When a game is so important it can be widely accepted and appreciated as simply “The Game,” there is nothing more necessary beyond the teams and fanbases involved. But when The Game takes on deeper meaning—when an entire postseason hinges on its very consequence—it becomes an even grander occasion than it already is.
Ohio State-Michigan always matters. The hatred is pure and generational. It is born and raised and groomed over decades. There is a layer of respect nestled somewhere in there as well, but it is driven by homegrown revulsion.
Such feelings don’t fade. But this year, given what’s at stake for both teams and many others hanging on the outcome, it’s different. The College Football Playoff, fresh off the selection committee’s latest Top 25, has deemed this as something more.
It is Urban Meyer vs. Jim Harbaugh in an elimination game. The sport has been gifted something spectacular.
The loser will end a promising regular season in disgust. The winner, depending on that winner, will search for something more.
If Michigan comes away victorious, the Wolverines will play in the Big Ten Championship Game and simplify the conference’s playoff positioning. It’s what the rest of the country—hopeful conferences and teams on the cusp—is hoping for. It would all but kill the possibility of the Big Ten getting two teams in the playoff.
If Ohio State wins, the selection committee could be thrown into uncharted waters.
Penn State, playing later in the afternoon, will have a great deal of interest in the outcome—rooting for Ohio State to win so it has a chance to play in the conference championship game. A Buckeyes win and a Nittany Lions victory over Michigan State would make the picture hazy.
Wisconsin, hoping to lock up its side of the conference, will undoubtedly have an eye on The Game as well.
Ohio State, the No. 2 team in the nation in the eyes of the committee, would add a win over a Top Five team. Even without a conference championship to its resume, would the selection committee really omit a team it clearly thinks a great deal of?
Much of this depends on what happens next, though it all starts in Columbus, Ohio. It will set the table.
Neither team is unbeaten. Both have looked vulnerable over the past month. Both are still deeply talented.
Both, just like always, would love to leave the other emotionally broken for 364 days.
That part hasn’t changed. The stakes have simply been elevated. It’s not just about the Buckeyes and Wolverines, though.
The Game matters to the teams and conferences still holding out hope that playoff chaos will arrive. In that sense, it seems appropriate that the game labeled The Game would decide what happens next.
As for other thoughts on the latest playoff rankings, let’s dive into the notebook.
The Nothing-to-Lose Squads
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Though their dreams of a national championship might be dashed, that doesn’t mean a handful of programs can’t turn the playoff on its side.
These teams are playing for bowl eligibility, a conference championship or for the chance to toss a little unexpected carnage into the machine.
Michigan State: The Spartans nearly started the mayhem early Saturday against Ohio State. This week, they draw Penn State. There is no playoff spot on the line; heck, Michigan State can’t even become bowl eligible. It can, however, derail the season of a playoff hopeful.
Utah: The crushing disappointment of the Utes’ loss to Oregon last week probably still lingers. But they can finish on a high note with an upset over Colorado—a team suddenly in the playoff mix. USC, in line to take the Buffaloes’ spot in the Pac-12 title game, would not argue with that outcome at all.
Washington State: Oh, this would be sweet rivalry pain. Though the Cougars’ loss to Colorado on Saturday likely killed their slim hopes of a playoff run, they can still crush such hopes for rival Washington. The Apple Cup is always fun, though this one means a great deal with the Pac-12 still to be determined.
Minnesota: Did you know the Golden Gophers have eight wins? A victory over Wisconsin in Madison would end Bucky’s playoff hopes and could add further weirdness to a conference ripe with it already.
Virginia Tech or North Carolina: If the Hokies beat Virginia, they will assume this role. If Virginia Tech loses and the Tar Heels beat North Carolina State, it will be North Carolina. The Hokies go if both fall. Either way, one of these two teams will get a crack at Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. An upset there would all but knock the conference out of the playoff.
Does Colorado Control Its Playoff Chances?
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Let’s look at the resume. Colorado is ranked No. 9. It lost to Michigan (No. 3) and USC (No. 12).
Saturday’s victory over Washington State (No. 23) is its best win. Its victory over Stanford (No. 24) looks pretty good, too.
The good news for the Buffs is they can add a win over Utah (No. 22) this weekend. If they do that, they will lock up a spot in the conference championship game against either Washington (No. 5) or Washington State.
There is plenty of room to grow in front of the committee, especially considering the four Big Ten teams in front of Colorado will clash over the next two weekends.
While a 2-0 mark over the next two weekends wouldn’t guarantee Colorado a playoff spot, this is a scenario that warrants deep consideration. If the selection committee is truly invested in rewarding conference championships, then the Buffaloes, with a meaty out-of-conference loss working in their favor, certainly have a shot.
Regardless, can we take a moment to assess what we’re talking about? Colorado, at Thanksgiving, is in a position to make the playoff. What an astonishing year and sport this is.
Let’s Play That Weekly Game: Is the Big 12 Dead or Alive?
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It’s alive! Quite alive, really, though it needs help.
Everything that needed to happen last weekend for the Big 12 to make the playoff—with the exception of mass chaos in other games—did happen.
Oklahoma provided an impressive road showing against West Virginia. The Sooners checked in at No. 8 this week. Oklahoma State made quick work of TCU, and the Pokes are No. 10.
The two will take this weekend off—thank you, Big 12 scheduling!—and hope the teams in front of them continue to lose. A Michigan victory would be a start. All other turmoil is welcome.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will then play for the conference next weekend. The winner will certainly enjoy a considerable bump, though it won’t be enough by itself. A loss by Clemson and/or Pac-12 Championship Game cannibalization will likely be needed.
One thing to be mindful of is the Cowboys’ Week 2 defeat to Central Michigan—a loss that came on a Hail Mary that never should have been allowed to happen.
“Oklahoma State’s record is 9-2,” selection committee chair Kirby Hocutt said on the ESPN broadcast Tuesday night (via Jake Trotter of ESPN.com). “However, the committee is aware of what transpired in the Central Michigan game. We’re aware.”
What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Until the Cowboys win Bedlam and other losses come, not much. If Oklahoma State somehow gets to the fringe of making the playoff, it seems reasonable to believe it could earn the benefit of the doubt.
And Finally, Coaching Giants Loom
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It seems appropriate that at the time of the year when the firing and hiring process begins—as it has in many places—the power of a head coach is fully appreciated.
Nick Saban, Meyer, Harbaugh, Dabo Swinney and Chris Petersen.
Those are the head coaches, in order, of the Top Five teams in the playoff standings.
Take note, programs in search of (or about to be in search of) a head coach: This part of the process is really important. The right guy can change everything. Now, finding the right guy who isn’t already happy where he is—well, that’s a different story.
That’s not an issue for the teams in contention now. And at a time when the College Football Playoff could use a ratings boost after last season’s dip, it’s a promising step to have some of the biggest coaching stars in the sport dictating the postseason.
These aren’t just brilliant football minds. They are unique personalities celebrated beyond the college football circle. And now, with the regular season coming to a close, they will help decide the four-team bracket.