This past season, Ohio State beat USC in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic — at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas.
In January 2015, the Buckeyes won the national title — at AT&T Stadium, in Arlington, Texas.
The Big 12, meanwhile, has never beaten a ranked nonconference opponent in 11 tries at — well, you know where.
So while No. 4 Ohio State will leave the comfort of home for the first time this season to face No. 15 TCU in what will be a playoff-shaping nonconference game, it’s the Buckeyes’ third game in that stadium in four years.
“I think there’s obviously some familiarity, just that we were there and we practiced a bunch, I don’t know how many months ago it was but not long ago,” said Ohio State interim coach Ryan Day. “A lot of guys on the team know that stadium, so that is good. A lot of guys on the team don’t — some of the freshmen coming in, and at the end of the day, it just comes down to going in to play. Obviously a beautiful stadium and they will have a great crowd, so it will be a hostile crowd.”
Hostile crowds could be a factor this weekend, as four of the top 10 teams — No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 10 Washington — all have to hit the road Saturday. And that’s where even the nation’s best teams can stumble.
Of the 16 teams to make the playoff, six had a road loss — but they were all conference games, and none of them had multiple road losses. The committee is forgiving, at least once. Alabama’s lone loss in 2014? At Ole Miss. Oklahoma’s only loss last year? Home against Iowa State — and now the Sooners must travel to Ames.
Who has the most to lose leaving home?
1. No. 10 Washington at Utah (10 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Two Pac-12 teams have made the playoff (Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016) — and both went 5-0 on the road those years. This is the first of five conference road trips for the Huskies, who have already lost to Auburn in Atlanta. ESPN’s Playoff Predictor gives the Pac-12 a 24 percent chance to send one team to the semifinals this year, the lowest of any Power 5 conference. Because Washington lost its season opener against Auburn, albeit over 2,000 miles from home and by five measly points, its margin for error is probably nonexistent — and so is the Pac-12’s. A road win against a respectable, gritty Utah team would be a résumé-builder for Washington, but if it loses, the Huskies’ playoff chances plummet to 2.8 percent.
2. No. 5 Oklahoma at Iowa State (Noon ET, ABC)
Arguably the biggest reason OU was able to overcome its home loss to Iowa State last year was because the Sooners went on the road and beat then-No. 2 Ohio State — soundly. Oklahoma won’t have a nonconference win of that magnitude this year, as its lone Power 5 win came at home last week against a struggling UCLA team. OU also defeated Florida Atlantic in the season opener, and hosts Army on Sept. 22. It’s not that OU can’t afford to lose, but remember what’s coming down the stretch: road games at TCU, and at West Virginia to end the season on a Friday night. Now isn’t the time to use the mulligan. The Sooners have a 50 percent chance to reach the playoff (carrying the weight of the entire conference, as the Big 12 has a 52 percent chance), according to the Playoff Predictor. Oklahoma’s chances would drop to 23 percent with a loss in Ames. It’s a conference game the Sooners are expected to — and need to — win if only to provide some cushion in what could be a tight conference race. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said the Sooners did learn a lesson from last year’s loss. “If you let a good team like that hang around and give them opportunities, every now and then you’re going to get beat, and we did,” Riley said. “A lot of people probably didn’t believe it before our game, but obviously after our game and they went on to beat TCU and several other good football teams, people figured out pretty quick these guys were good, and they are good.”
3. No. 1 Alabama at Ole Miss (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
We’ve seen Alabama get in without winning the division (2017). We’ve seen it get it in losing at home to Ole Miss (2015), on the road to Ole Miss (2014). What we haven’t seen — even in the SEC (yet) — is a two-loss team survive. Clearly, Alabama can afford to lose Saturday and still finish in the top four. But could it run the table and leave no doubt it deserves another semifinal spot? Maybe. ESPN’s FPI gives the Tide an 83 percent chance to win, and while Alabama has steamrolled its first two opponents, the stakes are automatically higher with an SEC West road game. The only two games FPI projects will be more difficult for Alabama are Nov. 3 at LSU (still 82.5 percent) and Nov. 24 in the regular-season finale against Auburn in the Iron Bowl (81.7 percent). Remember, though, the semifinalists are determined in part by what the other conference contenders have done, and if Alabama loses on Saturday, it would probably enter Week 4 on the bubble, looking up at Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia and Clemson in some order if they all win. If the Rebels pull off the upset, feel free to shrug your shoulders, but then watch closely to see if the Tide falls again.
4. No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 15 TCU (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
This game is last on the list because it’s a nonconference game, and both teams can still go on to win their respective leagues with a shot at the playoff as a one-loss conference champion. The Buckeyes have been on both ends, though, of an important nonconference matchup. The win at OU two years ago was the boost they needed to overcome a road loss to Penn State. Ohio State’s loss to Oklahoma last year was one of two reasons the Big Ten champs were left out (the other being a 55-24 drubbing at Iowa). A neutral-site win against what should remain a top-25 team would again help Ohio State’s résumé, especially if it is compared to another conference champion that doesn’t have one as significant. If it loses this game, though, that makes the Sept. 29 trip to fellow Big Ten East opponent Penn State all the more important.