FOX Sports Insider
Ohio State and Michigan share one of the greatest rivalries in sports, an intense tribal conflict made all the more intriguing by the complexities of college football and the vagaries of its conference structure. It’s a tough feud. This year, like many others, is complicated.
Consider this: Either Ohio State or Michigan are subconsciously fueling a certain combination of chaotic results in the final weeks of the current season. You just don’t know yet.
Let’s explain. OK, so for the first time in the College Football Playoff era and just four years away from excluding the Big Ten from the Top 4 for the second straight year, the conference has a legitimate – albeit long – chance of winning two send teams to the playoffs.
Those teams are, of course, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines and Ryan Day’s Buckeyes, who will meet on November 26 on FOX’s The Game, a blockbuster pitting CJ Stroud’s enterprising arm against Blake Corum’s fast-churning legs in Columbus At this point, most expect them to still be unbeaten and have 11 wins to their credit.
The winner would advance to the Big Ten title game, where he would be an overwhelming favorite against the winner of the conference’s western region — likely Illinois.
The loser? Well, you’re the one who will have needed all that help by then to figure out a way to sneak into the CFP field.
“The possibility is definitely there,” said FOX Sports college football writer RJ Young told me. “It takes a very long list of things that need to happen and an unprecedented level of chaos. But there is a way. There is a way. He is not blocked. It doesn’t even have to be crazy impossible things happening all in combination.”
It’s hard for a conference to get two teams into the college football playoffs. If five doesn’t go very well into four (big conferences in CFP spots), then five goes even less well into three. For all the committee’s mystical secrecy, it’s made it clear that it likes a few things, and conference champion status is one of them.
Two bids from a single conference have only come twice before, in 2017 and 2021 when Alabama joined SEC champion Georgia, then vice versa. Incidentally, both times the wildcard pick won the national title, beating the other in the championship game.
To create such a situation, the committee must place a non-conference champion above at least two teams that have been successful in the province, hence its rarity.
To follow suit this year, the Michigan and Ohio State loser has a wish list (or will have a retrospective wish list, or at least wish he had had one), and yes, we know that by speaking and thinking that way will, with a probability bordering on certainty, upset the space-time continuum.
Broadly speaking, they want all sorts of things to go wrong for all types of teams. They want the picture of the college football playoffs to be ugly, muddy, and brittle.
They want TCU to be knocked off its undefeated throne. An undefeated Big 12 champion is in, but a losing lineup for the Horned Frogs probably wouldn’t be, even with a Big 12 trophy in hand.
They want the trio of leading Pac-12 contenders to cannibalize each other, as has happened so many times before. Something like Oregon losing to Utah, USC to beating UCLA but then losing to Notre Dame, all of which are firmly within convention. A Pac-12 champion with at least two losses? “Yes, please,” says Harbaugh or Day after the loss in just over two weeks.
They also want Clemson not to win the ACC, although it’s possible the Tigers’ loss to Notre Dame last weekend ruined their chances no matter what. For added security, they want to avoid North Carolina, who have only one loss to Notre Dame on their resume, also leading the table.
They want Georgia to win in the SEC not to give LSU the most compelling case we’ve ever seen of why a two-loss team should be in the CFP. They also want, and this is a moonshot, Tennessee to bail out against any of their three remaining opponents, all unranked.
Finally, since this is the only part of it over which there is some measure of control, the loser of the Ohio State/Michigan game wants to make sure their loss is razor-thin, ideally in overtime, a result that scores that it there is little choice between the two.
“You’ve got to keep it going,” Harbaugh said of his team’s momentum this season, in which they have the nation’s best average winning margin of 30.1 points. “It’s definitely magical, we’re on a really good path.”
Of the two, Michigan could find it harder to weather a loss due to its weaker non-conference schedule. However, working in favor of the team going haywire on November 26 is the committee’s fundamental desire to try and field the top four teams in the country, and a single loss to an undefeated national title contender could be forgivable for a group that has dominated all year.
“When a lot of things happen and there’s all these imperfect résumés and it matters to be that close, they might just say, ‘We think Ohio State or Michigan are the better football teams and would make for a better playoff. ‘” Jung said. “It’s a lot of fun going through the permutations. Insane, but fun.”
If all the requirements of the Big Ten were met, there would be a solid case. Going neck and neck with a one-loss Tennessee would probably be the biggest issue given the Vols’ win over Alabama, even though Tennessee was ineffective in their loss to Georgia.
Ohio State has a strange history in the CFP. They entered the field in the 2016 season without winning the Big Ten. They also missed out on selection as Conference Champion twice.
Neither she nor Michigan, who were defeated by Georgia in last year’s semifinals, would ideally choose to come into the field through the back door, especially as it would mean losing to their hated rivals would have just happened.
But if it’s the only way, why not embrace the chaos? I told you it’s complicated.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletterright
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