Back in September, when I ranked Ohio State No. 1 in our TMG College Sports pre-season Sweet 16, it was a symbolic gesture.
The Big Ten had canceled its season, pulling the rug out from under the Buckeyes in their quest to atone for last season’s frustrating 29-23 playoff loss to Clemson. I just wanted to make a statement about what might have been—and remind people that a season without the Big Ten was...a loss for all of college football.
September was a wrenching time not only for Ohio State, but for all of us. We really don’t know what the best approach to controlling Covid-19 would have been. Some have paid larger prices than others, depending on their economic situations, their health and their pastimes.
The reality was, the Big Ten’s decision to shut down when three major conferences—the SEC, ACC and Big 12—were playing football was untenable. Led by a very vocal Justin Fields and Ryan Day, Ohio State pushed hard for the league to play. So did protesters from Nebraska, Iowa, Penn State and other pockets around the league.
They got their wish. Big Ten football was restored, but it was a very sawed-off season that did not begin until late October.
The two other Big Ten teams that I had ranked in my Sweet 16—No. 5 Penn State and No. 10 Wisconsin—never really handled it. The Nittany Lions lost a crazy opener at Indiana, and had some bedrock problems that were never solved. A young quarterback and Covid disruptions stunted the Badgers’ growth massively.
Ohio State soldiered on, but its stop-and-start 6-0 season gave little indication that it was ready to compete with a seasoned, efficient machine like Clemson.
Against their two best opponents, Indiana and Northwestern, the Buckeyes looked vulnerable, The Hoosiers QB, Michael Penix Jr., rallied IU to a 42-35 loss, exposing Ohio State’s defense to valid criticism. Northwestern’s defense held Fields to 114 passing yards and two interceptions in a 22-10 loss.
Indiana and Northwestern. If it had been Penn State and Michigan, maybe the perception would have been different.
The way things stood, the Buckeyes did not seem to be a playoff threat. They had not been at full strength because of Covid problems. But that wasn't a reason to think they would put everything together and become a juggernaut overnight.
There were grumbles about privilege, that the Big Ten had bent its rules to allow the Buckeyes to be eligible for the conference championship game despite playing only five games.
The truth is, the Big Ten would have done that for any team that gave the conference its best chance for a playoff berth. And any conference would have done the same for its best playoff hope. The ACC actually did do that, wiping out games that Clemson and Notre Dame were going to play, to ensure that they would not stumble.
And then there were naysayers. Texas A&M still believes it deserved a playoff slot. To which I say...eight-team playoff.
And Clemson coach Dabo Swinney famously rankled the Buckeyes by ranking them 11th, saying they had not played enough games to be in his Top 10.
Oops. Ohio State played a game for the ages on Saturday night, dominating the supposedly dominant Tigers 49-28.
Despite a painful rib injury after a fierce tackle, Fields threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns. Running back Trey Sermon took care of the ground game, running for 193 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries.
And a defense that had been suspect held Travis Etienne to 32 yards on 10 carries and never let Heisman finalist Trevor Lawrence get closer than a 14-point deficit after Ohio State opened a 35-21 lead at the half.
The last time Ohio State entered the College Football Playoff amid this much controversy was in 2014, when it was given the No 4 seed despite an early home loss to Virginia Tech. It was a decision that rankled Baylor and TCU, two one-loss teams that thought they had more deserving resumes.
All it did in 2014 was upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 and defeat No. 2 Oregon 42-20 in the title game.
Are the Buckeyes destined to win their first national championship since 2014? If they’re comfortable as the underdog, Las Vegas has provided fuel for that fire. Alabama is a 7-1/2 point favorite for the Jan. 11 championship game,
It feels very odd to paint the Buckeyes, a perennial power if ever there was one, as disrespected underdogs. And yet, the team and its fans are certainly embracing what made sense going into the Clemson game. And what seems reasonable going into the Alabama title match.
All things considered, it’s understandable.
Most importantly, though, this sets up a really compelling national championship game. And after all those thoughts of another in the series of Alabama-Clemson showdowns, that’s a refreshingly unexpected ending to an abbreviated season filled with controversy.