Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield may have driven a stake into Ohio State’s logo Saturday night, but if he was hoping to kill the Buckeyes’ chances of a College Football Playoff bid, he missed the mark. The short history of the college football playoff tells more than one story of teams effectively given up for dead after an early loss that later rise like holiday-season zombies to claim spots in the semifinals.
The first of the un-dead was none other than Ohio State, which three years ago lost to heavy-underdog Virginia Tech – at home in Week 2, no less – yet ended the season as national champions in the inaugural college playoff season.
What’s the likelihood the Buckeyes can reprise that act? The short answer is not bad. For the longer answer, you need to consider three factors: team, schedule and the field.
Ohio State remains one of the best teams in the country, full stop.
After Saturday loss, the Buckeyes’ dropped four points in our power ratings – an unusually large hit – but that merely closed the gap with the rest of the field. They still rank second, about five points behind Alabama and two ahead of Clemson. Based on our blend of preseason expectations and in-season performance, and despite quarterback J.T. Barrett’s occasional struggles, they boast the country’s third-best offense. And before you judge their defense too harshly – we have them ranked fifth – remember that Oklahoma’s offense is the nation’s best. The Sooners will make teams look much worse this season.
Unexpected outcomes and big swings help make college football great, but it’s easy to overreact. Teams are rarely as good, or as bad, as they looked last weekend. Given the Buckeyes’ roster talent and their on-field performance last year and this, history suggests they’ll bounce back well from this loss.
That bounce, of course, depends in part on Ohio State’s remaining strength-of-schedule. College football teams have wildly unbalanced schedules. A good team in the SEC West, for instance, can be expected to notch 1.5 more losses, on average, than a comparable Big Ten West team, because in-conference play is so murderously unforgiving. Want to increase your chances of a spot in the playoff? Pick the right division.
Sensible projections depend more than most people think on who, where and when teams play.
Ohio State plays the country’s 32nd-toughest schedule this year, about average for a Power Five team. The Big Ten is the highest variance conference in the country, with some of the best teams and a disproportionate share of the worst. This means few of the Buckeyes’ remaining games will be even competitive. We expect the Buckeyes to be big favorites for the rest of the season (our future lines correspond highly with the market’s), even when hosting Penn State (-10) and traveling to Michigan (-7).
Given this schedule, we project Ohio State’s most likely outcome to be 10 regular-season wins. But that’s the average outcome if the season plays out as we expect it to — and of course it won’t. To understand the range of possibilities, we ran simulations for the rest of the season. Doing so requires us to acknowledge that some teams will end up better than we currently think they are, while others will end up worse.
Using this approach, we find that Ohio State has a 42% chance of winning the rest of their regular season, giving them an 11-1 record and a place in the Big Ten title game. The huge favorite (64%) out of the Big Ten West is Wisconsin, but the Buckeyes would be highly favored regardless of who they play. Overall we make their chances an even 50/50 to win the Big Ten title.
The final piece of the puzzle is how much competition there is for the four playoff spots. Would a 12-1 Big Ten champion Ohio State fare well? How about an 11-2 Big Ten champ? It depends on what plays out in other conferences. A one-loss Power Five conference champion likely won’t be left out in any year. (It happened to Big 12 co-champion TCU in 2014, but with every league having a championship game now, the days of co-champions are over.) And a two-loss team has yet to make it but eventually will. All it takes is the field breaking a certain way.
How will the playoff selection committee judge this year’s field? We ran simulations, keeping in mind this is as much art as science, and that the committee is a political animal. But there’s also some logic to it: An undefeated Power Five champ will be chosen over a one-loss champ, etc. By mixing some basic rules of thumb with a healthy dose of randomness to properly account for uncertainty, we can ballpark a team’s chances. Most important, we simulate all team seasons simultaneously to see how often certain groups of teams emerge with the best records and conference championships.
If Ohio State wins out, including the Big Ten championship, the Buckeyes most likely make the playoff. It’s much less likely should they lose again, but it’s still possible if they win the conference. All told, we give them a 28-percent chance of pulling off a spot in the semis. That’s still fifth-highest in the country, behind only Alabama (67 percent), Oklahoma (42 percent), Clemson (37 percent) and USC (33 percent).
Of course, in college football the only thing we can be sure of is that we shouldn’t be too sure of anything. The favorites to make the playoff are obvious, but we show 19 teams with at least a 5-percent chance.
With so many teams in the conversation, and so much variance in the game, chances are good a dark horse will emerge. Ohio State more-or-less still determines its own fate, as unlikely as winning out would be. But then so does LSU, Louisville and Oklahoma State. This time of year (almost) everyone is a contender.
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