Why Ohio State is still a favorite to make the playoff

Tim Fuller/Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

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Urban Meyer does not lose many football games. When he does, he often appears completely devastated, as captured by that infamous sad pizza shot.

Yet when Ohio State lost Saturday night to 19-point underdog Penn State – on two brutal special teams gaffes, no less – Meyer appeared surprisingly nonplussed about it while talking to reporters afterward.

Every goal is still alive,” he said of the 6-1 Buckeyes. “We’re not a great team right now, we’ve got to regroup and get guys healthy, come back and keep swinging.”

He’s right — about both parts.

Ohio State’s offense has looked far from great the past two weeks at Wisconsin (a 30-23 overtime win) and Penn State (a 24-21 loss). The Nittany Lions’ pass rush smothered the Buckeyes’ offensive line and sacked J.T. Barrett six times.

Yet as momentous a win as Saturday’s was for James Franklin’s rebuilding Nittany Lions, the reality is it barely altered Ohio State’s path to a playoff berth.

Going into the game, the Buckeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) needed to beat Michigan (7-0, 4-0) on Nov. 26 in order to win their division and conference and be assured a berth in the final four.

One loss later … the Buckeyes need to beat Michigan in order to win their division and conference and be assured a berth in the final four.

If Ohio State wins out it would be a 12-1 Big Ten champ* with wins over the current AP No. 2 (Michigan), No. 7 (Nebraska), No. 11 (Wisconsin) and No. 16 (Oklahoma) teams. There is a roughly 0.1 percent chance that team wouldn’t be considered one of the four best, given there’s also a 0.1 percent chance four Power 5 champs will go undefeated for the first time in BCS/CFP history.

* The one scenario that would prevent the Buckeyes from achieving this would be if Penn State, currently 3-1 in league play, wins out, and Michigan suffers a second conference loss. Ohio State would win a three-way tiebreaker due to Penn State’s loss to Pittsburgh, but not a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Lions.

The committee’s emphasis on “who you beat” rather than “who you lost to” is a refreshing change from the traditional polls, but it’s also created one unanticipated quirk. Which is, virtually every Power 5 team in the country is afforded one mulligan — so long as it comes against an inferior opponent.

And Meyer’s program is the perfect example.

In 2014, Ohio State lost to a mediocre Virginia Tech team in Week 2, and it had zero effect on the Buckeyes’ eventual national championship. That’s because it had zero effect on their ability to win the Big Ten. And the committee values conference championships.

A year later, Ohio State also suffered just one defeat, and it came to a much better team, eventual 12-game winner Michigan State. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, that result allowed the Spartans to win the Big Ten East in place of them. Which killed their chances.

This Penn State defeat falls somewhere in between, a conference loss that’s impactful but hardly crushing. Kind of like the Spartans’ loss to 5-7 Nebraska last year, or Oklahoma’s to 5-7 Texas.

The weird lesson here: If you’re going to lose, lose to someone bad.

Just look at 6-1 Louisville, whose heartbreaking Oct. 1 loss to Clemson has left it to hope the Tigers lose this week to Florida State and then again after that. The Cardinals would have been better off beating Clemson but losing to Virginia.

It’s a weird idiosyncrasy, but it’s why, as Meyer said, “every goal is still alive” for the Buckeyes.

Whether they can actually pull it off is another story.

It turns out Ohio State’s impressive offensive performance against Oklahoma in Week 3 was an aberration, due in large part perhaps to the Sooners’ horrendous defense – one that allowed 800 yards to one player Saturday (Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes). The Buckeyes rank 82nd nationally in pass plays that gained 10-plus yards (57).

Which, of course, has Michigan fans licking their chops. The Wolverines happen to field the nation’s No. 1 pass defense (4.7 yards per attempt) and have been dominant in nearly every game.

But be careful when evaluating results in a vacuum. While Ohio State has played three road games against Top 25 foes – the last two back-to-back against teams coming off a bye – Michigan has played one road game, period. Against Rutgers.

Meanwhile, Meyer has a history of rebounding pretty decently from losses. All three of his national title teams (2006 and ’08 Florida and ’14 Ohio State) suffered a loss in September or October, and all three were clicking on offense before late November. Last year’s team had its two best offensive games of the season immediately after the Michigan State debacle.

Maybe that improvement doesn’t happen this year. Maybe the Buckeyes simply don’t have enough dominant pass protectors or dangerous deep threats to counter Michigan defensive stars Jabrill Peppers and Jourdan Lewis.

But as of today, the stakes for that Nov. 26 showdown in Columbus remain unchanged.

And now, a few more takeaways from Week 8 as we reset the landscape for Week 9.

Colorado’s going bowling (and it’s no big deal)

With a 10-5 win at Stanford, Colorado, now 6-2, clinched bowl eligibility for the first time since 2007. Which might be considered a landmark moment for a program that went 14-48 in the five seasons prior to this one.

There was not a celebration that we’re going to a bowl. To be honest, that wasn’t even said in our locker room [afterward],” fourth-year coach Mike MacIntyre told FOX Sports. “The kids’ mindset has been to win the Pac-12 South, win the Pac-12 championship game. We’re one step closer to our ultimate goal.”

MacIntyre said he knew had a good team on his hands by the first week of preseason practice and began hammering home the Pac-12 goal in hopes of building their confidence after years of losing. “I don’t know if they all believed it in there,” he said, “but now they all do.”

The most impressive aspect of CU’s resurgence has been its surprisingly stout defense, currently ranked 11th nationally (4.57 yards per play) after finishing 83rd in 2015. Former USF head coach Jim Leavitt came in last year and installed a 3-4 scheme. All but one starter is a junior or senior, most of them multi-year starters.

The Buffs enter their bye week tied for first in the South with Utah, both 4-1, so that division title goal is very much in play. And in fact the league’s two newest members could stage a play-in duel come their annual “rivalry game” on Nov. 26.

It’s great to have Leonard Fournette back

When he’s healthy and/or not hampered by a horrendously one-dimensional offense, no player besides Lamar Jackson produces more jaw-dropping highlights than LSU’s star running back. Saturday night against Ole Miss, in his first action in a month, the junior broke off touchdowns of 59, 76 and 78 yards to finish with 284 yards on just 16 carries.

LSU (5-2, 3-1 SEC), which beat the Rebels 38-21, definitely looks like a different team under interim coach Ed Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Also, though, those two early losses that got Les Miles fired came against teams now ranked No. 3 (Auburn) and No. 4 (Wisconsin) nationally in scoring defense.

Ole Miss’ defense, on the other hand, ranks 88th in that department. Tougher tests lay ahead for the Tigers against Alabama (No. 7), Florida (No. 2) and Texas A&M (No. 27).

Speaking of SEC West teams that appear much better than initially assumed …

Gus Malzahn is a genius again

One of the great mysteries of 2015 and early 2016 was how Auburn’s long-respected offensive guru had allowed his offense to deteriorate to such depths. Last season the Tigers ranked 70th in yards per rushing attempt (4.35). Four games into this season, things didn’t look much different.

On Saturday against Arkansas, though, Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) averaged nearly 10 yards per carry, racking up a staggering 543 yards on the ground in a 56-3 clinic. The Tigers rank fifth in the country in rushing over their past three games; just as importantly, quarterback Sean White is completing 74 percent of his admittedly limited pass attempts (15.3 per game).

If all this sounds familiar … Malzahn’s 2013 offense was also fairly unremarkable early; by year’s end it was rushing for 545 yards in the SEC title game. Are White and Kamryn Pettway this year’s Nick Marshall and Tre Mason? And if so, should Nick Saban be concerned?

Utah found a running back just in the nick of time

On Sept. 13, Utah starting running back Joe Williams abruptly announced he was retiring from football. The news barely registered given he’d run for just 75 yards in his first two games. A month later, after a glut of injuries left the Utes playing a sixth-string running back, coaches asked if he’d return. Which he did.

In his second game back Saturday, Williams rushed for a school-record 332 yards and four touchdowns in a 52-45 win at UCLA.

We are lucky to have Joe back,” Utah running backs coach Dennis Erickson told FOX Sports. “Once he gets into the secondary, he’s hard to catch.”

This week, No. 4 Washington (7-0, 4-0) heads to Salt Lake to visit 17th-ranked Utah  (7-1, 4-1). It’s the Huskies’ toughest test to date, but if Utah’s offense looked like it had for much of the season, U-Dub’s Top 15 defense wouldn’t have much to worry about. But in addition to Williams’ surge and the Utes’ improved offensive line play, impressive freshman Zack Moss is returning to health.

“[Williams] went through a lot of things privately in his life, physically and mentally. He felt he wasn’t doing what he needed to help the team,” said Erickson. “He’s a different guy right now running the football.”

Charlie Strong is now a lame duck walking

No need to belabor all the trials and tribulations of Strong’s three-year Texas tenure. End of day, the Longhorns are 3-4 for the third straight year following a 24-21 loss at Kansas State. This isn’t heading for a happy ending.

The only guy in Texas who had a rougher week is Strong’s presumed successor, Houston coach Tom Herman, who on Monday found out that the Cougars won’t be joining the Big 12 next year, and then saw 3-4 SMU drub his formerly sixth-ranked team 38-16. Houston (6-2, 3-2), which once had its sights on no worse than the Cotton Bowl, is now more likely to land in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Herman may well be in Austin by then.

Just for fun …

Last Thursday, BYU coach Kalani Sitake made the strangest strategic decision in many years, calling a fake punt on fourth and 19 from his own 5-yard-line that (LINK) went horribly wrong. Sitake’s explanation during a halftime interview only proved more mystifying.

“Well, on film we thought we had it,” Sitake told ESPN sideline reporter Paul Carcaterra.

He saw something to indicate his punter could run roughly 30 yards untouched, starting from his own end zone?

“We wanted to be aggressive,” he continued. “We came here to win the game.”

Usually we commend coaches for, say, going for it on fourth and 2 from their own 40. This, on the other hand, was not aggressive so much as it was maniacal.

“They made a great adjustment — something that we haven't seen in prior games,” said Sitake, and by adjustment he meant, “they tackled the punter.”

We know Saturday Night Live is occupied right now with the election, but we’re wondering if the show might consider dusting off a classic sketch and sending a pair of these dandies to Provo.