The road to the College Football Playoff goes through Ohio State and Auburn


Even with Urban Meyer suspended for the first three games of the season, Ohio State and the entire Big Ten will have arguably the biggest impact on the College Football Playoff race this fall, according to ESPN's Playoff Predictor.

Ohio State and Auburn will combine to play in the six of the seven most important games of the season, and five of the eight games with the biggest impact on the CFP race will feature two Big Ten teams. Ohio State's games against Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan are each amongst the seven most important games -- and Meyer will be coaching in all of them -- along with Auburn's games against Washington, Georgia and Alabama.

"It's one after the other," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said of the league's lineup. "That's the challenge of the nine [conference] games, and especially in a league that is as physical and as well-coached as ours. I don't think people really understand. Maryland goes down and wins at Texas before they get beat up [in-conference]. Purdue goes down and has a chance to beat a pretty good Louisville team early. You have Indiana going to Virginia and winning decisively there. There are good examples of the strength of the middle. It's as challenging a league at the top and the middle as there is, yet it is a game of winning, and there's never been a team with two losses in the playoff."

There could have been, though.

Had Auburn defeated Georgia in the SEC championship game last year, there is little if any doubt that the Tigers would have become the first two-loss team in the four years of the playoff. Auburn had redeemed itself in the eyes of the committee from road losses at Clemson and LSU with stunning upsets of then-No. 1 Georgia and then-No. 1 Alabama. The Tigers were the committee's No. 2 team heading into the SEC championship.

"I felt like last year we played the toughest schedule in college football," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "Clemson was our opponent, and now it's Washington. At least we've been there, done that, in terms of strength of schedule."

Now the Tigers have to do it again.

Auburn's strength of schedule entering the season is No. 30 in the country, according to ESPN's FPI, but it's very similar to 2017 in terms of the marquee games. The Week 1, top-10 matchup between Auburn and Washington isn't a must-win, but it will put enormous pressure on the loser for the rest of the season. Auburn can lose -- its Week 2 loss to Clemson last year wasn't a knockout blow -- but it still has to play SEC East favorite Georgia in Week 11, and Alabama in the Iron Bowl in Week 13.

"Everything we went through last year, we get a lot of great leadership back," Malzahn said. "There were a lot of ups and downs last year. We had a very tough loss against LSU. Our guys recovered, I was real proud of the way they did that and the way we made that run. And then we came up a little bit short. And when you come up a little short and you almost reach your goal, it has a way of motivating you.

"Our guys have a good understanding of our schedule," he said. "They have a good understanding of what we're up against, and what we have to do, and then you throw in the fact of Washington with the talent they have and the head coach they have -- there's a lot of respect from our players and coaches with their program. It's going to be a good one."

In spite of its grueling schedule, Auburn is one of the 10 teams most likely to reach the playoff, according to ESPN's Playoff Predictor, but the Tigers are also the only team in that group projected to have more than two losses (3.1).

Washington (10 percent) is given a higher chance to win the national title than Auburn (3 percent), and Ohio State remains the Big Ten's best hope (9 percent). The Buckeyes, following the conclusion of a two-week investigation that led to a three-game suspension of their head coach, are still favored in all of their games, with the exception of the Penn State game, which the Buckeyes have a 49 percent chance to win, according to ESPN's FPI.

Last year, Ohio State won the Big Ten and finished No. 5 at 11-2. In 2016, Penn State won the Big Ten but finished No. 5 at 11-2. That year, though, the Buckeyes earned the No. 3 spot at 11-1 in spite of not winning their division.

"We've advocated very hard for champions and strength of schedule should be the leading tiebreakers amongst similar teams," Delany said. "We've tried to avoid complaining, whining or attacking. That's not our style, it's never been our style."

The Big Ten will have plenty of other opportunities to make a statement, starting with Michigan's opener against Notre Dame. The Irish are also listed as one of the top 10 teams most likely to reach the playoff, along with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State.

"I know this league should be represented," said Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell. "We're arguably the top conference in the entire college football, so it's tough to see the conference left out last year."

At the very least, the Big Ten will still impact who's in.

Adam Rittenberg contributed to this story.