COLUMBUS, Ohio — As they say, you can’t win a national championship in September. But maybe you can win or lose a chance to play for a national championship in that month.
There were a lot of factors that went into Ohio State being one of the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff and probably just as many in Big Ten champion Penn State being left out. But two games in September were a huge part of that decision by the playoff’s 12-person selection committee.
On Sept. 10, Penn State lost 42-39 to Pittsburgh in the first game between those two in-state rivals since 2000.
One week later on Sept. 17, Ohio State won 45-24 at Oklahoma, which finished seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings with a 10-2 record.
If Penn State had beaten Pittsburgh (8-4), won the Big Ten championship game and had a win over Ohio State on its resume, it is hard to imagine how the committee could have kept the Nittany Lions out of its top four.
And if OSU had not beaten Oklahoma, it would not have been in the discussion of who the top four teams in the country are, regardless of conference championships, which probably was the biggest factor in its inclusion in the final four.
As predicted after the Buckeyes were No. 2 in the next-to-last playoff rankings, they were going to be in the playoff with an 11-1 record regardless of what happened Saturday in the Big Ten championship game. The biggest foe for the fourth spot for the winner of that game probably always was going to be Washington if it won the Pac-12 championship game, which the Huskies did.
In the end, the selection committee did the predictable thing and picked undefeated Alabama and three one-loss teams – Clemson, Ohio State and Washington.
OSU (11-1) will play Clemson (12-1) in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Eve in one semifinal and Alabama (13-0) will take on Washington (12-1) in the Peach Bowl in the other semifinal. The national championship game will be Jan. 9 in Tampa.
Cutting through all the numbers and all the discussion, the biggest reason the committee took Washington over Penn State was because it had only one loss and Penn State had two.
Selection committee chairman Kirby Hocutt told ESPN, “We looked at a lot of things.” Hocutt also said the decision to take Washington over the Nittany Lions came after “a detailed conversation that went on for hours and hours.”
But he also said that discussion would not have been nearly as long if Washington’s strength of schedule had been better.
Judging by that, it sounds like Penn State would have had a very good chance to be in the final four with only one loss.
Penn State, which will play USC in the Rose Bowl, now has the opportunity for the rare double “I told you so.”
If either Ohio State or Washington would be blown out in a playoff game, Penn State and its fans understandably would claim it would have been more competitive.
More than a few Buckeyes fans were saying that last year after Big Ten champion Michigan State, the only team to beat OSU in 2015, was obliterated 38-0 by Alabama in a national semifinal.
Ohio State is the first non-conference champion to qualify for the College Football Playoff in its three years of existence.
That is does not add any pressure for the Buckeyes. If there is pressure, it is on the selection committee.
What it adds is interest.
Did the committee get it right?
Will OSU live up to its reputation as one of the four best teams in college football?
Could Ohio State use its strong defense to challenge Alabama if they both get to the national championship game?
And will the College Football Playoff committee continue to select what it thinks are the four best teams if OSU disappoints … or would it put more emphasis on conference champions?
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.