My dad, an Ohio State graduate and fan, went to take down his Buckeye inflatable after OSU’s 17–14 loss to Michigan State Saturday and found it had fallen on its side and was buried in three inches of snow. That image was a fitting metaphor for Ohio State’s performance. The Buckeyes have been ridiculed as frauds all year by many, including their own fans. And they finally showed their weakness in falling to the Spartans.
Ezekiel Elliot was underused and ineffective, rushing 12 times for just 33 yards. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was just 9 of 16 passing for 46 yards. This led to multiple missed opportunities that, combined with stifling defense by Michigan State, knocked Ohio State from the ranks of the unbeaten and vaulted the Spartans into an already-crowded field of one-loss teams.
Three of those teams — Baylor, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State — are from the same conference, the Big 12. The Bears (9–1) knocked off the Cowboys (10–1) Saturday, and Oklahoma (10–1) eliminated TCU (9–2) from playoff contention in a 30–29 classic. Should Baylor beat TCU in their grudge match the day after Thanksgiving, the Bears and the winner of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State’s rivalry game on Saturday would each have one loss. And that would set up a debate like the one we saw last year when TCU and Baylor both finished the season with one defeat. Since the Big 12 doesn’t have a conference championship game, neither team got the opportunity to impress the playoff selection committee — and both were left out.
Got all that?
That’s just one reason that the playoff debate is looking extremely cloudy. Here’s how I see it unfolding:
THE FATE OF THE ACC
It’s Clemson’s league to lose, as the Tigers are enjoying their finest campaign since their national title run in 1981. First, though, the top-ranked Tigers must survive rival South Carolina – which they will, barely, as the Gamecocks come out with nothing to lose. Similarly, North Carolina will eke out a gritty win over NC State. Clemson, however, will have little trouble with the Tar Heels in the ACC title game in Charlotte, and Dabo Swinney gets his pizza party as Clemson enters the College Football Playoff as the nation’s No. 1 team. Florida State loses to Florida, costing the Seminoles a New Year’s Day bowl berth.
THE FATE OF THE BIG TEN
It’s fairly simple: If Michigan State wins against Penn State this Saturday, the Spartans are in the Big Ten title game. Shockingly, MSU, after surviving time and time again in the regular season, will fall to the Nittany Lions, who come out swinging and get a late field goal to win it. That means the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game gets a spot in the conference title game. And I see the Buckeyes breathing life into their playoff hopes by defeating Michigan 27–24 and then dropping Iowa in the Big Ten Championship.
THE FATE OF THE BIG 12
It doesn’t matter if you live in the heart of Texas or Nome, Alaska – every college football fan in the nation is salivating over the resolution of the Big 12 race. And they will be rewarded with another fantastic slate of games. Baylor knocks off TCU in Fort Worth to end a disappointing season for the Horned Frogs, while Oklahoma crushes Oklahoma State in Stillwater. A Bears win over Texas the following week guarantees that both Baylor and Oklahoma will finish with one loss.
THE FATE OF THE PAC-12
A disappointing all-around season for the Pac-12 ends with Stanford taking a third loss, 35–24, to Notre Dame. In the conference championship, the Cardinal will meet 8-4 USC with a berth in the Rose Bowl at stake. This time, the Trojans have their way, beating Stanford and wrapping up a trip to Pasadena.
THE FATE OF THE SEC
Warning: It’s anticlimactic. Auburn puts up a fight but falls to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide steamrolls a listless Florida in the SEC Championship to punch their ticket to their second straight playoff.
THE FATE OF EVERYBODY ELSE
As mentioned, Notre Dame beats Stanford Saturday to give the Irish a strong case for the playoff. The American Athletic race sorts itself out, as Houston upsets Navy Friday and then beats Temple for the conference championship and a berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
Clemson easily claims the top playoff seed and a bid to the Orange Bowl, while Alabama has no trouble getting in. Oklahoma checks in at No. 3, leaving Baylor out in the cold. And Ohio State, to the shock of many, will be named the fourth team in the playoff, which will lead a frustrated Notre Dame to join a conference in the near future.
Here are your New Year’s Six bowls, along with their predicted scores:
ROSE: USC 35, Iowa 14
SUGAR: Baylor 38, Florida 17
ORANGE (PLAYOFF): Clemson 24, Ohio State 20
COTTON (PLAYOFF): Alabama 27, Oklahoma 23
FIESTA: Oklahoma State 27, Houston 10
PEACH: Notre Dame 37, Michigan State 17
And your 2015 national championship…
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP: Clemson 26, Alabama 14
The stage is set for a riveting final act to a powerful college football season. This has been, to be sure, one crazy season. The season of the Dropped Punt, the Block Six, and the Miami Miracle. The season of the Big Ten’s return, the SEC’s fall from grace, and the American Athletic Conference making a name for itself. This is the season in which Michigan State led for precisely 0:00 of game time against Ohio State and Michigan and beat both of them.
Almost a dozen teams still have a shot. And for all of them, the time is now.
Photos: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images (Michigan State), Tyler Smith/Getty Images (Clemson), Jamie Sabau/Getty Images (Ohio State), Tom Pennington/Getty Images (Baylor), Ezra Shaw/Getty Images (Stanford), Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images (Alabama)