Opinion: Ohio State under pressure to prove it belongs in playoff semifinal

Intentional or not, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to rank Ohio State 11th on his Amway Coaches Poll ballot has added necessary spice to a set of College Football Playoff games that don’t exactly have a lot of new storylines for the sport. 

The four teams involved, the coaches involved, even the star players – they’ve all been here before. College football has become so stratified, you could have practically preordained these matchups in July. 

But Swinney’s brutally honest comments about whether Ohio State should be allowed to compete for a national championship this year despite playing only six games should serve as more than just bulletin board material for the Buckeyes. 

Depending on how Friday’s games turn out, they could end up being an indictment on the entire postseason system.

“Especially this year, I just don’t think it’s right,” Swinney said Monday. “It’s not that they’re not good enough. I just don’t think it’s right that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion and one team has to play eight.” 

Ohio State celebrates after winning the Big Ten title, which got them a spot in the College Football Playoff despite playing only six games.

Swinney isn’t alone. In the seven-year history of the CFP, no selection has generated more controversy among coaches and administrators than this year’s Buckeyes. And if they fail to play a competitive game in their semifinal matchup with Clemson, the blowback from within the sport could be interesting to watch this offseason.

To be fair, the CFP selection committee has not had to make a lot of tough choices over its lifespan, so the bar for controversy is relatively low. And based on the committee putting the Buckeyes in the top four of all four polls released before the final rankings, it was clear they were getting in as long as they remained unbeaten no matter how many games they played. 

But without the scarlet-and-gray branding, the Buckeyes’ credentials were not exactly airtight as one of the best four teams in the country. 

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In both of its games against ranked opponents – Indiana and Northwestern – Ohio State got pushed deep into the fourth quarter and won by a combined 19 points. Playing a disjointed schedule and having to overcome a severe COVID-19 outbreak within their program, the Buckeyes didn’t look visually impressive and weren’t afforded an opportunity to build up a strong résumé. 

If you put the exact same team in Minnesota’s jerseys, would they have been ranked in the top four the entire way? We’ll never know. But Ohio State gets the benefit of the doubt by being Ohio State, by recruiting like Ohio State and by drawing interest in the playoff like Ohio State. 

That’s hardly even debatable, and it’s not necessarily wrong. Blue bloods win the tiebreakers in this sport, and until there’s an eight-team playoff with automatic qualifications to get in, everyone involved knows the score. 

The question is what event is going to force the Power Five conference commissioners who manage the playoff to make a change. 

Maybe it will be this year’s semifinals. 

It’s not Ohio State’s fault that the Big Ten made the decision not to play this fall, then changed its mind, then tried to build a quixotic schedule that left no room for makeup games. It’s not Ohio State’s fault that Maryland and Michigan had COVID-19 issues and couldn’t play when they were supposed to, leaving the Buckeyes with just five regular-season games. 

But when a lot of teams managed to play 10 or 11 games this season and the Buckeyes only had to deal with six, it’s a fair critique of the system to say that they got a little bit of a free pass from the committee. 

“Everyone is on a different journey this year,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “That’s what makes this season so unique.” 

The issue now is whether Ohio State can justify being given that spot by giving Clemson a game. 

In a normal year, that doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. This year? You bet it does. 

Since the playoff began, one of college football’s commandments has been “Thou Shalt Not Second-Guess the Playoff Committee,” and the Buckeyes are primarily responsible for that. In 2014, there was some hand-wringing when Ohio State leapfrogged Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor for the fourth spot on the final weekend. But when the Buckeyes dominated Alabama and Oregon to win the first national title of the CFP era, all you could do was tip your cap and say the committee got it right. 

Since then, most of the semifinal games have been duds. Only Georgia-Oklahoma in 2017 and last year’s rendition of Ohio State-Clemson have been within one score, but it’s been hard to fault the committee for making bad choices. 

This year, the evidence has been pretty clear on what Ohio State is: A very talented team that hasn’t played to its potential due to the circumstances of its season and struggled with the only two good opponents it played. 

The conventional wisdom around college football is that the Buckeyes playing only six games gives them an advantage because they haven’t sustained as much wear and tear as the other teams. But it could also cut the other way, as the Buckeyes haven’t had the chance to build any momentum or continuity.

Swinney insists that his vote on Ohio State wasn’t a sign of disrespect; that he simply drew a line and didn’t vote for any team in the top 10 that played fewer than nine games. This is, after all, a one-of-a-kind year that will hopefully never happen again. 

“If people have a problem with that, I don’t really care,” Swinney said. “It’s my poll. And it doesn’t matter who the person was. It has zero to do with Ohio State.”

But it has everything to do with the system that allows them to play for a whole season’s championship for half a season’s worth of work. 

The privilege of being a blue blood in college football has never been greater than Ohio State’s inclusion in this playoff. Friday is a referendum on whether it is deserved.

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