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Why Oklahoma could be a better Playoff choice than Ohio State

This could be really close, if both teams win on Saturday.

Oklahoma v West Virginia Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Heading into Rivalry Week, it was not guaranteed that an Ohio State win over Michigan would give the struggling Buckeyes win-and-in Playoff status.

The Buckeyes might’ve erased that doubt by destroying the previous No. 4 team 62-39, shades of that time the Buckeyes booked a 2014 CFP ticket by blasting Wisconsin far worse than anyone predicted.

But don’t forget about Oklahoma.

If Bama and Clemson win their conferences, they’ll join Notre Dame in the field (though it should be noted that OSU destroying ND’s best win was bad for the Irish). With the Pac-12 QUITE out and UCF hopeless, that’d leave the Big Ten and Big 12 champs.

Despite Ohio State putting up one of the year’s most shocking results — I’m aware OSU has owned Michigan for years, but we’re talking within the context of 2018 — OU still has the inside track, ranking No. 5 and one spot ahead of the Buckeyes in Tuesday night’s penultimate rankings.

But with OU squeaking one out at West Virginia amid OSU’s historic win, that gap closed greatly.

The following are guesses on how things could look on Selection Sunday if OSU beats Northwestern to win the Big Ten and OU beats Texas to win the Big 12.

These are factors similar to the kinds of things the committee talks about in public. I’m guessing on all the final CFP rankings here.

Highest-ranked win

  • Ohio State: No. 8 (?) Michigan by 23
  • Oklahoma: No. 15 (?) Texas by ?

Second highest-ranked win

  • Ohio State: at No. 12 (?) Penn State by 1
  • Oklahoma: at No. 16 (?) West Virginia by 3

Third highest-ranked win

  • Ohio State: No. 24 (?) Northwestern by ?
  • Oklahoma: No. 21 (?) Iowa State by 10

Loss excuse

  • Ohio State: Lost at 6-6 Purdue by 29 because Purdue beat the hell out of Ohio State.
  • Oklahoma: Lost to 9-4 Texas by 3 despite dominating yards-per-play, then avenged it in the (pending) Big 12 Championship. If OU wins the Big 12, OU fans should hammer this comparison all night. Public arguments won’t sway the committee, but it feels nice to win them anyway.

Record vs. ranked teams

  • Ohio State: 3-0 (plus unranked loss)
  • Oklahoma: 3-1

Record vs. .500-plus teams

  • Ohio State: 7-1
  • Oklahoma: 7-1

Performance against common opponents

This shouldn’t decide the entire thing, but is one of the committee’s stated tiebreakers. Per S&P+ (and the memories of anyone who watched), one win over TCU was significantly more decisive, though committee chair Rob Mullens curiously called them “comparable.”

  • Ohio State vs. TCU: 40-28 in Arlington, Texas (59 percent S&P+ win expectancy)
  • Oklahoma vs. TCU: 52-27 in Fort Worth, Texas (100 percent S&P+ win expectancy)

Both were before TCU’s injury bug bit hard, so this should boost Oklahoma. TCU head coach Gary Patterson isn’t on the committee, but he agrees with the numbers (which would happen to benefit his conference, but still):

Texas is going to get an opportunity again this next Saturday. I can just tell you guys right now: I don’t want to [face Oklahoma again]. [...]

I played Ohio State. I saw what they did to Michigan today. I’m telling you, I played both. I know who I would rather play again. And who I wouldn’t.

Strength of schedule

“Oklahoma has a little bit stronger schedule than Ohio State at this point,” said the committee’s Mullens, and that particular gap can only grow on Saturday.

SOS is another stated committee tiebreaker. There are a million ways to judge it. Let’s use a couple that incorporate how each team performed, but in different ways.

Here’s Resume S&P+, which gauges how the average Playoff-worthy team would’ve likely fared against each schedule:

  • Ohio State: No. 9
  • Oklahoma: No. 8

And here’s CPI, a raw win percentage metric similar to basketball’s RPI:

  • Ohio State: No. 8
  • Oklahoma: No. 6 (plus OU beating Texas next week would count for more than OSU beating Northwestern)

Advanced rankings (overall, offense, and defense in S&P+)

The committee doesn’t use math quite as smart as opponent-adjusted S&P+, but this is still a good snapshot.

  • Ohio State: 8th, 4th, 35th
  • Oklahoma: 4th, 1st, 84th

That “1st” undersells Oklahoma’s offense. S&P+ judges it to be 10 adjusted points per game better than Ohio State’s. S&P+, which tends to beat the spread, would pick Oklahoma by 3.3 on a neutral field. Vegas would probably favor OU by a little as well:

There’s a chance this all comes down to Oklahoma’s defense.

Does the committee, largely populated by older citizens, trust a team that ranks No. 103 in yards per play allowed? Is this what Frank Beamer wants football to be? It’s repeatedly indicated it prefers “balanced” teams without glaring issues. While the Buckeyes have given up a ton of big plays, that’s not a terrible overall defense.

OU, however, would have the biggest weakness of any Playoff team. (Theoretically, the Horns could knock OU out of the Playoff just by forcing a huge shootout.)

Committee chair Mullens has described Ohio State as also being “carried” by its offense, though.

However, there’s a chance this all comes down to Ohio State’s horrific loss. It probably should!

OU is a bounce or two against a top-15 team away from being undefeated.

Ohio State is absolutely not.

“Every game matters,” right? I would pick Oklahoma based largely on this, but I’m not in charge of anything.

One of Mullens’ first points about OU when asked was that the Sooners’ “only loss is to a ranked Texas at a neutral site.”

The committee isn’t supposed to think about a (potential) OU win over Texas as REVENGE, rather just another data point. It’s hard to deny beating the only team that beat you would be a hell of a closing argument, though.

Assuming OSU and OU win their conferences, the Buckeyes will have been a part of literally every Playoff final four controversy ever.

  • 2014: Ohio State over Baylor and TCU at the buzzer
  • 2015: There were no true controversies, but here was the closest thing: Ohio State was pretty clearly better than the Big Ten teams ahead of it in the CFP rankings (as bowl results helped confirm)
  • 2016: Ohio State became the first team to make the Playoff despite not winning its conference, passing a Penn State that’d won the Big Ten East
  • 2017: Ohio State missed out, thanks to Bama pulling the ole 2016 Ohio State trick
  • 2018: Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, one-loss Power 5 champs