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Ohio State or Oklahoma? The Stage Is Set for 2018's Ultimate Playoff Debate

After a blowout of Michigan, everything feels different about Ohio State, Oklahoma and this year's debate over who deserves the final playoff spot.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — So rarely is the first question asked in a postgame press conference the question that’s on everyone’s mind. But thanks to Austin Ward of, that’s exactly what happened when Ohio State coach Urban Meyer appeared behind the lectern Saturday to explain how his team crushed favored Michigan 62–39 to win the Big Ten East.

“Where has this team been all year?” Ward asked.

Meyer feigned aggravation. “Hey, we had 688 [yards] against Maryland,” Meyer said. Then he grinned.

Yes, Urban Meyer, the coach whose sideline agony inspired video montages after last week’s 52–51 overtime escape against the Terrapins, smiled and laughed and joked. His regular season started with a suspension for his actions surrounding the continued employment of walking, talking liability risk Zach Smith as receivers coach. In the middle, it featured a 29-point blowout loss at Purdue. The Buckeyes didn’t lose another game, but for most of the year they seemed to be a threat to play their way out of College Football Playoff contention. The defense entered Saturday ranked No. 117 in the nation in plays of more than 30 yards allowed with 35. The offense sometimes got the running game going. Sometimes it didn’t. Even many of Ohio State’s own fans considered a loss to Michigan—owner of one of the nation’s best defenses and a No. 4 ranking by the College Football Playoff selection committee—to be a fait accompli. 

Then 62–39 happened, and everything felt different. This Ohio State team, the one commensurate with the level of talent on the roster, looked like a playoff team. The defense gave up exactly one play of more than 30 yards—a 43-yard pass from Michigan third-stringer Joe Milton to Nico Collins in garbage time. Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who has saved the Buckeyes this season when their defense has faltered, stayed brilliant. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns. Now Ohio State will face Northwestern next week in Indianapolis in the Big Ten title game with a chance to prove it belongs in the playoff.

The four-team playoff was designed to inspire the kind of debate that will rage this week. The committee placed the Buckeyes at No. 10 in its most recent ranking. After Saturday, Ohio State likely will leap undefeated UCF, which lost quarterback McKenzie Milton—one of the nation’s 10 best players—to a horrific knee injury. The Buckeyes will leap Washington State, which lost to Washington in the Apple Cup on Friday. The Buckeyes will leap LSU, which suffered its third loss in seven overtimes at Texas A&M. They’ll remain behind one-loss Oklahoma, one-loss Georgia and all the undefeated teams.

That may sound like a long way from the playoff, but it’s not*. If Texas beats Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC title game and Ohio State beats Northwestern, the Buckeyes probably would get slotted at No. 4 and face Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. Now here’s where the debate starts: What if Oklahoma beats Texas?

*If Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC title game, none of this debate may matter. Most likely, a 12–1 Crimson Tide team would get in over 12–1 Oklahoma or 12–1 Ohio State.

Oklahoma versus Ohio State might be one of the most fun on-field matchups of the season. Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray and Haskins against two defenses that alternate between allowing explosive plays and causing momentum-shifting turnovers would be a blast to watch. Unfortunately, this competition probably won’t play out on the field. It’ll play out on barstools, in barber shops, on sports talk radio and—most importantly—in a conference room at the Gaylord Texan hotel in Grapevine, Texas. The committee will debate the merits of those teams this week, but don’t expect Ohio State to jump Oklahoma. But if the Sooners win ugly against Texas at JerryWorld and Ohio State cruises, we could see a repeat of 2014. That’s when a 59–0 Ohio State win against Wisconsin convinced the committee that the one-loss Buckeyes were a better choice at No. 4 than either Baylor or TCU, which each had a loss and shared the Big 12 title. (We all know Baylor really won the title because it won the head-to-head matchup, but the Big 12 refused to recognize that even though it was obvious and might have helped the league get a team in the playoff.) Those Buckeyes made the committee look smart, beating top-seeded Alabama and second-seeded Oregon to win the national title.

Could these Buckeyes be clicking the way that team did? The profiles are different. That team lost early at home to a mediocre Virginia Tech, but it got better as the season progressed. Quarterback J.T. Barrett got injured against Michigan, so the big question this week four years ago was how the Buckeyes would look with Cardale Jones—who had started preseason camp as the third-stringer—at the helm. Ohio State answered that question emphatically against 10–2 Wisconsin.

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This Ohio State team will be playing 8–4 Northwestern. Is there any score against the Wildcats—who lost to Akron earlier this season—that would impress the committee? Or does that matter? Will it simply come down to a hypothetical matchup against an similarly amazing, similarly flawed Oklahoma?

After seeing the two teams in person in a 16-hour span this weekend, I have a tough time choosing which I’d select if I was on the committee. The Ohio State team that played Michigan might be able to get enough defensive stops to outscore Oklahoma. If the Buckeyes’ offensive line played the way it did Saturday, Haskins could sit in the pocket and carve up the Sooners’ defense. He might throw for 700 yards if forced to match Murray score-for-score.

Here’s the problem with that analysis. It assumes an Ohio State team that has shown up exactly once this season. The one we’ve seen more often might allow Oklahoma to score 70. This is the committee’s dilemma.

But a repeat performance certainly would help Ohio State’s case. Why were the Buckeyes so good against a defense that entered Saturday ranked No. 2 in the nation in yards per play allowed (3.97) and No. 1 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game (123.2)? There are a few reasons. First, the Buckeyes realized that Michigan’s preferred alignment of one deep safety with defensive backs playing man-to-man coverage—to free up an extra pass rusher—played into something Ohio State does very well. That kind of defense tends to leave the middle of the field open for shallow crossing routes. And because there isn’t an extra safety patrolling the area where such a route can be caught, a broken tackle or a poor angle from a tackler can lead to a huge gain. Kind of like this one…

This sort of thing only works if the quarterback gets protection. Remember, Michigan sacrifices that extra deep safety because the Wolverines expect to get to the quarterback. Fortunately, Ohio State’s offensive line was spectacular Saturday. The Buckeyes gave up zero sacks, giving Haskins all the time he needed. “I was licking my chops. I see the one-high covers and that's a quarterback's dream,” Haskins said. “The biggest responsibility for me all week was to be able to pick up blitzes and protection, because we saw a lot of different fronts and exotic looks. I spent hours in the film room just trying to figure out how we can pick the blitzes up. And once we picked it up, receivers make plays.”

And while Meyer hasn’t always been the type of coach who keeps doing what works until a defense proves it can stop it—he sometimes falls back on certain crutches, particularly when he has a quarterback who can run—Meyer and offensive coordinator Ryan Day kept letting Haskins fire over the middle. No adjustment Michigan could make worked, but there may have been another factor limiting how much Michigan could adjust.

Haskins only carried seven times for 34 yards, but on Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage, he kept on a read option and gained nine yards. After seeing that, and knowing Haskins ran for three touchdowns against Maryland, the Wolverines had to respect the possibility that Haskins could pull the ball and keep it on the read option.

The Buckeyes attacked the Wolverines where they were weakest. Meanwhile, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh refused to attack Ohio State’s defense where it is weakest. The Wolverines only occasionally chose to spread the field and attack vertically, which tends to bring out the worst in the Buckeyes’ D. It seemed Harbaugh was more interested in adhering to his original game plan than in using formations and plays that might help Michigan score.

Meyer and Day had no such problem Saturday. They looked like Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and the West Virginia combo of Dana Holgorsen and Jake Spavital looked Friday night. They found the flaws and repeatedly exposed them.

Ohio State and Oklahoma each have flaws. But there is an excellent chance now that one of them makes the playoff. After showing what they’re capable of when clicking on all cylinders on Saturday, do the Buckeyes deserve to be in the final four?

“Definitely,” Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell said. “We just beat the No. 4 team.”