COLUMBUS, Ohio — Normally, a 45-point blowout of a major-thorn-in-the-side rival garners a few more postgame smiles than what appeared in the Ohio State locker room Saturday afternoon.
A 35-3 halftime lead at the Horseshoe against Michigan State, the second-best team in arguably the nation’s toughest division, provided more than ample time to wipe aside the joyful catharsis of rebounding from an embarrassing loss a week ago. By the time the final minutes of the 48-3 victory were ticking away, that feeling had been replaced by the thoughts of missed opportunity buzzing inside Buckeye heads.
“I think when we play well we can do that to anyone,” sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa said. “It’s not surprising, but it’s kind of annoying that we couldn’t do that every week. … It’s tough to think about what could’ve been.”
By the time Monday morning rolled around head coach Urban Meyer had no interest in thinking about what could have been or even what might eventually be. On Monday and Tuesday this week, Meyer cut off questions about the small chance his team has of slipping back into the College Football Playoff hunt before they could reporters could finish asking them.
“There will be zero conversation about what happened before and what’s going to happen in the future,” Meyer said. Zero.”
The number the Playoff committee had in mind this week was nine. That’s where they stuck the Buckeyes in this week’s ranking, making Auburn and Notre Dame the only two-loss teams ranked higher. It’s tough to think about a team that was drubbed by the solid yet far from spectacular Iowa Hawkeyes as a College Football Playoff participant, but the question begs to be asked: Could college football deliver enough chaos in the next few weeks to force the committee to consider Ohio State?
First, what could have been: If not for giving up 55 points to Iowa, a 9-1 Ohio State team is in the driver’s seat to win the Big Ten’s East Division and take a crack at Wisconsin for a Big Ten title. That game in Indianapolis in this alternate reality likely would have been billed as a CFP quarterfinal — win and you’re in.
Instead, Ohio State’s players did their best to push aside questions about rankings and focus instead on the clear path to a conference championship that lies in front of them. Wins over Illinois and Michigan would get them a title shot, and that was the focus in Columbus during the past week.
“I think we don’t want to look too far ahead. We don’t want to look backwards,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We want to focus on the next two games and getting to the Big Ten championship.”
If the same team that rolled over Michigan State shows up the next three weeks, the Buckeyes will have a good shot to do just that. And then, of course, it will be hard to ignore questions about whether a conference title and wins over at least three ranked opponents (Penn State, Michigan State and, in this scenario, Wisconsin) deserves some playoff consideration.
The playoff has never invited a two-loss team to its semifinals, but the odds of that happening in year four got a lot better this weekend. There are only six Power 5 teams left standing with one or no blemishes on their record. All of them have at least one stiff test remaining.
If the committee has to select a school with multiple losses, Ohio State will prove to be an interesting test case to see how they weigh consistency against a group’s ceiling. Consistency is elusive for just about every program in college football. It’s what makes the transitive property such a flummoxing and deceiving tool when trying to evaluate the sport’s best teams. And if it ends up taking a bit of a back seat to the eye test in the committee’s nebulous “find the best four” edict, Ohio State has a shot.
The ugliest loss the playoff-makers have excused in their first three times through this process was by 14 points to an unranked team. That belonged to the 2014 Ohio State team (35-21 against Virginia Tech) that went on to win a national championship. It seems easy enough to forgive laying one egg as an anomaly. Multiple lapses in dominance start to feel like a trend, especially when the second egg is a 31-point whopper to a run-of-the-mill Big Ten team.
The committee has stuck to the idea that who you beat is more important than who beats you or how ugly a loss might be. Will we even get the chance to find out if that mentality changes when they start to evaluate teams with more than one data point in the L column?
College’s football most consistent trait — its wild inconsistency — makes that question hard to answer, but it sure is fun to think about. We’ll spend the coming week piecing together what we absolutely know to be true about what lies ahead, and then strap in to watch another slate of games blow it up again. This is a beautiful game.
For Meyer and his Buckeyes, they’d rather not think about what could have been or even what might still be.
“I wish I could put [my players] on a desert island,” Meyer said Saturday afternoon.
For now, they might as well be. But stay tuned, because no school has proven to be better at finding its way back onto the boat in the College Football Playoff era than Ohio State.