Forward Pass: One-loss Ohio State vs. two-loss SEC debate begins

Two coaches, two big road wins, two different reactions Saturday night.

In chilly East Lansing, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hardly minded the Gatorade bath his players treated him to following their 49-37 triumph over seventh-ranked Michigan State. He further basked in the moment during a postgame news conference.

“This is one for the ages," declared Meyer, who improved to 21-0 in Big Ten regular-season games but had never beaten a top-15 team during that span.  "That’s how much respect we had for our opponent going into it. … We played a top-10 team and really played our best on the road.”

Meanwhile, in a cramped media room at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Alabama coach Nick Saban stopped for a congratulatory kiss from his wife, Terry, on his way up to discuss his team’s 20-13 overtime survival of No. 14 LSU.

“That was beautiful,” she exclaimed.

“That was hard,” replied Saban, who went on to tell reporters: “It was a great win, but do we think we played a great game today? Probably not one of our best.”

The two scenes encapsulated a fundamental difference — not between those coaches, mind you, but the roads their teams must face for a shot at the College Football Playoff. For Ohio State, beating Michigan State was essentially its Super Bowl, and putting up 49 points on the Spartans’ defense was its tour de force. Quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes showed definitively that their awful Week 2 Virginia Tech loss might as well have been three years ago at this point. Those 50-plus point beatdowns of Rutgers and Illinois were no fluke.

But in the mediocre Big Ten, Ohio State gets a limited number of opportunities to state its case. In fact the Buckeyes likely won’t get another until the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7. Even the 7-2 Minnesota team it visits this weekend has not yet cracked the AP Top 25.

For Alabama, on the other hand, driving for a game-tying field goal with less than a minute left to eventually beat a top-15 LSU team on its home field was just the beginning of a torturous closing stretch. The Tide turn around this week and host top-ranked, undefeated Mississippi State. An Iron Bowl date with Auburn awaits two weeks after that. Win both of those and only then is the SEC championship game a certainty.

WEEK 12 WINNERS & LOSERS

With Texas A&M taking down No. 3 Auburn 41-38 on Saturday, Mississippi State and Alabama are the SEC’s lone reaming teams with fewer than two losses, which means most consider them the league’s only remaining playoff contenders. Under old BCS/AP/coaches poll logic, the loser of Saturday’s showdown would likely fall to the back of the pack as well.

In the new era, though, that’s not necessarily the case. After all, we were told the selection committee would pick the four best teams, not the four teams with the fewest losses. If that’s the case, Tuesday’s rankings will be an interesting litmus test. Specifically, just how high will the Buckeyes — 14th last week — jump this week? And will it automatically pass every two-loss team?

Because the reality is, they shouldn’t.

Scream #SECBias if you must, but whoever comes out of the SEC West will have survived a much tougher meat-grinder than the Buckeyes or any other Big Ten team. And yes, that means even an 11-2 Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State or Ole Miss team that claims the SEC championship will likely have a better claim to “four best” than 12-1 Ohio State will if it fends off Minnesota (which lost to Illinois), Indiana (which did beat current SEC East frontrunner Missouri but is 0-5 in the Big Ten) and Michigan (which survived Northwestern 10-9 on Saturday when Wildcats quarterback Trevor Siemian slipped and fell before he could attempt a game-winning two-point conversion).

Mind you, this scenario could be moot if there’s more attrition around the country. Right now the Big Ten is clearly fifth in the pecking order behind the SEC, undefeated Florida State of the ACC, a likely one-loss Big 12 champ and likely one-loss Pac-12 champ. If the ‘Noles lose or if, say, two-loss UCLA gets to the Pac-12 title game and upsets Oregon, the Buckeyes control their destiny. It would get thornier, though, if SEC West cannibalization continues because it seems less certain Ohio State would slide into that spot. It would breathe easier if the winner of the woeful East pulls an upset in Atlanta.

Asked after Saturday’s win whether Ohio State is a playoff team, Meyer replied, “I think it is because I love my team. … That darn [Virginia Tech] loss, that second game, that hurts us, but I’ll take the hit for that because it was a young team that is [now] playing at an extremely high level."

It’s not Virginia Tech holding the Buckeyes back at this point. It’s the rest of their conference. In its first two sets of rankings the committee has made abundantly clear just how much it values quality wins. The teams that ultimately reach the playoff will likely all have at least three or four top 25-caliber wins. Ohio State only now claimed its first. It was a tremendous win without question, but that’s still going to be a tough sell.

We’ll find out Tuesday how much progress the Buckeyes made.

BIG 12 COULD GET REALLY UGLY

Remember the Big 12’s infamous 2008 three-way tie that resulted in an ugly lobbying political campaign between Texas and Oklahoma for BCS standings supremacy? That may soon seem quaint if the conference that trumpets One True Champion winds up with two come the selection committee’s final meeting.

On Saturday, Baylor went to Norman and trounced Oklahoma, 48-14, ending in emphatic fashion a 37-game, 23-year winless streak in road games against ranked opponents. That night, TCU blew out then-frontrunner Kansas State, 41-20, in another incredible showing by Trevone Boykin and the Frogs offense.

As of today, TCU, Baylor and K-State are all tied for first at 5-1 in conference play, but the Bears host the Wildcats on Dec. 6. Since the Big 12 does not play a conference championship game, it’s increasingly plausible that Baylor and TCU will finish as 11-1, 8-1 Big 12 co-champions. And that could get sticky. As of last week, the committee had the Horned Frogs six spots higher than the Bears despite Baylor winning their Oct. 11 meeting 61-58.

The Big 12 uses head-to-head results as its tiebreaker in determining the league’s automatic berth in one of the New Year’s Six bowls, but the committee is not obligated to follow that protocol when producing the order of its final rankings. Head-to-head is one of the factors it’s supposed to consider — but so are conference championships and overall body of work.

When I asked CFP executive director Bill Hancock about this type of scenario Sunday, he told me, “Any time there are co-champions and there is no [conference] championship game, the committee will consider them both champions. As always, they will look at the other criteria.”

When I asked Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby shortly thereafter about the same scenario, he said, “It’s a great question. We certainly would ask [the committee] to take into consideration head-to-head matchups. If you make the assumption that TCU and Baylor might win out, you’d have them with the same record, and Baylor would have the head-to-head. It’s one of the things the committee has pledged to take into account.”

Hancock came back shortly after that with a more nebulous statement. “The conferences will advise the committee who their champions are. If a conference has co-champions, then the committee will take that into consideration.”

Think this could get a little bit ugly?

Anytime you start preemptively worrying about end-of-season scenarios they inevitably don’t come to pass, though TCU’s remaining schedule of 3-6 Kansas, 5-5 Texas and 2-7 Iowa State makes it a pretty sure bet to reach 11-1. And it’s probably going to be no lower than fifth in this week’s committee rankings. Baylor, 12th last week, will likely make up considerable ground, but it still has games remaining against 5-4 Oklahoma State and 7-2 Kansas State.

If the Bears win out, though, the committee may have a tough decision. On one hand, Baylor beat TCU fair and square. Plenty of people will say any debate ends right there. But others will question whether a last-second, three-point road loss necessarily trumps the Frogs’ entire 12-game schedule, one that includes a non-conference win over 7-2 Minnesota. Baylor, by contrast, played 0-8 SMU, 3-6 Buffalo and FCS Northwestern State and lost by two touchdowns at 6-4 West Virginia.

There’s one easy solution here: The committee could take two Big 12 teams. That actually seems more plausible at this point than two SEC schools getting in.

ASU NOW MAKING NATIONAL NOISE

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s temper is well-documented at this point. He seemed particularly hot under the collar, however, following Saturday’s 55-31 loss at Arizona State in which quarterback Everett Golson coughed up five turnovers, crushing any remaining ND playoff hopes.

“Everything that we practiced, everything that we saw last year [against ASU], we saw this year. Absolutely no change in what they did,” he said. “Which makes [the turnovers] even more maddening and frustrating.”

Apprised of those comments Sunday, Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said he has “all the respect in the world” for Kelly but offered a slightly different take on what transpired.

“With what we do, it’s one thing to look at it in practice, it’s another to play against the speed and passion with which our guys play,” Graham told FOX Sports. “We had a lot to do with those turnovers.”

Even for a team already ranked ninth by the committee, the Sun Devils’ dizzying performance against the Irish — jumping to a 34-3 second-quarter lead, allowing 28 unanswered points, then pulling away late — served notice that Graham’s team doesn’t plan to fall back off the national radar. Far removed now from a 62-27 home loss to UCLA on Sept. 25, 8-1 ASU has tolled off five straight wins, with its defense playing the starring role. While it surrendered 487 yards and four touchdowns Saturday, it also sacked Golson seven times in addition to four interceptions (two of them pick-sixes) and two fumble recoveries.

“We want to establish a place that plays great defense. That’s how you win championships,” said third-year coach Graham, whose team has won 21 of its past 26 games. “No one attacks in the country more than we do. Something we pride ourselves in is tackles for loss and forced fumbles. The game went exactly as we planned.”

The notorious job-wanderer Graham, who became just the fifth coach to beat Notre Dame at two different schools (his Tulsa team beat Kelly’s first team in 2010), calls this year’s Sun Devils “the best team I’ve ever coached.” They still have some work to do, though, to return to the Pac-12 championship game for a second straight year. They should cruise the next two weeks against 4-5 Oregon State and 3-7 Washington State, but they end at 7-2 rival Arizona, one of four teams that can still win the South.

Oregon, meanwhile, clinched the Pac-12 North with Saturday’s 51-27 win at Utah, a game as noteworthy for Utes receiver Kaelin Clay’s mind-numbing blown touchdown as Marcus Mariota’s latest masterpiece. The conference would love nothing more for its first championship game at Levi’s Stadium than a de facto Elite Eight game between two 11-1 teams.

ASU hosted last year’s league title game, a dud in which Stanford clobbered the Sun Devils for the second time that season. Despite winning 10 games, ASU barely made a dent on the national scene. Nothing raises awareness, though, like throttling a top-10 Notre Dame team on national television.

“It was one of the most special wins I’ve ever been part of,” said Graham.

THIS WEEK’S BOWL FORECAST

Each week, I’ll update my predicted lineup for the New Year’s Six bowls based on the latest week’s games.

Peach: Auburn (at-large) vs. East Carolina (Group of 5)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S BEST UNIFORMS

Fiesta: Arizona State (at-large) vs. Michigan State (at-large)

Orange: Clemson (ACC) vs. Mississippi State (B1G/SEC/ND)

Cotton: Ohio State (Big Ten champ) vs. Baylor (at-large)

Sugar (semifinal): No. 1 Florida State (ACC champ) vs. No. 4 TCU (Big 12 champ)

Rose (semifinal): No. 2 Alabama (SEC champ) vs. No. 3 Oregon (Pac-12 champ)

NOTE: I will publish my full 39-game bowl projections Tuesday.

We’re reaching the point where these projections are no longer blind guesswork, but I’m still far from confident forecasting how the rest of the SEC season will play out. Is this Alabama team really good enough to beat possibly three more top-15 teams? I have no idea. I’ll ride the Tide for now and adjust accordingly.

I’LL BE KEEPING AN EYE ON …

* Louisville S Gerod Holliman. With three interceptions against Boston College, Holliman now has 13 picks on the season, one shy of the FBS record. And hey, what do you know, in two weeks he faces Notre Dame.

* UCLA LB Myles Jack. Did we forget about this guy? The Bruins’ two-way star broke a 28-yard touchdown run while also notching six tackles to outduel Washington’s Shaq Thompson (16 carries, 100 yards, four tackles) in a 44-30 win.

* Texas. Charlie Strong’s rebuilding Longhorns quietly reached .500 with Saturday’s upset of West Virginia. Texas, 5-5, has a chance to get bowl-eligible at Oklahoma State, which seemed unlikely not too long ago.

* Tennessee. Similarly, the Vols are just 4-5 as of today but close with home games against Kentucky and Missouri and at Vanderbilt. Tennessee should reach its first bowl in four years and maybe even reach 7-5.

* The FCS playoff chase. Northern Iowa ended North Dakota State’s 33-game win streak Saturday, 23-3. Will the three-time champion Bison’s reign end? Eastern Washington, with star QB Vernon Adams back, seems a better bet.

THIS WEEK’S COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATE

BEST COLLEGE FOOTBALL STADIUMS

Minnesota’s Jerry Kill. The Gophers are tied for first in the Big Ten West following a 51-14 rout of Iowa in which the defense held Iowa RB Mark Weisman to 21 yards on 14 carries. “The last three years they’ve run it up our tail end,” said Kill, whose quarterback, Mitch Leidner, came in with six TD passes and threw four on 10 completions. He can coach just a little bit.

THIS WEEK’S COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT

Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and Iowa State’s Paul Rhoads. On a brutal Saturday for the state, Rhoads’ 2-7 Cyclones and Ferentz’s Hawkeyes battled to see who could commit the worse indignity. With a 34-14 loss to lowly Kansas, the Cyclones are now 0-6 in the Big 12. Ferentz’s insane contract protects him for eternity, but Rhoads may be in trouble.

ON TO NEXT WEEKEND

Three games we’re most excited for:

* No. 1 Mississippi State at No. 3 Alabama (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The Bulldogs may be No. 1 in 2014 but they are 18-77-3 all-time against Alabama. It’s Dak Prescott’s opportunity to possibly deliver a monumental win for his school.

* No. 2 Florida State at Miami (Saturday, 8 ET). It’s not quite ‘90s/early 2000s ‘Noles-‘Canes, but there’s something special about FSU putting its 25-game winning streak on the line against its quietly improving archrival.

* No. 9 Auburn at No. 16 Georgia (Saturday, 7:15 ET). Todd Gurley makes his triumphant return as the Dawgs look to stay alive in the SEC East. It will be interesting to see how Auburn bounces back from the Texas A&M loss.

Three games you shouldn’t miss:

* No. 11 Nebraska at No. 22 Wisconsin (Saturday, 3:30 ET). The Huskers have managed to go 8-1 unnoticed, but you’ll want to watch them here. It’s Melvin Gordon vs. Ameer Abdullah in a likely elimination game in the Big Ten West.

* Missouri at Texas A&M (Saturday, 7:30 ET). You can watch the SEC East race play out in real time as the Tigers will be attempting to preserve their one-game lead at the same exact time Georgia will be fighting to keep pace.

* No. 18 Clemson at No. 24 Georgia Tech (Saturday, Noon ET). If you assume Florida State is going to the playoff then the winner of this clash of ranked teams may be heading to the Orange Bowl as the Seminoles’ replacement.

One under-the-radar gem:

* East Carolina at Cincinnati (Thursday, 7 ET). It’s a showdown between two of the four teams currently tied for first in the loss column in the American conference. It’s also Shane Carden vs. Gunner Kiel. The ball will be in the air.

Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, “The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff,” is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.