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Hoonhout: Road losses matter most to Playoff Committee

| Monday, December 4, 2017

For the first time in the relatively short history of the College Football Playoff, two teams from the same conference are in the final top-four rankings.

And as disappointed as Urban Meyer and Ohio State are about being left out after winning their conference championship Saturday night, there’s little debate that Alabama is the more talented team. More deserving? Now that’s up for debate.

But through all the controversy, I think there is one factor that shouldn’t be ignored — road losses matter to the Committee. A lot.

It’s tough to win on the road in college football. Especially against good teams. Alabama found that out the hard way against Auburn last week, which put its Playoff hopes in limbo. But those chances were strengthened exponentially when Auburn had the same struggles in the SEC Championship, losing to Georgia in Atlanta — the Bulldogs’ backyard. The 28-7 drubbing was most certainly payback for the beat-down the Tigers gave the Bulldogs on Nov. 11 in Auburn, Alabama.

Compared to the other deserving two teams in the top four, Clemson and Oklahoma, it’s clear that neither program has let a road loss define its season.

For the second year in a row, Clemson rebounded from a regular-season road loss to a weaker conference opponent to win its conference championship — which this year was played in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, no less. The 38-3 domination of Miami was certainly influenced by the proximity factor for the Tigers, and for the Hurricanes, it marked the second-straight road loss after making two statement wins at home against then-No. 13 Virginia Tech and then-No. 3 Notre Dame.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, has perhaps the most impressive road record in the country, starting with a Week 2 win over the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio. The Sooners almost derailed their Playoff train with a disappointing home meltdown against Iowa State, but bounced back to win their final eight games, including a shootout road win over Oklahoma State and a beat down of TCU in the Big 12 Championship in Texas to punch their ticket to the Playoff.

And while Ohio State managed to see out Wisconsin in arguably the most entertaining Power-5 championship of the weekend, it’s telling that the committee couldn’t overlook the one glaring flaw on the Buckeyes’ resume — a Week 9 road meltdown to unranked Iowa. While Ohio State still may have been coming down after an incredible comeback win over then-No. 2 Penn State the week prior, Urban Meyer’s team was simply dominated by the Hawkeyes.

The performance was similar to Alabama’s road loss to Auburn — but the Crimson Tide lost to the No. 6 team in the country at the time, not a team that finished 4-5 in conference play.

It wasn’t Ohio State’s wins that kept it out of the playoff, it was its losses, and one in particular. Maybe if the Buckeyes had won tougher games on the road — the combined record of the teams they beat on the road is 21-27 — and Michigan had lived up to its preseason hype, Columbus would be celebrating right now. But instead, the party is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, despite the fact that the Crimson Tide failed to win the SEC.

The decision might be more controversial if the Committee hadn’t established a precedent of giving non-conference champions a shot at the Playoff last season — with Ohio State, no less.

The Buckeyes finished the regular season 11-1 last year but were denied a shot at the Big Ten crown by Penn State, who beat the Buckeyes in thrilling fashion at home before marching the rest of the way to the Big Ten crown, defeating Wisconsin 38-31 to finish the season 11-2.

But the Committee still went with the Buckeyes over the Nittany Lions in the end. Even though Penn State had the upper hand in the head-to-head, in comparing both team’s road schedules the Nittany Lions fell short, thanks to a disappointing defeat to Pitt in Week 2 and a blowout loss to then-No. 4 Michigan. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, beat both then-No. 14 Oklahoma and then-No. 8 Wisconsin, and only lost by 3 to Penn State, giving them the resume necessary to squeak in.

My, how the tables turn.

So while Ohio State should be disappointed, and deservedly so, there’s no debate that this wasn’t a possibility — and no program should know better than the Buckeyes. At least the Committee has been consistent, establishing the notion that it’s not about who you beat necessarily, it’s just as much about who you lose to, especially on the road.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

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