It was a long time coming but the introduction of a playoff for Division I college football in 2014 was hailed as a good thing, an improvement to the Bowl Championship Series that determined a national champion. Perhaps so, but with the four-team playoff system now in place the likelihood of a very memorable and devastating season-ruining one loss has been lessened significantly. That one blemish on an otherwise perfect season, a season that seemed destined to end as a very memorable one, perhaps even in a national championship, only to be a forever memorable one for the wrong reason.
It has been said if you are going to lose a game, lose early. One would believe that’s still the case as Ohio State demonstrated last year in losing in week two to Virginia Tech as they were able to overcome that upset and finish strong and controversially be chosen for the inaugural four-team playoff.
Yet here we are with Ohio State, having lost at home to a 14-point underdog Michigan State team without its starting quarterback, in the next to last regular season game of the year for the Buckeyes, still possibly making this year’s four-team playoff.
Some outstanding teams in the past have suffered that type of loss, a loss that they and their fans would forever remember and that missed opportunity at greatness.
In 1964, Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 with a 9-0 record lost to their rival USC 20-17 on the road in their regular season finale. The Fighting Irish would drop to No. 3 in the following poll and did not play in a bowl game. One would have to believe that a team ranked third in the country at the end of the regular season would have been chosen for a four-team playoff had there been one.
In 1969, Ohio State was the defending national champion and on their way to perhaps being considered the greatest college football team ever. After eight games, the Buckeyes were undefeated with a 22-game winning streak and had outscored their opponents 371 to 69, an average margin of victory of greater than five touchdowns per game.
All that remained for the Buckeyes was a game against a two-loss Michigan team to achieve back-to-back national championships. At that time, the Big 10 champion could not make a return visit to the Rose Bowl in consecutive years so the Buckeyes were one win from another season of perfection.
Bo Schembechler’s Wolverines ruined Woody Hayes and Ohio State’s season upsetting Ohio State 24-12. So highly thought of were the Buckeyes that the loss only knocked them to No. 4 in the polls. Michigan, the Big 10 champion, rose to No. 7. Ohio State would finish the season 8-1 and ranked No. 4. Had there been a four-team BCS playoff then, the Buckeyes would have probably been in the mix.
In 1982, No. 2 Nebraska lost a controversial early-season game to No. 8 Penn State in State College, 28-24. The Cornhuskers would fall to No. 8 in the following poll but would not lose another game all season. Nebraska would finish the year 12-1 and ranked No. 3. Had there been a four-team playoff, Nebraska most certainly would have been one of the four teams selected.
In 1993, Boston College dashed No. 1 Notre Dame’s national championship hopes. Having beaten No. 1 Florida State 31-24 the week before, the Fighting Irish were 10-0 and in control of their own destiny. The Golden Eagles however had different plans and upset Notre Dame in South Bend 41-39. Notre Dame fell to No. 4 in the polls the following week, ended the year with an 11-1 record, and ranked No. 2 behind Florida State. One would think that a team that just won a “Game of the Century” would have been included in a 4-team playoff.
In 1998, John Cooper’s Ohio State Buckeyes were marching towards a national championship. They were ranked No. 1 in the polls with an 8-0 record and had outscored their opponents 306 to 72. Perhaps a 4-4 Michigan State team, coached by Nick Saban, coming into Columbus may have been taken a bit too lightly that day.
On that day, the Spartans shocked Ohio State 28-24 and knocked the Buckeyes out of the nation’s top spot atop the polls. Ohio State would fall to No. 7 in the next week’s poll but would eventually rise to No. 3 in the Associated Press’ final regular season poll. That certainly would have been good enough to have made the 4-team playoff had one existed. The Buckeyes finished that season 11-1 and ranked No. 2 to Tennessee. That Spartan defeat ruined perhaps one of Ohio State’s best teams ever and what well could have been a national championship season.
Here we are 17 years later, in 2015, with Ohio State losing even later in the year to Michigan State than in 1998, not even win their division in their conference and yet still in the College Football Playoff discussion.
This is eerily similar to what happened in 2001 when Nebraska, who did not even win their division in the Big 12 Conference, was selected to play for the national championship against Miami despite being blown out 62-36 in their regular season finale by division foe Colorado. We all know how well that turned out as Miami demolished Nebraska 37-14 in the 2002 Rose Bowl.
Oregon fans well remember how the selection of Nebraska came about. In a battle for the Big 12 North division, the Buffaloes demolished the undefeated and No. 2 Cornhuskers. Nebraska would fall to sixth in the following AP poll behind Miami, Florida, Texas, Oregon, and Tennessee. However, the BCS computers thought higher of Nebraska and had the Cornhuskers ranked fourth behind Miami, Florida and Texas with Oregon fifth.
Just as Ohio State needs the dominoes of Alabama, Clemson, and Stanford to lose on Saturday so did the Cornhuskers need a remote trifecta to take place. No. 2 Florida would lose to Tennessee; Colorado went on to beat No. 3 Texas and then the following week in the SEC Championship Game, No. 2 Tennessee lost to LSU.
The subsequent AP Poll had Miami, Oregon, Colorado, and Nebraska as their top four teams. The BCS, however, had Miami followed by Nebraska, Colorado, and Oregon. The improbable stage of a team that failed to win their division let alone their conference would play in the national championship game. Ohio State needs the same luck as Nebraska had in 2001 and they could be chosen for the four-team playoff.
Last year the Playoff Committee felt winning a conference championship game, as Ohio State did, weighed a lot in the selection process, but not even qualifying for one this year has not extinguished Ohio State’s chances to make this year’s football final four.
Last year, Jeff Long, committee chairman, stated that the Big Ten title game gave Ohio State a 13th game against a quality opponent, “a quality win over a highly ranked team,” Long said.
Was the four-team playoff just a way to keep college football powers in the national championship picture longer? A way to create a pro baseball & pro football wild card-like race to generate even more interest, controversy, and ultimately, more money?
Makes me yearn for the old days when it appeared more cut and dry. Lose once and you’re done, which gave those underdog teams a win for the ages, one both teams and their fans will always remember and leaving those one-loss teams forever wondering what might have been.
John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.