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Why history suggests making the College Football Playoff is the ceiling for Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes

Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, College Football Playoff
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Saturday’s matchup between the Ohio State Buckeyes vs Michigan Wolverines will likely determine who hosts the College Football Playoff Semifinal as the No. 2 seed. However, the winner of the Week 13 clash might not matter as much when examining the Big Ten’s history in the CFP.

The Ohio State vs Michigan rivalry has taken on added significance in recent years thanks to the CFP. Two of the best teams in college football are now routinely ending the regular season with the most highly-anticipated matchup of the regular season and it often impacts the CFP, Heisman Trophy race and more.

However, winning on Saturday and earning a guaranteed spot in the CFP Semifinal might be all there is to celebrate. Below, we’ll examine why the history of the CFB Playoffs suggests just making it in might be the ceiling for Michigan and Ohio State right now.

Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State Buckeyes vs SEC in CFP

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

SEC teams have faced either the Michigan Wolverines or Ohio State Buckeyes four times in playoff history. Michigan lost its lone matchup to Georgia, while the Buckeyes are 1-2 against SEC teams in the playoffs. The lone victory, a Buckeyes’ 32-35 victory over the Crimson Tide in the inaugural CFP Semifinal (2015).

Related: 7 stats to know before Ohio State Buckeyes vs Michigan Wolverines

While it is a small sample size, the head-to-head numbers show that SEC teams have been distinctly better against Ohio State and Michigan in the CFP. We will note, though, that the two Big Ten bluebloods won the battle on third downs and had the turnover margin advantage in three of four games.

CFP stat differentials: SEC teams vs Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines

Total (2015-’23)Average
POINTS+45 (SEC)11.25
TOTAL YARDS+409 (SEC)102.25
TURNOVER MARGINEven0
3rd DOWN DIFFERENTIAL+32.7% (Ohio State/Michigan)-8.2% (SEC)
College Football Playoff statistics via ESPN

Many will rightfully point to the 2023 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl as evidence that Ohio State can go toe-to-toe with SEC teams. It’s true, under the right circumstances. In that 42-41 loss, the Buckeyes’ offense was led by a historic performance from C.J. Stroud with Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. combining for 128 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

In the 2022 Orange Bowl, Georgia crushed Michigan 34-11 and held a 27-6 lead at halftime. Even after they took their foot off the Wolverines’ throat, the Bulldogs outgained Michigan 521-328. One year prior, Mac Jones led the Crimson Tide to a 52-24 victory over the Buckeyes, outgaining Ohio State 621-342.

That brings us to the outlier game. In the 2015 Sugar Bowl, Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims threw three interceptions and the Buckeyes were led by Ezekiel Elliott (230 yards, 2 touchdowns) to a 42-35 victory over Alabama.

While Ohio State will have Egbuka and Harrison Jr. – a future first-round pick and a potential All-Pro at the next level – the level of quarterback play is very different. Stroud is nearly playing at an MVP-caliber level in his rookie NFL season, while Kyle McCord has just been an above-average college quarterback this year. That’s going to make a massive defense in a hypothetical matchup against Georgia.

  • Kyle McCord stats vs pressure: 48.2 NFL QB rating, 38% completion rate, 2-2 TD-INT, 4.0 ypa, 28.0 PFF grade on 84 dropbacks
  • Kyle McCord in clean pocket: 128.8 NFL QB rating, 72.7% completion rate, 20-2 TD-INT, 10.3 ypa, 92.0 PFF grade on 258 dropbacks

Related: NFL power rankings

If the Wolverines beat Ohio State on Saturday, earning the No. 2 spot in the CFP, they should be able to avoid replicating last season’s face of a CFP Semifinal loss to TCU. However, McCarthy’s play has dipped in the latter stages of the season, demonstrating that he might also not be the caliber of quarterback capable of beating Georgia. Based on recent history, it would put Michigan at a significant disadvantage in a potential national championship bout.

In defense of Michigan and Ohio State, though, they aren’t alone. Of course, the SEC’s dominance against other Power 5 programs in the College Football playoffs further highlights their dominance.

SEC teams vs other Power 5 programs in the College Football Playoff

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Texas Christian at Georgia
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just Michigan and Ohio State that routinely prove to be no match for the Wolverines in the College Football Playoffs. The top programs in the SEC have a massive talent advantage and often edge with size and athleticism that has often led Georgia, Alabama and LSU to the national championship.

Across 11 CFP games between SEC teams and Power 5 opponents outside of the Big Ten, there was a massive differential between the teams. It further highlights that programs like the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide have been superior to just about any opponent they face.

CFP stats differentials between SEC vs non-Big Ten teams

Total (2015-’23)Average
POINTS+160 (SEC)+13.3 PPG (SEC)
TOTAL YARDS+1,335 (SEC)+111.5 total ypg (SEC)
TURNOVER MARGIN+10 (SEC)+0.83 per game (SEC)
3rd DOWN DIFFERENTIAL+84.6% better (SEC)+7.05% per game (SEC)
College Football Playoff statistics via ESPN

There are certainly outliers, like Clemson decimating Alabama 44-16 in the 219 national championship game or the Tigers beating the Crimson Tide in a 35-31 shootout two years prior. However, both of those games highlight the difference a generational talent at quarterback makes in these matchups.

It likely won’t be much different when the CFP expands. As for the exceptions, it takes unusual circumstances. When Clemson demolished Alabama 44-16 in the 2019 CFP National Championship Game, the Tigers were led by Trevor Lawrence. Not only was Lawrence the 247 Sports’ No.1. recruit in his 2018 class, but he was rated as one of the 10 best prospects ever and his status as an NFL Draft prospect was put in company with Andrew Luck and John Elway.

  • SEC record in College Football Playoff: 12-3 (excluding SEC vs SEC)
  • Big Ten record in College Football Playoff: 3-7

The only other instance, Clemson’s 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide in the 2017 national championship game, the Tigers were led by Deshaun Watson. While he was originally a four-star recruit, Watson went on to become a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback in the NFL and he won the championship with Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow and a healthy version of Justyn Ross.

Georgia and Alabama don’t necessarily need all-time great college quarterbacks or future perennial Pro Bowl quarterbacks to win national championships. So, while everyone will enjoy the College Football Playoff this year, history will likely repeat itself. Bragging rights will have to be enough because neither the Wolverines nor the Buckeyes seem likely to win a national championship this season.

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