Ohio State’s margin for error is narrow because all potential opponents have at least one loss. Wisconsin, winner of its division five of the last seven years, lost to Brigham Young (3-2) at home. Michigan State lost to Arizona State (3-2) at home. Michigan’s only loss came at Notre Dame in the season-opener, which means the 115th Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game, in Columbus, may yet hold playoff implications, though Michigan looked far from playoff-worthy Saturday.
The precarious situation is familiar for the conference. The SEC is the dominant league of the playoff era: it is one of only two conferences to send a member to the postseason in each of its four years, the only league to send two teams in the same year, and is the winner, via Alabama, of two titles. But the Big Ten has been the playoff era’s protagonist, alternately victorious and frustrated, and representing the delicate competitive atmosphere.
For all its heritage and justified pride, the Big Ten has struggled competitively in football in recent years (and historically in the Rose Bowl) as the sport’s center of gravity and talent pool has steadily shifted south. In the 20 years of a unified postseason, the Big Ten has captured just two national titles — both by Ohio State.
The four years of the playoff have featured particularly vertiginous ups and downs. The 2014 season saw the Buckeyes sneak into the playoff with a third-string quarterback — and then defeat Alabama and Oregon for the championship. The following season, a Spartans team with miraculous wins at Michigan (the blocked punt) and at Ohio State met Alabama and got demolished. The following year, eventual champion Clemson drubbed Ohio State, 31-0. Last year was the greatest disaster yet, with no members in at all.
And yet the Big Ten has arguably possessed the most depth at the top. In the playoff committee’s final rankings, it has had more top-ten teams than even the SEC; in 2016, four of its teams were in the top ten, compared to just Alabama from the SEC. With Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and James Franklin at Penn State, its marquee programs have historically successful leadership, while Michigan State and Wisconsin perennially punch above their weights.
If Ohio State does make it to the playoff, it will have run quite a gantlet, with games versus Michigan State and Michigan still to come in November. Ditto Michigan, whose loss to Notre Dame could be forgiven if the Irish turn out to have beaten everyone else, too.