Ohio State’s football team may not have been consistent over the past few weeks, but its ceiling is as high as any team in college football.
There was no denying Urban Meyer’s team’s skill on either side of the ball Saturday, when the No. 13 Buckeyes hosted No. 12 Michigan State and trounced the Spartans, 48-3. That result came on the heels of a week when Michigan State beat Penn State, 27-24, and Ohio State lost to Iowa, 55-24. In a Big Ten with a muddled top tier, last week only further confused things, especially in the East—and it rendered this game essentially a showdown for the division. After the beatdown, Ohio State has all but clinched the East and a trip to Indianapolis, barring losing out against Illinois and Michigan.
Ohio State still has a near-impossible road to the playoff. Though Washington’s loss Friday to Stanford essentially eliminated it—and the Pac-12—from the field and pulled one less team from out in front of the Buckeyes, a lot more losing needs to happen among the current top 8 to make room for a two-loss team. There’s still a chance, and for now Ohio State must win out and beat Wisconsin in the conference title game, a 3-0 run that’s well within the realm of possibility.
Last week against Iowa, there was cause for concern with Ohio State’s much-lauded new-look offense under coordinator Kevin Wilson. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, who to that point had been mounting a case for Heisman consideration, threw four interceptions, setting the tone for a sloppy game on that side of the ball. Up to that point, he’d tossed just one pick, in the Buckeyes’ Week 2 loss to Oklahoma, but on Saturday, he added two more to his season total. Fortunately, Michigan State wasn’t able to manufacture a single point off the mistakes, but Barrett’s inconsistency in recent weeks—against good opponents—is something to keep an eye on.
The Ohio State offense still flourished Saturday, and Barrett’s stat line was plenty respectable: He finished with two touchdown passes and 183 yards in the air. Michigan State also let the Buckeyes run all over them; running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber each finished with more than 100 yards on the ground. But just as notable was the Buckeye defense, which finished with six sacks, toppling Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke with players from its first-, second- and third-string defenses. The Spartans’ offense finished with just 195 total yards, kicking a single field goal. Its average drive covered 16 yards. And though the Buckeyes have been just fine on defense so far this season, Saturday’s performance was by far their best. Blanking Rutgers and holding Army to a touchdown hardly compare to limiting an offense that’s been averaging 402 yards per game to fewer than 200.
From here, Ohio State controls its path to Indianapolis. Unlike a year ago, when they missed the conference championship game but still earned a playoff berth, the Buckeyes need to win their division to have a hope at being among college football’s final four teams. Saturday went a long way toward keeping that hope, however slim, alive.