Ohio State and Michigan share one of the best rivalries in sports, an intense and tribal spat, made even more fascinating by the complexities of college football and the vagaries of its conference structure. It’s a heavy feud. This year, like in many others, it’s complicated.
Consider this: either Ohio State or Michigan is subconsciously rooting for a certain combination of chaotic results over the closing weeks of the current season. They just don’t know it yet.
Let’s explain. OK, so for the first time in the College Football Playoff era, and just four years removed from the Big Ten being locked out of the top four altogether for the second straight season, the conference has a legitimate – albeit long – shot at sending two teams to the playoff.
Those squads are, of course, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines and Ryan Day’s Buckeyes, who are still to meet in “The Game” on Nov. 26 on FOX, a blockbuster pitting C.J. Stroud’s enterprising arm against Blake Corum’s rapid-churning legs in Columbus, at which point most expect them to be still undefeated and with 11 wins to their name.
The victor would progress to the Big Ten title game, where they would be an overwhelming favorite against the conference’s West region winner – probably Illinois.
The loser? Well, they’re the one that’s going to have needed all that help between now and then, to find a way to sneak into the CFP field.
“The possibility is there for sure,” FOX Sports college football writer R.J. Young told me. “It needs a very long list of things to happen and an unprecedented level of chaos. But there is a way. A path is there. It’s not blocked off. It doesn’t even need crazy, impossible things to happen. It just needs everything in combination.”
It is hard for a conference to get two teams into the College Football Playoff. If five doesn’t go into four (major conferences into CFP spots) very well, then five goes into three even less neatly. For all the committee’s mystical secrecy, it has made it clear that it likes a few things, and the status of a conference champion is one of them.
Two bids from a single conference has only previously happened twice, in 2017 and 2021, when SEC champ Georgia was joined by Alabama, then vice versa. Both times, incidentally, the wildcard pick ended up winning the national title, beating the other in the championship game.
Creating such a situation requires the committee to put a non-conference champion above at least two teams that did taste provincial success, hence its rarity.
To follow suit this year, the loser of Michigan and Ohio State has a wish list (or will have a retrospective wish list, or will at least wish it had had one), and yes, we know that by talking and thinking this way we’re almost certainly messing up the space-time continuum.
Broadly, they want all kinds of things to go wrong for all kinds of teams. They want the College Football Playoff picture to get ugly and muddy and fractured.
They want TCU to get knocked off its undefeated perch. An undefeated Big 12 champion is in, but a one-loss Horned Frogs line-up probably would not be, even with a Big 12 trophy in hand.
They want the Pac 12’s trio of leading contenders to cannibalize one another, just like has happened so often before. Something like Oregon losing to Utah, USC to beat UCLA but then lose to Notre Dame, all of which are firmly within the bounds of convention. A Pac 12 champ with at least two losses? “Yes please,” says Harbaugh or Day, post-defeat, a little over two weeks from now.
They also want Clemson to not win the ACC, though it is possible the Tigers’ blowout defeat to Notre Dame last weekend ruined its chances, no matter what. For extra security, they want to avoid seeing North Carolina, which has just a loss to Notre Dame on its resume, run the table as well.
They want Georgia to win out in the SEC, to avoid giving LSU the most compelling case we’ve ever seen for why a two-loss team should be in the CFP. They also want, and this is a moon shot, Tennessee to come unstuck against one of its three remaining opponents, all unranked.
And finally, this being the only part of it over which there is a level of control, the loser of the Ohio State/Michigan game would want to make sure their margin of defeat was razor-thin, ideally in overtime, an outcome that points to there being precious little to choose between the two of them.
“You have to keep it going,” Harbaugh said of his team’s momentum this season, where they have a nation’s best average win margin of 30.1 points. “It’s definitely magical, we’re on a really good ride.”
Of the two, Michigan may find it harder to survive a loss, given its weaker non-conference schedule. However, working in the favor of whichever team comes unstuck on Nov. 26 is the underlying desire for the committee to try to get the best four teams in the country into the field, and a single defeat to an undefeated national title contender might be forgivable for a group that has dominated all year.
“If a lot of stuff happens, and there are all these imperfect resumes and it comes down to being so close, maybe they just say, ‘We think Ohio State or Michigan is the better football team, and would make for a better playoff,’” Young said. “Going over the permutations is a lot of fun. Maddening, but fun.”
If all the Big Ten’s requirements happen, there would be a solid case. A head-to-head with a one-loss Tennessee would likely be the biggest problem, given the Vols’ win over Alabama, though Tennessee was ineffective in its loss to Georgia.
Ohio State has an odd history in the CFP. They have gotten into the field without winning the Big Ten, in the 2016 season. They’ve also missed out on selection, twice, as conference champion.
Neither they nor Michigan, defeated in last year’s semifinal by Georgia, would ideally choose to get into the field via the back door, especially as it would mean that defeat to their hated rival had just happened.
But if it’s the only way, why not embrace the chaos? Told you it was complicated.
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