- It's unclear how the playoff selection committee will come down on Ohio State, even after its offense hummed against one of the best defenses in the country.
INDIANAPOLIS—Ohio State’s players had been hearing it all week. Wisconsin’s defense is the best in the country. Run, pass, doesn’t matter; they’ll stop you. No way you’ll be able to rip off any big plays. The noise stuck with freshman running back J.K. Dobbins. He didn’t buy it—which explains how he managed to rip off both a 77-yard and then a 53-yard run en route to 174 yards on the night.
Add in two long passing plays, and the Buckeyes posted a total of four offensive plays of more than 50 yards. (The Badgers had given up three all season going into the Big Ten title game.) In the end, it was those big plays—and the resulting quick drives—that sealed the 27-21 win for Ohio State and pushed the Buckeyes to the brink of playoff contention.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer described the Badgers’ defense as “feast-or-famine style,” in which coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit tried to force quarterback J.T. Barrett to rely on the passing game. Though Wisconsin was able to limit the run early, it let up as the game went on, allowing Dobbins to hit his stride and rush for 10.2 yards per carry.
A year ago, given the No. 3 seed in the College Football Playoff despite missing the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State was blanked, 31-0, by Clemson in a semifinal. The Buckeyes’ offense since then has been a study in transformation, emerging as a top-10 unit thanks in large part to Barrett’s development and the emergence of Dobbins. That about-face bodes well for Ohio State’s argument that it should claim the No. 4 seed this season—although at this point, it’s a mystery how the committee will come down with three spots effectively set in stone.
With wins on Saturday, Clemson (the presumptive No. 1 seed), Georgia and Oklahoma all secured playoff spots. The final seed will now come down to two options: Ohio State and Alabama—although a tenuous argument for USC remains as well. Working in Alabama’s favor is its single loss and its reputation as, well, Alabama.
Barely minutes after the final play in Indianapolis on Saturday, Nick Saban was already making the rounds lobbying for his team, which sat out the SEC title game after losing to Auburn a week ago. The most cogent part of Saban’s argument focused on Ohio State’s November loss to Iowa, telling ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt that if his team had lost by 30 points (the Buckeyes fell 55-24 to the Hawkeyes), Alabama wouldn’t be in the conversation.
Working in Ohio State’s favor is Alabama’s schedule; thanks to a relatively weaker SEC West in 2017, its most impressive win may be against LSU, which dropped in and out of the rankings for much of the year. The Crimson Tide also played a soft nonconference schedule, with Mercer a blaring spot on its resume. That said, a year ago the playoff committee chose fewer losses over the prestige of a conference championship when it picked Ohio State over Penn State, the Big Ten champion. That came around to haunt it; the Nittany Lions played phenomenally in arguably the second-best bowl game last winter, whereas the Buckeyes floundered in their semifinal.
In a climate where the playoff committee has been criticized for inconsistency in its criteria, it may catch flak for giving the Buckeyes the benefit of the doubt yet again while also adhering the exact opposite values that got them in a season ago.
For now, though, Ohio State must sit and wait—for less than 24 hours. And for a team with a quarterback not a week removed from knee surgery, time is a good thing. The playoff committee is allowed to consider injuries as it ranks its top teams, and Barrett’s quick recovery coupled with the fact that he seems to be on a steady upward trajectory since tweaking his meniscus should only bode well for the Buckeyes. Backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins said after the game that Barrett’s example all week, as he spent hours rehabbing and doing everything he could to get on the field, galvanized the rest of the team. If Barrett could start so soon after having his knee scoped, no one else had any excuses to be anything less than 100%. And having Haskins preparing as if he were going to play certainly didn’t hurt the Buckeyes’ cause; should Barrett have struggled, they’d have had a pro-style quarterback who turned the tide in last week’s win over Michigan to fall back on.
“He’s a tough dude and one of the greatest leaders I have ever met,” senior offensive tackle Jamarco Jones said of Barrett. “Nothing was stopping him from being there for us tonight.”
Barrett said after the game that he’d told teammates a week ago that he’d be ready for Indianapolis. It was as simple as that, he explained: “If I didn’t (play), I was kind of going to be a liar. And I wouldn’t lie.” Even as his knee remained swollen for most of the week, he maintained his stance, getting treatment rather than practicing. The senior didn’t need reps. He knew his offense could hum if he could just get healthy, and though it wasn’t perfect—the Buckeyes relied on big plays and at times struggled to sustain drives—it was enough to overcome the country’s best defense. And if that’s really what Wisconsin is, regardless of its relatively weak schedule, then Ohio State has as strong of an argument as Alabama to be counted among the country’s top four.