If Ohio State beats Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes deserve a spot in the national championship game. Let's be clear on that. I am not here to take away Ohio State's spot in the title game, or mock the "The" in The Ohio State University, or point out that Buckeye candies are basically just Reese's Peanut Butter Cups that went through the dryer. I eat them anyway.
Really, truly, I have nothing against Ohio State, and more to the point: If the Buckeyes win Saturday, I'm cool with them getting a shot at (presumably) Florida State. I would actually like to see that happen.
But this must be said: For a national title contender, Ohio State's schedule this year has been a joke. I think people know this, on some level, but because we're talking about Ohio State instead of Cincinnati or Boise State, most folks don't realize the extent of it. You hear about Ohio State's 24-game winning streak, and it sounds amazing. In a way, it is. But it is also just about the weakest 24-game winning streak that a major-conference team can put together these days.
Hey, you can only beat the teams you play. I get it. But look: This year, the Buckeyes have beaten one team that is currently in the Associated Press Top 25. That would be Wisconsin, which is 21st. This is not entirely Ohio State's fault. The Buckeyes didn't force the Big Ten to have a down year, and they can't control the fact that the only other really good team in the league, Michigan State, is not on their schedule.
The common lament in Columbus is that last year's Buckeyes lost a chance at a national title because of a bowl ban. This is true, presuming Ohio State would have won the Big Ten title game. But who did the Buckeyes actually beat last year that was any good?
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In 2012, they beat only two teams that finished in the Top 25: No. 24 Michigan and No. 25 Nebraska. That was it. They missed No. 17 Northwestern. They needed overtime to beat a Purdue team that finished 6-6. They needed overtime to beat a Wisconsin team that finished 8-6, though the Badgers were surely better than their record -- three of those losses came in overtime, and the other three came by a combined 12 points. Nonetheless, 8-6 is 8-6.
Twenty-four wins in a row, and not one was over a Top 20 team.
How did this happen? Well, the Buckeyes did not play in the Big Ten title game or a bowl game because of those violations. That meant they missed two marquee games that a team of this quality normally plays -- two real chances to lose, but also two chances to prove how good they really were.
And this happens to be a short stretch when Ohio State did not play a marquee non-conference opponent. In recent years they have played Texas, Miami and Washington, at home and on the road. They have scheduled Oregon, Virginia Tech and Oklahoma in future years. It just so happens that in 2012 and 2013, they scheduled California at a time when Cal does not have a football team. Not their fault.
Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan said after the Buckeyes' epic 42-41 win over the Wolverines that Ohio State is not the No. 3 team in the country. OK, Lewan plays for Michigan. He doesn't send love letters to Columbus. But he may have a point.
Michigan averaged 336 yards per game against its first seven Big Ten opponents and gained 603 against Ohio State. Big Ten teams have gained 5.4 yards per play against the Buckeyes. They are averaging 283 passing yards per game. These are not the most advanced numbers, but they are big ones, and they make you wonder if Ohio State is the kind of team that gets exposed against top opponents: explosive offense, weak defense.
That is the thing about Ohio State: We don't really know if this team is great. It's obvious the Buckeyes are very good. Any reasonable person can see that, and it takes impressive focus to win 24 straight games, no matter who you play. But the Buckeyes just haven't had a chance to prove they are great. Their schedule hasn't allowed for it.
And that is why I'm looking forward to this Big Ten title game. Ohio State won't blow Michigan State's defense off the field -- nobody will -- so the Buckeyes' defense will have to play well for them to win.
And if Ohio State wins Saturday, I want to see that defense try to stop Florida State. The Seminoles have been scoring at an absurd rate, but they have played a weak schedule, too. The two SEC teams in contention, Auburn and Missouri, are really good, but not overwhelming. Auburn has a loss, plus two wins that came on miracle plays. Missouri has a better case than Auburn, because its only loss came in double-overtime, and the other wins were all decisive.
Still, I would like to see Ohio State get its chance, because for all we know, the Buckeyes really are the best team in the country. It would be nice to find out. The last 24 wins were good. The next two would be more impressive.
Staples' Midweek Report: Big Ten Championship
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples takes a look at the Big Ten Championship match-up between the Ohio
State Buckeyes and the Michigan