Ohio State is the nation's only 10-0 team, but the Buckeyes aren't part of the BCS title talk because of NCAA sanctions.
What if the sanctions weren't there? Where would Urban Meyer's crew be in the championship chase?
The likely answer: on the outside looking in. The reason: its nonconference schedule. Partly because of bad luck and partly because of a pre-playoff approach to scheduling, Ohio State played a non-league slate -- Miami (Ohio), UCF, California and UAB -- that impressed no one. UCF (7-2) is the only foe with a winning record, while the other three are a combined 9-19. Ohio State's schedule ranks 60th nationally based on cumulative opposition, far behind Alabama's (33rd), Kansas State's (29th) or Notre Dame's (23rd).
A soft slate combined with a weak league would hurt Ohio State's chances, even if the four-team playoff were in place.
The good news is that as the playoff era nears, Ohio State and other Big Ten teams with national title hopes are making the necessary schedule upgrades to crack the field of four.
In recent weeks Ohio State has added series with the likes of Oregon, Texas and TCU. The Buckeyes also have upcoming games with Virginia Tech, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Cincinnati. Ohio State already has at least two major-conference teams confirmed for the schedule in 2014, 2017, 2018, 2020 and 2021.
Michigan State has been ahead of the curve with aggressive scheduling, and will face Oregon, Alabama, Boise State, Miami and other notable teams in future seasons. Michigan this week announced a home-and-home series with Arkansas, which will mark the first time the Wolverines visit an SEC stadium. Even a Wisconsin program that has been a longtime resident of cupcake city is making a scheduling push and will face the likes of Virginia Tech, Washington, BYU and Washington State during the playoff era. Nebraska soon will announce several future non-league games, including the resumption of its rivalry with Oklahoma.
"I'm glad to see the trend go in that direction," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com. "I hope people continue to do it. It's great for the fan, great for the player. It's great for college football."
The Big Ten has long been criticized for playing soft non-league schedules, and justifiably so, but Delany always has wanted teams to challenge themselves more (just look at the bowl lineup he created). The difference now is that athletic directors, mindful of the upcoming playoff and the increased importance of schedule strength, share Delany's view. Ohio State actually has had a somewhat respectable model -- one marquee non-league opponent per year -- but athletic director Gene Smith is taking a more assertive approach these days. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, in a September column for the school's Varsity magazine, wrote, "If you want to be a player in the national championship -- starting with the new playoff system in 2014 -- one of the criteria is strength of schedule, so you'd better strengthen it."
When the Big Ten's scheduling partnership with the Pac-12 dissolved in July, the Big Ten ADs, in a holding pattern of sorts with scheduling because of the Pac-12 pact, had to take action. They quickly voted to keep an eight-game conference schedule -- they had approved a nine-game schedule in 2011 before the Pac-12 idea spawned -- to ensure at least seven home games per year, which satisfies athletic budgets, and encourage a more aggressive approach to non-league scheduling.
"We talked a lot about the programs that want to be considered and taken seriously, that they needed to go out and step up to the plate," Delany said. "I think [the athletic directors] understand it. Some of their actions have indicated that they're acting on what they said at those meetings. The thing I heard was, 'Hey, if we're going to be relying on each other to play nonconference teams that are good to compete nationally, each of our own strength of schedules is dependent on who we play on the outside.' Therefore, there is a connection there.
"It's not a conference mandate. It's a conference philosophy that was shared."
Delany divides power conferences into three groups: programs that aim for national championships; programs that aim for strong bowl games but are realistic about their place in the national picture; and rebuilding programs trying to get to bowls. Scheduling reflects these positions. Minnesota made it pretty clear recently where it stands, while a program like Northwestern, which is heading to its fifth straight bowl, seems to fit in the second category and has bolstered its non-league schedules with teams like Stanford and Notre Dame.
But for teams aiming for the crystal football, running away from tough non-league games shouldn't cut it with the playoff selection committee.
"We don't have an RPI yet, but we do think there will be an evaluation, if not a statistical evaluation," Delany said. "There are lots of people who do computers and strength of schedule, but it's also the eye test and it's the effort test. ... I don’t expect it to carry the day if you play four teams you're supposed to beat and run the table, and somebody else plays four teams, two of which are challenges. If all things are equal, that [team is] hopefully going to get the break. That's the message.
"How you build that mousetrap from a committee perspective is to be determined, but that's what [the league commissioners] all said -- winning championships and strength of schedule are the tiebreakers. If the committee ignores the message from us to them in their implementation, it will not be good."
Delany doesn't think we'll ever see a return of the 1960s-style schedules in college football, when many teams played 10 strong opponents. The FCS opponents will remain, as will some guarantee games with teams from minor conferences. The need to keep at least seven home games isn't going to change, either.
But athletic directors are taking notice of the playoff, and what it will take to get in.
"It's the right direction," Delany said. "I hope people continue to do it."