INDIANAPOLIS — Chase Young has a message for the College Football Playoff selection committee: “I think we’re No. 1,” he said. “Point-blank period.”
In a few hours, we’ll find out if the committee agrees. What we know for sure is who the four best teams in the country are: Ohio State, LSU, Clemson and Oklahoma, although not necessarily in that order. On Saturday night the Buckeyes, the top-ranked team entering conference championship weekend, edged out No. 8 Wisconsin to win their third consecutive Big Ten championship by a score of 34–21. That result came after a nervy first half when Ohio State gave Twitter heart palpitations as it dug itself a decent-sized hold that looked like a 21–7 halftime deficit.
Heading into Saturday, either Ohio State or LSU needed to win convincingly to clinch the top spot on Selection Sunday. Earlier in the afternoon, the No. 2 Tigers flat out embarrassed fourth-ranked Georgia, 37–10, and it could have been worse. The Buckeyes would need nothing short of a 59–0 win over Wisconsin, as they had done to their Western Divisional foe in the 2014 Big Ten championship, to have a true advantage on Selection Sunday.
And then Wisconsin came in with a game plan and executed the you-know-what out of it. Jonathan Taylor came out flying, with runs of 44- and 45-yards in the first half, racking up 135 yards and a touchdown in the first 30 minutes. In his two previous games against Ohio State, Taylor was held to a total of 93 yards on 35 carries. Saturday, he gained 148 on 20 touches. It looked like the Badgers had created a blueprint to beat Ohio State by using a strong defense to limit big plays downfield and get pressure on quarterback Justin Fields, who fumbled in the red zone and endured five sacks while playing with large brace on his left knee to protect an MCL sprain.
Head coach Ryan Day was admittedly nervous going into the locker room at halftime, noting “we had a group of guys who were barking at each other that they weren’t going to leave this place without a win.” Several guys piped up and addressed the team. Senior wide receiver C.J. Saunders was one of them.
“He stood up and told us we two things are going to happen at the end of this game,” tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who made a jaw-dropping one-handed touchdown catch early in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 21–14. “He said, ‘We’re either going to come in here with our heads down or we’re going to be out there celebrating in confetti holding the trophy up.’ His main message was, whatever we believed was going to happen was going to happen.”
Trailing by two scores at the break, Ohio State made adjustments, stormed back and shut Wisconsin out in the second half. The Buckeyes opened up the passing game with Fields, who went 19-of-31 for 299 yards and three touchdowns, quickly finding Chris Olave for 50 yards on the first drive and two plays later hitting Ruckert in the end zone. The Badgers went three-and-out on their next possession, fumbling the punt and giving OSU prime field position. After going essentially untouched in the first half, Ohio State got pressure on quarterback Jack Coan, sacking him twice in the second half. Momentum shifted for good when the Badgers missed a 48-yard field goal with less than six minutes remaining in the third quarter. Fields responded by marching his team 69 yards downfield in seven plays which he capped with a 16-yard touchdown to K.J. Hill, who on that catch became the Buckeyes all-time career receptions leader with 193. That score gave Ohio State its first lead of the game, which it kept for good.
Earlier Saturday morning while being interviewed by College GameDay, selection committee chairman Rob Mullens said that Ohio State’s “consistency and ability to dominate opponents gives them an edge.” At worst, a slow start will cost the Buckeyes a seed. The likely outcome now is that No. 2 LSU becomes No. 1 LSU and will face No. 4 Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, while No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 3 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. While the hope was to avoid Trevor Lawrence & Co., in the semifinal, the Buckeyes don’t really care who they play first.
The committee’s final decision will come down to semantics. Both Ohio State and LSU are conference champions with 13–0 records and have the same amount of notable wins over ranked teams. For what it’s worth, all three of the Buckeyes’ non-conference opponents (Florida Atlantic, Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati) played for their respective conference championship games on Saturday, too. In its non-conference schedule, LSU played Georgia Southern, Texas and Northwestern State, and while the Tigers can say they at least played against a Power 5 team, the Longhorns skidded to a disappointing 7–5 finish to the regular season.
Now, both Ohio State and LSU await to see who the committee believes made the strongest case.
“We should be No. 1,” wide receiver Austin Mack said. “But if not, we’ll be ready [to play anybody].”