The pieces all came together on Saturday for Ohio State in the game the Buckeyes care about the most.
Ohio State’s 62-39 victory over No. 4 Michigan was affirmation that the Buckeyes really can be a dominating team.
Now comes the final exam, which has two components. The first, which is all coach Urban Meyer says he cares about for now, is to beat Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. That would give the Buckeyes back-to-back undisputed league titles for the first time since 2006-07.
But mere victory on Saturday in Indianapolis likely won’t be enough for the Buckeyes (11-1) to get a shot at the biggest prize — the College Football Playoff. Ohio State is 10th in the current CFP rankings. The committee will release its next-to-last rankings Tuesday night, with Ohio State expected to move up to No. 6.
For the Buckeyes to move up the necessary two more spots, they’ll have to overtake Georgia and Oklahoma. Georgia plays No. 1 Alabama, and if the Crimson Tide does what it has done to every other opponent, that takes care of that.
Oklahoma plays Texas, which beat the Sooners in October, in the Big 12 title game. If both the Sooners and Buckeyes win, the selection committee will have a long debate about which is the more deserving team.
Ohio State’s victory over Michigan put the Buckeyes back in the conversation. Northwestern has to be their closing argument, and Ohio State players know they have to impress the selection committee.
“I think it’s very important,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said on a teleconference Monday. “In situations like this, it’s great to get the win because you have a conference championship in your belt.
“But it’s pretty obvious that the committee looks on how you beat teams and how you look collectively on offense and defense. We just want to build on last week. We feel we have really good momentum going into this game.”
Ohio State is a 14-point favorite over Northwestern (8-4), but the Buckeyes have reason to be wary of the Wildcats. Pat Fitzgerald’s team has tended to play up or down to its competition and showed resilience after losing all three nonconference games. Northwestern beat every Big Ten West opponent, losing only to Michigan after squandering a 17-0 lead.
The Wildcats have Ohio State’s respect.
“Their coach and I have been friends for a long, long time,” Meyer said. “He’s one of the best coaches in college football.”
Meyer said he has known defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and offensive coordinator Mick McCall since all three coached in Colorado.
“They’re just great people who coach their tails off, and their players are a reflection of their staff,” Meyer said.
Northwestern is making its first appearance in the Big Ten title game. Ohio State is playing in the conference championship game for the fourth time. Given the circumstances of this season — Meyer’s suspension, the team’s inconsistency and the rout of Michigan — this return visit is anything but routine.
“It’s only special if you win it,” Meyer said. “Coach Mick (strength coach Mickey Marotti) and I talked about that. What is the objective? I used to say, ‘Compete for championships in November.’ He went a step further and said, ‘Get to Indy.’ Now we’re in Indy, so go win it.”
As for style points, Meyer deflected a question about the playoff. But his players know.
“Now that we know we’re capable of achieving what we just did Saturday,” defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said, “we know we have to answer beyond that to convince the committee to go to the playoff.”