College Football Playoff rankings preview: Breaking down the Oregon vs. Ohio State debate

Ohio State running back Miyan Williams, center, is tackled by Oregon defenders Bradyn Swinson, left, and defensive back Verone McKinley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State running back Miyan Williams, center, is tackled by Oregon defenders Bradyn Swinson, left, and defensive back Verone McKinley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

It's right there, in the first sentence of the College Football Playoff's founding document:

"Establish a committee that will be instructed to place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head‐to‐head competition when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree."

"Head-to-head competition."

The first sentence!

But that was a decade ago and this is the Pac-12 in the 2020s, a conference on the margins that's easily marginalized.

How will the selection committee treat Oregon relative to Ohio State when the initial 2021 rankings are released Tuesday afternoon (4 p.m. PT, ESPN)?

To what extent will Oregon's head-to-head victory offset whatever style points the Buckeyes have earned since then?

Most college football pundits, pollsters and power rankings have de-emphasized the scoreboard:

Ohio State is one spot above the Ducks in the latest Associated Press poll and two ahead in the Coaches poll.

Ohio State is 12 spots ahead of the Ducks in the Sagarin computer ratings and 17 spots ahead — 17! — in ESPN's Football Power Index.

Each team is 7-1.

The Ducks are 3-0 against opponents with winning records; the Buckeyes are 3-1.

The Ducks are 2-0 against opponents currently ranked in the AP poll; the Buckeyes are 1-1.

But in the immediate aftermath of Oregon's 35-28 victory in Week 2, Ohio State produced a series of blowout wins while the Ducks struggled to put away lesser teams (Arizona, Cal and UCLA) and lost in overtime at Stanford.

Will the committee follow its own protocol and rank the Ducks ahead of OSU, using the head-to-head result as the differentiator "when comparing teams with similar records and pedigree."

"I won't be surprised if Oregon is ahead of the Buckeyes," FOX analyst Joel Klatt tweeted Saturday night. "Tuesday is going to be very interesting."

The initial rankings release carries intrigue on multiple levels:

— Georgia is the obvious No. 1, but who's No. 2? And No. 3? For the first time in years, the hierarchy isn't clear.

— How will the committee treat Cincinnati, which doesn't play in a Power Five league but is undefeated and won at Notre Dame?

— Will unbeaten-but-wobbly Oklahoma be slotted above all the one-loss teams?

— As always, Alabama's placement will be closely watched. The Crimson Tide has one loss, at Texas A&M, but would be favored on a neutral field against every team in the land, with the exception of Georgia.

— Finally, there's the Oregon vs. Ohio State debate.

Our hunch: The committee adheres to its stated priorities and slots Oregon above the Buckeyes. It's the lesser of two controversies and allows for more flexibility moving forward (for reasons we'll address momentarily).

There's also precedent:

In 2017, Oklahoma beat Ohio State in Columbus early in the season, just like Oregon, then lost to an unranked opponent a few weeks later (Iowa State), just like Oregon (Stanford).

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes recovered from the loss to Oklahoma and blistered a series of opponents, as they have this season.

Their final result before the initial CFP rankings in 2017: a close win over Penn State.

Their final result before the initial CFP rankings this season: a close win over Penn State.

What happened? The committee leaned into the head-to-head result and slotted Oklahoma ahead of the Buckeyes — by one spot (No. 5 vs. No. 6).

If Oregon is behind Ohio State on Tuesday afternoon, then the Ducks — and the Pac-12 — have a huge problem. The stretch run circumstances favor the Buckeyes, who finish with showdowns against No. 5 (AP poll) Michigan State and No. 9 Michigan.

Those duels will provide rocket fuel for Ohio State to ascend the rankings and justification for the committee to do whatever the heck it pleases.

Meanwhile, the Ducks are not scheduled to play any ranked opponents because nobody else in the Pac-12 is ranked — at least not in the AP poll.

Which brings us to the final matter worth monitoring this afternoon: Will Oregon be the Pac-12's only representative in the committee's top 25?

(The conference is devoid of two-loss teams and has only three teams with three losses: Arizona State, Oregon State and Utah).

If Oregon stands alone in the rankings, its path into the CFP becomes incrementally more difficult: The Ducks would be slotted below a team, Ohio State, with exponentially more stretch-run upside.

On the bright side for the Pac-12, which has struggled for relevance in recent years:

At least it has something to worry about Tuesday night.


Jon Wilner's Pac-12 Hotline is brought to KSL.com through a partnership with the Bay Area News Group.


Jon Wilner has been covering college sports for decades and is an AP Top 25 football and basketball voter as well as a Heisman Trophy voter. He was named Beat Writer of the Year in 2013 by the Football Writers Association of America for his coverage of the Pac-12, won first place for feature writing in 2016 in the Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest and is a five-time APSE honoree. You can follow him on Twitter @WilnerHotline or send an email at jwilner@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Pac-12 Hotline: Subscribe to the Pac-12 Hotline Newsletter. Pac-12 Hotline is not endorsed or sponsored by the Pac-12 Conference, and the views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Conference.

Jon Wilner

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