COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When it comes time to set the College Football Playoff field, the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 could be enormous. About as large as the distance between Clemson, South Carolina, and Salt Lake City.
With a chance to make a statement that it belonged atop the rankings, Ohio State caught a case of fumbilitis and let No. 9 Penn State hang around on a wet Saturday at the Horseshoe. Pushed for the first time this season, the second-ranked Buckeyes (10-0, No. 2 CFP) responded and comfortably put the Nittany Lions away without scoring a fourth-quarter point.
“Having this slugfest under our belt is going to be good for us in the long run,” Buckeyes center Josh Myers said.
Yes, it should help the Buckeyes to be battle-tested against Michigan next week and in the Big Ten championship next month. Even more so, it could help them if/when they reach the playoff.
But in the beauty pageant that is the playoff selection process, the Buckeyes’ victory might not have been pretty enough to convince the committee they should be No. 1.
There is still time to change hearts and minds. Heck, there is still plenty of time for Ohio State to play itself right out of the playoff.
But right now, LSU owns the top seed based mostly on resume (wins over Alabama, Florida and Auburn. Side note: That victory at Texas is not aging quite so well) and unbeaten Clemson is third. The Buckeyes can now add Penn State to victories against ranked teams Cincinnati and Wisconsin. Each of their games this season has been decided by double-digits.
The Tigers, Buckeyes and Tigers are all firmly in control of their path to the postseason.
Without a chance to beat any highly ranked opponents, Clemson looks locked into No. 3 with LSU and Ohio State competing for No. 1. The fourth spot? If form holds, that could be Alabama without Tua Tagovailoa. Or No. 7 Utah, as a one-loss Pac-12 champion. Maybe Oklahoma or Baylor out of the Big 12.
All of those would be a preferable matchup to facing Clemson. Rag on the strength of the Atlantic Coast Conference all you want. It is deserved. But Clemson is still a monster, with Trevor Lawrence looking more and more like the player who cut up Notre Dame and Alabama in the playoff last year.
If finishing No. 1 means avoiding the defending national champions, then finishing No. 1 is a big deal.
The Buckeyes can still make the case they are a more complete team than LSU. Saturday’s game flipped on three lost fumbles by the Buckeyes. One by Justin Fields right before he dove across the goal line kept Ohio State from going up 14-0 after two possessions.
After going up 21-0 in the third quarter, things got dicey. Two more Ohio State fumbles deep in its own territory led to 10 points, and just like that it was 21-17.
The Buckeyes restored order with a touchdown and then smothered Penn State behind another Heisman-worthy performance by Chase Young. The junior defensive end returned from two-game suspension for an NCAA violation that occurred last year and had three more sacks. Ohio State has both an elite offense and an elite defense; LSU has just the former.
Ohio State-Penn State felt a little like LSU-Auburn, won 23-20 by LSU. In both cases, the winning team outgained the loser big and mostly controlled the game, but some miscues kept it close.
Ohio State can still add a road win against Michigan and either Minnesota or Wisconsin to its list of impressive victories. LSU gets Texas A&M next week and an SEC championship game against Georgia, which beat A&M but continues to show no signs of having an offense that can keep up with the Tigers.
Nothing is guaranteed for the Buckeyes and Bulldogs, but style points might count, too.
“This was hard today,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day. “We learned some lessons and hopefully we can go from there.”
The Pac-12 was just four victories away, two by Oregon and two by Utah, from setting up what would have been its most interesting conference championship since the league started playing the game in 2011.
Two 11-1 teams with a chance to make the playoff. Perfect.
Nope. No. 6 Oregon’s offense disappeared for more the three quarters and by the time the Ducks and Justin Herbert found a groove, the defense broke down and Arizona State pulled off the upset.
The Ducks already had the Pac-12 North locked up, but the loss ends their playoff hopes and hurts the Utes, too. Utah, trying to take care of its business Saturday night at Arizona, has been dominant but lacks high-value victories on its resumes.
The Pac-12’s loss is the Big 12’s gain. Victories by Oklahoma and Baylor mean they are still on course for a battle of 11-1s in the conference title game.
It was also a good day for No. 5 Alabama. The committee has said it will be watching closely as the Tide face Auburn next week with backup quarterback Mac Jones.
AROUND THE COUNTRY: Baylor made it back before Texas. The Bears pounded the Longhorns, clinching a spot in the Big 12 championship game and snapping a four-game losing streak to Texas. In coach Tom Herman’s third season in Austin, the Longhorns need to beat Texas Tech next week to avoid a 6-6 regular season. Meanwhile, Matt Rhule took over a program demolished by scandal and has gone from 1-11 in Year 1 to playoff contender in Year 3. Maybe Texas hired the wrong American Athletic Conference coach in 2016? ... No. 12 Michigan will come rolling into the Ohio State on a four-game winning streak after handling Indiana and playing about as well as, well, as it was playing last year when the Wolverines were crushed by the Buckeyes in Columbus. Credit the Wolverines for turning around a season that was teetering after some ugly early performances. Though it’s doubtful many will credit coach Jim Harbaugh for anything if he loses to the Buckeyes again. Not fair. But that’s his life right now. ... No. 15 Notre Dame is a victory away against a struggling Stanford team from its third double-digit victory season in a row under Brian Kelly. The Irish have never won on the Farm in nine seasons under Kelly, but now is as good a time as ever to break that streak. Stanford lost its rivalry game to California for the first time since 2009, eliminating the Cardinal from bowl contention and sending the Bears to the postseason ... The Irish ripped Boston College to get to 9-2 and drop the Eagles to 5-6. They are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2015, which could put coach Steve Addazio in a precarious spot ... The Big Ten West championship game is set for next week in Minnesota, with the 11th-ranked Gophers facing No. 14 Wisconsin in a game that will likely draw ESPN’s “College GameDay” to the Twins Cities for the first time. ... The week after Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor became the first FBS player to have three 200-yard games in a career against the same team (Nebraska) he had his third career 200-yard rushing game against Purdue. ... Virginia Tech’s humiliating home loss to Duke seems like a million years ago. The Hokies posted their second straight shutout, in retiring defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s final home game, to set up a division title game against rival Virginia next week. ... Clay Helton might not be around to benefit, but whoever is coaching Southern California next season will have a quarterback to build around in Kedon Slovis. The freshman passed for 515 yards in a victory against UCLA. ... No. 18 Memphis needs to beat No. 17 Cincinnati next week at home and then do it again in the American Athletic Conference championship the following week to all but lock up a bid the Cotton Bowl.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen http://www.westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/APTop25CollegeFootballPoll and https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25