Because Ohio State is 12-0 and Auburn is 11-1.
That’s the sole reason the Buckeyes will go into Saturday’s Big Ten championship game in the No. 2 spot: They’re undefeated. If you are going to buy into that line of thinking, then Northern Illinois — also 12-0 — should be ranked no worse than No. 3.
Won-lost record should certainly be among the criteria for ranking teams and deciding who plays in the title game. But it shouldn’t be the criterion. There’s a reason the team that wins the NCAA basketball championship each April is rarely the team with the best regular season record; it is almost always a team that comes out of a demanding conference and has suffered some inevitable losses along the way. Everyone knows that, which is why the NCAA basketball committee places great emphasis on strength of schedule.
Sadly, that’s not the case in college football. Ohio State barely escaped a Michigan team Saturday that has losses at Penn State and Iowa and to Nebraska at home. None of those three teams are ranked. The Buckeyes have beaten exactly no one — not a single team currently ranked in the top 20. Their résumé is similar to that of Northern Illinois, whose best win is over a Ball State team that might very well beat anyone in the Big Ten on a neutral field other than Ohio State or Michigan State. Both Ohio State and Northern Illinois played at Purdue: The Buckeyes won by 56, the Huskies by 31. Edge — albeit slight — to Ohio State.
It also is true that Florida State hasn’t exactly beaten Murderer’s Row. But the Seminoles’ 51-14 rout at Clemson is head and shoulders above anything Ohio State has accomplished.
Neither one can come close to matching the résumé of either Auburn or Missouri — which also is 11-1 with the loss to South Carolina in double overtime. Auburn’s loss was at LSU. Does anyone out there really think Ohio State would go to Baton Rouge and win?
Auburn’s nonconference schedule was at least as unimpressive as Ohio State’s. But the Tigers play in the Southeastern Conference, the best league in the country. They have wins over Georgia, at Tennessee (not that impressive unless you look at how tough the Vols played teams at Neyland Stadium), at Texas A&M and now Alabama. Seriously, is that even close?
But Ohio State is Ohio State, and it carries great political clout. Although the Big Ten was truly awful this year — no one outside of the top two would have any chance to finish in the top half of the SEC — it is run by Jim Delany, who is one of college athletic’s most effective and Machiavellian figures.
Florida State is going to play in the championship game. There isn’t any doubt about that. The Seminoles were held to fewer than 40 points Saturday (37) for the first time all season. As heartwarming as Duke’s improbable 10-2 season and run to the ACC championship game may be, the line on the game should probably be Duke-plus-infinity, and the smart play would be to give the points.
There was a time earlier this season when the ACC appeared to have four worthy teams: the Seminoles, Clemson, Miami and Virginia Tech. Clemson’s loss to South Carolina left the conference with just one nationally legitimate team, the good news being it may be the best team in the country.
Still, it is almost certain that if Ohio State wins next weekend, it will play in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6 — not five days earlier in the Rose Bowl, which is where it belongs.
Two coaching decisions set up that scenario Saturday: First, Michigan’s Brady Hoke decided to go for a two-point conversion after his team scored to cut Ohio State’s lead to 42-41 in the final minute of a game marked by a first-half fight that led to three ejections and a remarkable lack of defense.
Hoke’s decision to go for two was understandable: He was probably certain that his team couldn’t possibly stop Ohio State at any point in overtime and this was his best chance to win. His explanation of the decision — that he polled his players on the sideline and they wanted to “play to win” — makes no sense. There are no ties in college football. One way or the other, you’re playing to win.
The second decision was Auburn Coach Guz Malzahn deciding to put Davis in the end zone just in case there was a chance to return Alabama’s last-second field goal attempt. Alabama Coach Nick Saban had almost no one on the field who could outrun a cheerleader much less Davis, and the result was one of the most shocking endings in college football history. If Malzahn doesn’t win every coach-of-the-year award ever invented, there should be a federal investigation.
A couple weeks ago Buckeyes wide receiver Evan Spencer half-jokingly said his team would “wipe the field” with Alabama or Florida State. It now appears likely Spencer will get his chance to see how his team will do against Florida State.
That’s not right or fair.
It’s college football.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.