Ohio State lost more than a football game Saturday. The Buckeyes also lost some benefit of the doubt.

Will they bounce back against Michigan State this week? At one time, the reflexive response was “of course,’’ but it has devolved to “probably” and is leaning toward “don’t be so sure.”

As for Ohio State’s elite status — the 1A to Alabama’s No. 1 — TV executives and bowl representatives probably still salivate at the prospect of landing the Buckeyes, but the enthusiasm is increasingly based on ratings and travel dollars more than team performance.

The slippage has been happening for a while, at least since Clemson cleaned Ohio State’s clock 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl last season. But Saturday’s unsightly 55-24 loss to unranked Iowa brought the buried bones of contention to the surface.

It was not just losing to the Hawkeyes that blew up Buckeye Nation, but the how and how big. The Buckeyes were not competitive in the third and fourth quarters and eventually surrendered the fifth-most points in school history and the most ever against a team coached by Urban Meyer.

Combine Saturday’s fiasco with September’s 31-16 home loss to Oklahoma, and if the sky is not falling in Columbus, it has an extremely low cloud ceiling.

What in the name of Earle Bruce — and his six straight 9-3 seasons — is going on here? I wonder, and you wonder. Just don’t wonder in front of Meyer, who is not wonderful when addressing the big picture.

Case in point. I asked the Ohio State coach on Monday what might be wrong with the program. (Note: We know Meyer has nerve endings, because I struck one when asking about the program’s future.)

Me: “You know better than anybody how high the expectations are here. So after a loss like Saturday, people are asking, wondering what’s going on, what’s wrong, where is the program headed.”

Meyer: “Where is the program headed?”

Me: “When you came here, you took it to the top. You fixed it. I would imagine the challenge of keeping and maintaining that height is different than fixing something?”

Meyer: “That’s kind of deep. We’re playing Michigan State this week.”

What’s deep are fans’ concerns.

• Meyer has never spent more than six seasons at the same school. This is his sixth season at Ohio State. Obviously, he knows how to coach (68-8 at OSU) but he is approaching new territory, where the challenge will be to keep the Buckeyes consistently in the hunt for national championships. Meyer is masterful at taking a program leaking oil and turning it into a title team. Can he keep an already-powerful engine humming?

• Is Meyer getting after it — and enjoying it? — like he did when he arrived? More than a few fans think his energy level is not what it was, or where it needs to be to effectively oversee every aspect of the program. Could be, but I suspect the opposite might be true; that Meyer grinds his coaches and players into dust instead of diamonds. After a while, both begin to tune him out.

• Meyer is fine. It’s the diva players looking past Ohio State to the NFL who are the problem. Recruiting the best talent is great as long as they stow their egos and professional aspirations at the door.

• Forget the “deep” theories. J.T. Barrett is not up to the task. Plain and simple.

I’m guessing most fans camp out somewhere in one or more of these explanations. A minority, meanwhile, see the Iowa loss as an aberration; the Buckeyes will rebound by winning the Big Ten East.

Before Iowa, I would have readily agreed. But the Buckeyes no longer get the benefit of my doubt. How about you?

 

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD