evaluate No. 4 Ohio State (5-0) when the Buckeyes haven’t played as many games as No. 5 Texas A&M (7-1) or No. 6 Florida (8-1)?

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“We’ve talked about it from Day 1, that the number of games was going to be critical,” committee chair Gary Barta said on ESPN’s rankings show.

It was back in 2014, as the committee tackled a less extreme version of this scenario while finalizing the inaugural playoff field.

That year’s debate featured 12-1 Ohio State (coming off a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game) against a pair of 11-1 Big 12 co-champions, Baylor and TCU, who didn’t have a league title game. When the committee released its final rankings, the Buckeyes rose from fifth to fourth. Baylor and TCU were shut out.

Ohio State’s extra game against a top-20 opponent gave the Buckeyes one more chance to “prove their strength,” then-committee chair Jeff Long said at the time.

“It was significant,” Long said after the announcement. “I can’t say that it wasn’t.”

This year is unique because of the pandemic, but the problem is the same and worsening after Michigan had to cancel its game against Ohio State because of coronavirus issues. It’s unclear whether the Buckeyes will be able to add an opponent this weekend. If they can’t, they won’t meet the Big Ten’s standard (six games) to qualify for next week’s conference championship, unless the league changes its rules.

Regardless, the committee must weigh Ohio State’s partial slate against the deeper resumes of UF, Texas A&M or 9-0 Cincinnati (which fell a spot to eighth). Gators coach Dan Mullen made his feelings clear with his SEC politicking after Saturday night’s division-clinching win at Tennessee.

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“I think one thing that the league’s not getting credit for is playing these games,” Mullen said. “If everybody were playing four, five, six games or something — who knows what the records would be?”

Would this Ohio State team skate through five more regular-season games? Probably. Unless the Buckeyes stumbled into a shocking upset, as they did in 2017 (when they lost by 31 to unranked Iowa) or 2018 (when they lost by 29 to unranked Purdue).

We don’t know. And the Big Ten’s scheduling philosophy will ensure that we don’t find out.

This isn’t meant to disparage the Big Ten for starting its abbreviated season later than other leagues. The league made a reasonable, safety-first decision with limited information during an evolving health crisis that’s unprecedented in modern college football history.

But the conference’s choice leaves Ohio State with a smaller, and thus weaker, schedule than the other top contenders. Usually, that’s a problem with the committee. Just ask UCF.

“Every year they talk about that,” Mullen said. “Shouldn’t it be strength of scheduling is what matters?”

The answer, so far, has been no. Ohio State has been so impressive that its performances have overpowered its thinner resume.

Related: Dan Mullen’s name will keep coming up in coaching rumors. Deal with it.

It’s easy to view this as a one-year, pandemic-created fluke. Mullen doesn’t see it that way. He thinks it can be a referendum on future scheduling.

“(Do) you try to play as many easy games as you can to make sure you don’t lose?” Mullen asked. “Or do you go out and play the hardest schedule and get rewarded for it? We’ll see. I think that will determine the future of college football.”

It did in 2014.

Two years after Ohio State jumped Baylor and TCU in the committee’s final rankings, the Big 12 decided to add a conference title game to match other leagues with a so-called 13th data point.

One-loss Oklahoma teams made the playoff each of the next three years.

Playoff rankings

1. Alabama (9-0)

2. Notre Dame (10-0)

3. Clemson (9-1)

4. Ohio State (5-0)

5. Texas A&M (7-1)

6. Florida (8-1)

7. Iowa State (8-2)

8. Cincinnati (8-0)

9. Georgia (6-2)

10. Miami (8-1)

11. Oklahoma (7-2)

12. Indiana (6-1)

13. Coastal Carolina (10-0)

14. Northwestern (5-1)

15. USC (4-0)

16. Iowa (5-2)

17. North Carolina (7-3)

18. BYU (9-1)

19. Louisiana (9-1)

20. Texas (6-3)

21. Colorado (4-0)

22. Oklahoma State (6-3)

23. NC State (8-3)

24. Tulsa (6-1)

25. Missouri (5-3)