Ohio State winning was a foregone conclusion, likely to be the last outcome officially decided of championship weekend, but the first assumed.
What mattered was everything else, and by how much: Could the No. 6 Buckeyes trounce Northwestern so that their victory might look more impressive than No. 5 Oklahoma’s? And would No. 1 Alabama eviscerate No. 4 Georgia the way it already had its 12 previous opponents, giving it a swift kick out of consideration?
By kickoff, Oklahoma had soundly defeated No. 14 Texas, and Georgia had come within a touchdown of taking down the Tide after leading for nearly all of the game. The Sooners had put up a convincing argument for inclusion against a top-10 team—and the Bulldogs had been perhaps even more impressive in their loss. Ohio State needed something close to perfection, which it fell short of in its 45–24 victory over Northwestern.
Nothing about Ohio State’s performance—Dwayne Haskins’s brilliance, the mediocre defense—was even the slightest bit surprising, beyond, perhaps, Northwestern’s third-quarter pluck. When the Buckeyes have struggled this season (in a loss to Purdue and against Maryland, most notably), it’s often been from the start, clawing their way back for three or four quarters. Against the Wildcats, though, Ohio State looked promising and then wilted defensively for a quarter, leaving Haskins a nearly impossible task. The quarterback, who finished the night 34 of 41 with 499 yards, five touchdowns and one interception, couldn’t have done much more than he did—but Ohio State needed complete control. Instead, the rest of the team gave its quarterback less help than it should have, committing nine penalties for a total of 90 yards and allowing Northwestern to have its way, especially in the ground game. (The Wildcats’ backup running back, John Moten IV, ripped off a 77-yard touchdown in the first quarter.)
Yes, the Buckeyes won big, but they looked careless in more moments than any contender should against a four-loss opponent—especially in a season in which three of the four College Football Playoff teams will be undefeated heading into the semifinals. The Big Ten may not have done Ohio State any favors with its lopsided divisions—only an all-out whooping of the Wildcats was going to garner positive sentiment—but the Buckeyes made their life more difficult Saturday night, as they have all season. This defense went into Saturday the No. 57 unit, in terms of scoring, in the FBS, allowing opponents an average of 160.6 rushing yards (No. 62) and 237.6 yards in the air (No. 75). It’s the worst Buckeyes unit of coach Urban Meyer’s seven-year tenure in Columbus, the limiting factor on an otherwise impressive season in which the Buckeyes’ sophomore quarterback often looked the part of a Heisman-winner.
Haskins kept fighting until the end on Saturday, never letting Northwestern pull closer than the 24–21 differential it hit with a touchdown midway through the third quarter. From there, Ohio State put up a touchdown on a quick, 60-yard drive, in which Haskins completed passes of nine, 16 and 29 yards. After the Wildcats blocked a field goal on the next Ohio State drive, the Buckeyes put together another impressive march down the field, this time 75 yards in just 1:23, thanks in large part to a 63-yard Johnnie Dixon reception.
By that point, the Ohio State victory seemed in hand—which it was, and Haskins and company put up another fourth-quarter touchdown en route to the victory. Once Northwestern fell out of reach, the Buckeyes needed to bury them—which they did—but the game was less lopsided than the final score indicated, and the CFP committee will take that into consideration. And after a dramatic and fraught season, the Buckeyes ended Saturday, it seemed, with worse odds at a playoff berth than they had going into it, on a day when they needed to leapfrog at least two teams in the standings. They’re 12–1, Big Ten champions, and without any context, that’s an impressive achievement. But thanks in part to the standard Meyer’s teams have set this decade—as well as the sense that Northwestern was only a key player or two away from emerging with the win—the Buckeyes’ regular season ends with an air of emptiness. If their name gets called into the fourth playoff spot tomorrow, it’ll be because the playoff committee saw something much of the rest of the game didn’t on Saturday, at the end of a confounding season for a wildly talented team.