When the Big Ten Championship Game kicks off on Saturday, the Ohio State football team won’t be there in Indianapolis playing.
Instead, it will be in Columbus, watching undefeated No. 4 Iowa take on fifth-ranked Michigan State in what is, essentially, a play-in game for the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State on Nov. 21 proved to be what will keep them from playing in the conference title game for the first time since 2013.
It also appears it will keep OSU out of the four-team playoff — unless bedlam breaks out in the three other conference championship games — and in a New Year’s Six bowl as a consolation.
There is still football to be played before final bowl destinations are determined, but as of this week, what is the most likely game OSU will end up in?
After stringing together an exceptional performance against Michigan, OSU now seems poised to welcome in the new year in Pasadena, California, in the Rose Bowl.
Nothing is official, of course, but the Buckeyes showed the college football world that despite a clunker against the Spartans, they still belong in the conversation as one of the nation’s premier teams.
They will likely get that chance in the Rose Bowl.
One of the stipulations of the change to a playoff system was that the conference tie-ins to some of the more prestigious postseason games would not be affected when the bowl is not one of the two semifinal hosts.
Such is the case with the Rose Bowl, meaning the long-established history of pitting the Pac-12 winner against the Big Ten’s champion should happen when it is not a semifinal — except if either conference champion qualifies for the four-program playoff.
As it just so happens this season, the game isn’t a semifinal, but the Big Ten winner is most likely destined for a playoff berth. In such cases, the Rose Bowl committee will select the next-highest ranked team from that particular conference to play in the game, which is why it looks like OSU will receive an invitation to the 102nd playing of the bowl.
Although the latest CFP rankings aren’t due to be released until late Tuesday, two teams ahead of the eighth-ranked Buckeyes lost over the weekend, so it is reasonable to expect them to move up to No. 6.
Sitting in the two spots ahead of them will likely be Iowa and Michigan State, in no particular order. Last week, the Hawkeyes and Spartans were No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, but they could flip-flop.
Nevertheless, OSU will be nipping at both team’s heels. One team has to lose this weekend, as they will play each other.
The winner, as noted, is poised to be in the playoff. The loser will probably slip beneath the Buckeyes in the rankings because of how dominant OSU looked against Michigan. Had OSU just scraped past the Wolverines, it might not be the case, but the Buckeyes looked like the behemoth many expected them to be, which will likely allow them to be ranked ahead of the Big Ten Championship Game loser.
It’s still up in the air, so don’t buy a plane ticket to Pasadena just yet, but the most probable postseason destination for OSU looks to be the Rose Bowl against the winner of Pac-12 Championship Game, which is between Stanford (10-2) and USC (8-4).
If the loser of the Big Ten Championship Game does not end up being ranked below OSU, albeit unlikely to happen, it will play in the Rose Bowl. Even if that does occur, the Buckeyes are a near-lock for an at-large berth in one of the two New Year’s Six games that have no conference tie-ins: the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl.
The other New Year’s Six bowl, the Sugar Bowl, is contracted to be between the Big 12 and SEC champions, or the next highest-ranked team from those conferences if they have a team in the playoff, which Oklahoma and Alabama likely will be.
So, that leaves either the Fiesta or the Peach Bowl as the next-likeliest destinations for OSU if the loser of Michigan State vs. Iowa stays ahead of the Buckeyes in the rankings.
The 12-member CFP committee is in charge of scheduling the matchups for the at-large bowls, meaning it is hard to determine exactly which of the two OSU might end up in.
Regardless, the list of potential opponents for the Buckeyes if they played in the Peach or Fiesta Bowl is intriguing.
It ranges from the Baylor Bears (10-2) of the Big 12, to prestigious Notre Dame (10-2) or the winner of the American Athletic Conference Championship Game between Houston (11-1), which is coached by former OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and Temple (10-2).
Again, this bowl destination is less likely, but as of now, it’s still on the table.
The reality is the odds of OSU still making the four-team playoff are miniscule. In order for it to happen, there would need to be an upset in either the ACC Championship Game between top-ranked Clemson (12-0) and No. 14 North Carolina (11-1) or the SEC title game, which features No. 2 Alabama (11-1) taking on 12th-ranked Florida (10-2).
But even if one of the aforementioned teams does get upset, it isn’t clear-cut that OSU would get in for a few reasons.
If heavy-underdog North Carolina is able to dethrone Clemson, the Tar Heels would be in consideration to sneak into the playoff. It isn’t likely, as it would be a rather large rise in the rankings and they would only have one signature win, but the possibility still exists, regardless of how tiny it might be. However, the Tigers have been the better team all season long, and it will be hard for the Tar Heels to engineer a victory to begin with.
OSU’s best chance to squeak into the playoff would be if Florida is able to upset Alabama. The Gators have been struggling lately after losing their starting quarterback to suspension, barely scraping by Florida Atlantic on Nov. 21 then losing to Florida State 27-2 on Saturday. So if they won, there is relatively no chance they would make the playoff.
But all the reasons why Florida wouldn’t get in if it’s victorious are the same reasons why its chances of pulling off the upset are microscopic. The Crimson Tide are head-and-shoulders a better team than the Gators, so it’s unlikely coach Nick Saban’s team will lose, barring any absurd developments.
The most likely bowl destination for the Buckeyes will be the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day against the winner of the Pac-12 Championship Game, but other possibilities, however far-fetched they may be, still exist if mayhem materializes over the weekend.
And if there is one lesson college football continues to teach, it’s that sometimes the unthinkable becomes reality.
Correction Dec. 2: An earlier version of this article stated that the Big Ten Championship Game was first played in 2013, where in fact, the game was first played in 2011.