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How Ohio State could reach CFP even without conference title

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Can UNC upset Clemson? (1:37)

ESPN's Danny Kanell and Paul Finebaum explain if they think North Carolina can pull off an upset against Clemson in the ACC championship game. (1:37)

The College Football Playoff selection committee has every statistic imaginable at its fingertips, including 128 "team sheets" in their playoff binder that list each team's overall results, strength of schedule and statistics.

There's also one more very important detail at the top of the page, where it reads "Conference champion" -- followed by a yes or no.

This just in: Ohio State isn't going to be one this season.

Considering how well the defending national champs played in Saturday's 42-13 dismantling of Michigan, speculation began immediately as to whether Ohio State could still sneak into the Dec. 6 top four with its 11-1 record, the lone loss being to Michigan State.

It can, but not without significant help.

The selection committee's protocol certainly allows for it to be considered, and there is no limit on how many teams from one conference can be in the top four. But there is a caveat: The committee may select a non-champion or independent "under circumstances where that particular non-champion or independent is unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country."

Unequivocally as in "clearly," according to CFP executive director Bill Hancock and selection committee chair Jeff Long.

"They're clearly ahead or they're clearly better than the team they're up against," Long said last week, not referring to any particular team.

Neither Hancock nor Long -- nor anyone else on the committee or within the playoff organization, for that matter -- could possibly define the true value of winning a conference championship until the committee is actually faced with the scenario of considering a non-champion for one of its top four spots.

And the only way Ohio State should garner any consideration at this point is with absolute chaos in Saturday's title games. Ohio State has just one win against a ranked opponent -- Michigan. Ohio State has beaten only two Power 5 opponents -- Penn State and Michigan -- with records over .500.

If the Buckeyes somehow sneak in, it's because they passed the eye test in one game -- The Game.

The reality of the situation is this: If Clemson and Alabama both win, the top four should all be Power 5 conference champions, consisting of the Tigers, Crimson Tide, Oklahoma and the winner of the Big Ten championship game -- either Iowa or Michigan State.

The Ohio State debate turns into a serious conversation only if Stanford and either Clemson or Alabama lose. Stanford is the catch, because if it wins the Pac-12, the Cardinal should be the next team in if either Alabama or Clemson lose, and the committee snubs North Carolina. Stanford would likely get the nod over the Buckeyes in spite of its two losses because of its conference title. If there are two teams with comparable résumés, the conference title is essentially used as a tiebreaker, though none of the committee's criteria are actually weighted.

If Alabama loses to Florida -- a scenario which seems about as likely as Nick Saban losing his way home -- the SEC should be out. Florida has two losses and hasn't looked like a top-10 team in November, let alone a top-four team.

If Clemson loses, North Carolina would have to be considered as a one-loss ACC champ, but two of its wins have come against FCS teams and Clemson would be the only currently ranked opponent it has beaten all season. If Stanford loses to USC, the Pac-12 is out because the Trojans have four losses, and there's no way the committee puts a four-loss team in the top four.

The most perplexing puzzle for the committee to consider would be ACC champ North Carolina versus Ohio State. Eye test says Buckeyes. Protocol says Tar Heels -- or does it?

The answer depends on how much the committee values winning a conference title (which, ironically, Ohio State can attest to after last season), and how highly the 12 members of the committee regard the Buckeyes.

Last year, Ohio State's win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game was the final push the Buckeyes needed to crack the committee's top four for the first time all season.

"It mattered in the end result," Long said. "Conference champions, as you mentioned, is one of the criteria for us to consider when we have two teams that are basically equal, so they definitely matter. I don't know that I can put a value on how much they matter."

The committee could certainly put a value on how much they don't if Ohio State makes the cut.

Committee questions

Here are two more questions facing the CFP selection committee heading into Sunday's final ranking:

How detrimental are FCS wins versus any FBS win?

North Carolina has two FCS wins on its résumé, but would that keep the Tar Heels out of the playoff if they beat the No. 1 team in the country? Each team page in the committee's playoff handbook has a section dedicated to "schedule strength," but FCS opponents aren't singled out. There is a designation, though, for the team's record against Power 5 teams and its record against Group of 5 teams. It's more of a subjective measure for each individual committee member of how much they would want to penalize UNC for two FCS wins when no other conference champion would have that. UNC's only nonconference win against a Power 5 opponent was against Illinois, which finished 5-7.

Should Oklahoma have any concern about the No. 3 spot as a Big 12 team?

Last year, TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in the committee's final ranking, a move that still stands as arguably the committee's most controversial decision. Should the Sooners fear the same fate? It doesn't appear so because there isn't a head-to-head result waiting to knock them out.

"Well, last year is no indication of how things are happening this year, and I can't project, nor would I try to project what's going to happen in the next two weeks of football games," Long said prior to the Sooners' win over Oklahoma State on Saturday. "I really can't answer that other than, you know what, they need to play well, they need to win their games, and they need to add that final piece to their body of work against Oklahoma State."

The difference last year was that TCU and Baylor both had such comparable résumés that it wasn't until the end of the season that the head-to-head result was factored in by the committee. It's a different scenario for Oklahoma, and also a different lineup on the bubble.