College Football Playoff scenarios: How Michigan-Ohio State impacts chase


The Game. The Game. The Game.

Yes, the most anticipated matchup of every college football season is upon us as undefeated No. 2 Ohio State takes on undefeated No. 3 Michigan on Saturday (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), and the stakes are as high as ever. 

That’s not hyperbole either, as the Big Ten East will once again be decided when these two face off, and the resulting trip to the conference title game in Indianapolis carries the potential for far more than just a few more helmet stickers. The Wolverines are looking to defend their 2021 title while the Buckeyes are hoping to get back to their winning ways with a sixth appearance at Lucas Oil Stadium in prime time next weekend.

A Big Ten Championship is just table stakes, however, as a berth to the College Football Playoff could also be on the line — for both the winner and the loser. 

[College Football Playoff Rankings: LSU to No. 5, USC to No. 6]

In light of Tuesday’s antepenultimate set of rankings from the CFP Selection Committee, here’s a look at how Saturday’s contest at the Horseshoe could end up producing two semifinalists come December, and what else could play out across the country for various teams still in the hunt for the national title.

College Football Playoff Rankings: LSU, USC make a push

College Football Playoff Rankings: LSU, USC make a push

RJ Young reacts to the CFP rankings for Week 13. Chalk at the top keeps everyone in place, but two-loss LSU stays ahead of 10-1 USC despite the Trojans’ big win over UCLA.

SCENARIO: TWO BIG TEN TEAMS GET IN

What needs to happen in “The Game”: The series between Ohio State and Michigan is 27-27-2 in Columbus, where the Buckeyes have not lost in conference play since 2015. Of all their wins against a certain rival to the north, however, the most controversial of the bunch may have come in the 2016 edition. 

The Wolverines were leading 27-24 in double overtime and defending fourth-and-1. Those who enjoy wearing maize or blue will say quarterback J.T. Barrett came up just a few inches short, the written history tells us he picked up the first down. The debates were endless over whether “The Spot” was correct, but the end result was an Ohio State victory, a trip to the College Football Playoff, and a moment that is bound to be replayed every time the two schools meet with something on the line for eternity.

It would also increase the chance of both sides reaching the CFP if something similar happened again — especially if Michigan came out on top this time. The Wolverines have been continually dinged for their non-conference slate and, because Illinois is not in the Top 25, they would have just one marquee victory to hang their hat on in Penn State. 

If Ryan Day’s squad lost, however, it would at least have better wins, plus a streak of seven straight games of 44 or more points to impress the committee and serve as a tie-breaker against other teams.

“TCU is 8-0 against teams above .500, which is really impressive, and it’s been impressive to the committee, but again, as we look at their ability to come back in games — where to a large degree Ohio State and Michigan have not,” said selection committee chairman and NC State athletic director Boo Corrigan on Tuesday. “And as I said last week, that win over Notre Dame by Ohio State is an impressive second win on top of the Penn State win.”

That’s not to say it’s impossible for a one-loss Michigan to remain in the top four and likely set up a rematch of last year’s Orange Bowl vs. Georgia. It would just be a lot trickier if it’s Jim Harbaugh’s side that has a dash-one in its record instead of Day’s. 

Ohio State vs. Michigan: An extended preview

Ohio State vs. Michigan: An extended preview

The “Big Noon Kickoff” crew gives its first extended preview of Ohio State vs. Michigan.

What else must happen: Notre Dame beats USC, Georgia beats LSU

Nice to have: Kansas State upsets TCU in the Big 12 Championship, North Carolina or South Carolina deal Clemson a second loss, Kentucky beats Louisville to remove a top-25 win from Clemson’s résumé.

In this scenario, the Trojans losing at home would ensure the Pac-12 champ would have at least two losses and Ohio State’s non-conference win over the Irish would assuredly become a top-10 victory on the résumé. Georgia would lock up the No. 1 CFP spot and it’s doubtful fellow non-division winners like Alabama or Tennessee (without QB Hendon Hooker) would leapfrog Big Ten teams with one fewer loss and a similar number of top-10 victories.

“You know, we’re really looking at the whole body of work,” added Corrigan. “People have played different people throughout the season, some stronger than others, and our goal really is to look at the whole resume at this point and make sure that we’re evaluating the entire resume instead of one single data point that you can get sucked into at times and making sure that we’re making the bigger, broader decision that we have to make and make sure we get that right.”

Projected CFP in this scenario: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. TCU, 4. Ohio State

Ohio State, Michigan both 11-0 heading into ‘The Game’

Ohio State, Michigan both 11-0 heading into 'The Game'

Joel Klatt touches on Blake Corum’s status and explains why Ohio State may have an advantage vs. Michigan.

SCENARIO: SEC, BIG TEN DOUBLE TROUBLE

If you want CFP expansion to happen sooner rather than later, this might be the one scenario to root for.

What needs to happen in “The Game”: As detailed above, a close Michigan win over Ohio State. 

What else must happen: Notre Dame beats USC, LSU beats Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, TCU loses to Kansas State in the Big 12 title game and Clemson takes a second loss.

Nice to have: North Carolina wins the ACC, Auburn wins the Iron Bowl.

Based on how this plays out, there would be just two one-loss teams left in Georgia and Ohio State. LSU would be in as SEC champ (and three top-10 wins on the résumé). Michigan would be the remaining undefeated. The Pac-12 and ACC champions wouldn’t have as many marquee victories on the résumé as either the Bulldogs or Buckeyes, and it would all come down to those two programs against a TCU team that has consistently been knocked for playing so many close, come-from-behind games. 

Projected CFP in this scenario: 1. Michigan, 2. LSU, 3. Ohio State, 4. Georgia

SCENARIO: THE PAC-12’s PATH

As of now, five teams control their own fate when it comes to the College Football Playoff: Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan, TCU, LSU. The Bulldogs just need to beat Georgia Tech and they can sit pretty when it comes to a semifinal berth. The others are in if they win out.

That leaves No. 6 USC as the lone team with a viable opportunity to win a conference title and finish with just one loss, yet not have it all in their hands to make the final four.

What needs to happen in “The Game”: The Trojans would appreciate Ohio State taking care of business and convincingly (or at least comfortably) beating Michigan.

What else must happen: Georgia beats LSU, USC wins out.

Nice to have: Clemson or TCU take a loss.

Lincoln Riley’s squad may not have much of a defense, but the Trojans would be sitting pretty if they ran the table and, crucially, UGA won the SEC. That would allow USC to move past LSU with not only a better record but a conference championship. The Pac-12 winners would have a better résumé than Clemson and would have the nod over a common opponent in Notre Dame.

It would help things even more if TCU was upset in the Big 12 title game, but the crux of the decision for the selection committee would be 11-1 Michigan vs. a 12-1 USC that is three spots behind in the rankings going into this weekend. The Trojans would have that conference title in their back pocket that the Wolverines would not, plus quality wins over Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State. UM, meanwhile, would have just the 41-17 result over Penn State among their top 25 victories. Further, Michigan would end up with just four wins over teams that made bowl games compared to USC with as many as six. That’s an easy choice by any metric.

Projected CFP in this scenario: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. TCU, 4. USC

USC keeps CFP hopes alive

USC keeps CFP hopes alive

Joel Klatt reacts to USC’s big victory over rival UCLA in Week 12.

SCENARIO: CLEMSON SNEAKS IN

It’s been a while since Dabo Swinney could break out that little ol’ Clemson line and be right, but the No. 8 Tigers remain in the periphery of the Playoff race with a viable path if things break the right way. Metrics-wise, they really aren’t too far off at this point from where they were back in 2016 when they won a title despite a weak ACC slate. The difference nowadays is they don’t have an elite quarterback. The committee has noticed, given the way they’ve treated the team so far, keeping them behind No. 7 Alabama.

What needs to happen in “The Game”: Clemson needs Ohio State to roll Michigan in Columbus.

What else must happen: The Tigers have to win out by good margins, have Georgia beat LSU in Atlanta, and see Notre Dame beat USC impressively.

Nice to have: Auburn wins the Iron Bowl, Kansas State wins the Big 12.

When you lay it out on paper, this isn’t as chaotic as you would think, even if Clemson would have to fight history and become the lowest-ranked team going into Week 13 to make it into the final four.

Of the three big things, only two are really that tricky. The Bulldogs figure to be considerable favorites over LSU in their second home of Atlanta. Notre Dame and USC are rivals, but with the way the Irish are playing right now and the state of the Trojans’ defense, that’s not a stretch of an upset like it was in, say, early October. Interestingly, Ohio State blowing out Michigan at home despite a season of frustration feels like the most difficult thing to forecast.

Still, it’s not all out of the realm of possibilities. 

Projected CFP in this scenario: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. TCU, 4. Clemson

SCENARIO: PURE CHAOS FOR BAMA

Nick Saban is capable of anything, but probably not conjuring up this.

What needs to happen in “The Game”: Ohio State beats Michigan in the neighborhood of 53-3.

What else must happen: Georgia thumps LSU, the Pac-12 champion isn’t USC, TCU takes two losses and Kansas State is Big 12 champ. Clemson loses to South Carolina and UNC.

Nice to have: Ole Miss easily wins the Egg Bowl over Mississippi State to finish 8-4, Kentucky beats Louisville (both would strengthen Bama’s résumé).

Georgia and Ohio State winning out keeps them as the top two seeds, while the three other Power 5 champions (North Carolina, Oregon and Kansas State) would each have at least two losses and an inferior résumé in the eyes of the committee. Michigan would likely still find a way in as the lone one-loss team, but the debate shifts to avoiding a rematch of The Game in a semifinal. That paves the way for the Tide to head to the Fiesta Bowl and put on a rematch of the championship game from the COVID-impacted 2020 season.

Projected CFP in this scenario: 1. Georgia, 2. Ohio State, 3. Alabama, 4. Michigan

Is the CFP committee is over-valuing Alabama?

Is the CFP committee is over-valuing Alabama?

Joel Klatt explains why the College Football Playoff committee’s faith in Alabama is hurting the credibility of the sport.

SCENARIO: THE 12-TEAMER

Can we just stop and think at how all these above scenarios pale compare to the fun we would get in a world of an expanded College Football Playoff? The debate would be less about who is in and more about where they’d be seeded.

First-round games: 

No. 12 Tulane at No. 5 Michigan in Ann Arbor

No. 11 Penn State at No. 6 LSU in Death Valley

No. 10 Tennessee at No. 7 Alabama in Tuscaloosa

No. 9 Oregon at No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley

Those games could produce a rematch of Oregon-Georgia from Week 1. Imagine the storylines if James Franklin beat two SEC opponents in their own place in the same year, before heading to the Cotton Bowl to play TCU? A traditional Rose Bowl between the hotly debated Michigan and USC, who get to settle it out on the field? Sign us up. Then there’s the potential for an Alabama-Ohio State meeting in the Fiesta Bowl where we get to see Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud battle it out.

Sadly, that’s not the current ecosystem in college football. If there’s any solace, however, it’s that we at least have a postseason that has a lot riding on Saturday’s result at the Horseshoe and a bunch of interested parties far beyond the Buckeyes and Wolverines.

The 118th edition of The Game is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated in recent memory, and it’s hard not to see why given what’s at stake for winner and loser alike. 

Read more:

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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