Going into Saturday’s game against Nebraska, Ohio State remained a fringe playoff contender in spite of several things: its blowout loss to Purdue two weeks ago, its coach’s health issues, its No. 10 ranking that left the door open to sneak back into the top four. After a 36–31 victory in which the Buckeyes trailed a two-win Cornhuskers team for more than a quarter, it may be time to adust that ceiling downward.
Nebraska started the year 0–6 and had fired off two straight wins over Minnesota and then Bethune-Cookman before giving the Buckeyes all they could handle in Columbus. This is not a team Urban Meyer’s machine should have been threatened by. In the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee, there are such things as acceptable losses, whether they are flukes under strange circumstances or near-misses against elite opponents. There are also bad wins. For the Buckeyes, this was the latter, a performance that made the 49–20 defeat at the hands of Purdue look like something more than a fluke.
Does it matter, aberration or meaningful loss? That’s unclear. A year ago, a similar loss to Iowa kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff after they lost in September to Oklahoma. This year, there’s no September L, but Saturday’s game (along with an uneven win over Minnesota in October) isn’t helping the Buckeyes’ cause. Without Nick Bosa, who left the team to focus on healing his groin injury and preparing for the NFL draft, their defense is looking decidedly average, having allowed Big Ten opponents nearly 30 points per game since losing the star pass rusher to an injury in late September. Against Nebraska, the Buckeyes allowed 450 yards of total offense and 27 first downs, compounding their difficulties by committing three turnovers on offense. Nebraska’s three rushing touchdowns pushed the Buckeyes to 15 allowed this season, already more than the 13 they allowed all year in 2017.
The loss comes just four days after Meyer spoke publicly about the cyst on his brain he’s been dealing with for years, which has given him headaches this season. The Buckeyes started the year with Meyer on serving a suspension from an investigation into what he knew about the conduct of former assistant coach Zach Smith and the allegations of domestic abuse against him. Add in the Purdue game and Bosa’s departure, and Meyer’s team has made as much good news as it has bad news this year.
At 8–1, Ohio State finishes the season against Michigan State, Maryland and Michigan,with the Wolverines in control of their own destiny in the Big Ten East. The Buckeyes’ season may come down to that Week 13 game—with a conference title, they’d retain at least an outside shot at the playoff—but with the way things are going lately, every game looks like a trap, starting with a trip to East Lansing to play an erratic but good Spartans team next week.