Only three weeks have passed since Ohio State enjoyed its first week off in the college football season, but the Buckeyes aren’t complaining about getting another fall break.

For one thing, the first respite did nothing to curb momentum after a 6-0 start, as evidenced by dominant post-intermission victories at Northwestern (52-3) and at home against Wisconsin (38-7) last Saturday.

 

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Wisconsin, which also started 6-0 before a one-point loss at Illinois on Oct. 19, was largely considered to be the Buckeyes’ first legitimate test. But Ohio State shook off a slow offensive start and nasty weather conditions to pound the Badgers and confirm its standing as the Big Ten’s top team and one of the elite teams in the country.

Another reason OSU likely isn’t griping about getting another midseason hiatus is that idle time means healing time, and plenty of Buckeyes are nursing wounds.

Among key contributors, Jonathon Cooper, Baron Browning, Branden Bowen and Austin Mack have missed recent games with injuries, and quarterback Justin Fields spent time in the medical tent last week after absorbing a hard hit against Wisconsin.

The break in the action also means The Dispatch’s OSU beat reporters, Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman, can join sports editor Ray Stein for a roundtable discussion about the Buckeyes and their Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes before a four-week midnight run to the finish.

Stein: Let’s pick it up right there. Coming off these past two wins, do you sense that Ohio State would rather be playing this week instead of resting?

Kaufman: There are probably some conflicting feelings. The Buckeyes have momentum and are dominating teams. Players are having fun, smiling on the sideline. Why not keep the run going? On the other hand, this is a smart group. They want to play 15 games, which is what it will take to appear in the College Football Playoff title game, so they know rest will help them down the line. Rest after facing a team like Wisconsin is a bonus, too.

Rabinowitz: My hunch is that enough Buckeyes took a pounding against Wisconsin that a respite is welcomed. Justin Fields’ back was tender a few days after the game, for instance. The truth of the matter is that Ohio State’s next two games are likely to be glorified scrimmages. Yes, Maryland took the Buckeyes to the wire last year, but this is not the same Terrapins team and certainly not the same Buckeyes defense. Rutgers, well, say no more. So the key will be not losing their edge before the Penn State game, not so much whether they’re off this week.

Stein: Since you brought up the upcoming schedule, it seems worth pointing out that OSU and Penn State are two games clear of the rest of the field in the East Division. So assuming the Buckeyes beat Maryland and Rutgers — this is a strong limb, boys — they would qualify for the Big Ten championship by beating Penn State, correct?

Rabinowitz: Yes. They would have the tiebreaker against the Nittany Lions, and Michigan has two Big Ten losses (Wisconsin and Penn State). But given that the Southeastern Conference almost certainly will get at least one team into the playoff and the Atlantic Coast is so weak that it’s hard to see Clemson losing, the big question is whether Ohio State could withstand any loss and still make the playoff. It would depend on what happens in the Big 12 and Pac-12. And how would OSU fans feel about making the playoff if they lose to Michigan along the way?

Kaufman: So if Ohio State clinches the division before Thanksgiving, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not resting its starters against Michigan.

Stein: Oh, that’s a safe assumption. Michigan has been a season unto itself for generations, and we have to assume the same will be true for Ryan Day as it was for every whistle-wearer from Woody Hayes through Urban Meyer. Championship implications aside, the big question is how important the OSU-Michigan result is to Jim Harbaugh’s future.

Kaufman: It’s huge for the long term. Harbaugh has only two more seasons on his contract. Would he merit an extension if his team can upset Ohio State? Possibly. He is 0-4 against the Buckeyes, and Michigan hasn’t won in the rivalry since 2011. I expect Michigan to be motivated. The Wolverines have shown some fight since falling behind 21-0 to Penn State on Oct. 19 and following with last week’s blowout victory over Notre Dame.

Stein: So let’s agree that Michigan will be motivated when it hosts OSU on Nov. 30. But so was Cincinnati, Wisconsin, etc. Point being, the Buckeyes haven’t shown many, if any, weaknesses. Do either of you see any sort of obvious road map to beating Ohio State?

Rabinowitz: No team is unbeatable, and the big question for Ohio State is how it’ll react if it’s in a close game or trailing in the fourth quarter. Penn State and Michigan are the most athletic teams the Buckeyes will play in the regular season. Both have playmakers who can do damage, though I wonder whether Shea Patterson can avoid mistakes against a harassing Buckeyes defense. OSU’s pass protection has been a little shaky, and it has taken some time for the run game to click in some games. So that’s at least a compass, if not a road map.

Kaufman: As it’s difficult to identify significant on-field flaws for Ohio State, we might be better looking at intangibles. Day mentioned this week that the Buckeyes have a “bigger bull’s-eye” on their chests. I don’t think they were under the radar entering the season, but there were some questions about a new coach and a new quarterback in the post-Meyer era. Those are gone. This team is a heavy favorite to make the playoff, but how will players deal with their role as a front-runner? It seems like a mature group, but with 18- to 22-year-olds, emotions could be a factor.

Stein: Of course. But one could argue that the best aspect of OSU’s game has been its mental toughness. Granted, the Buckeyes have eight knockouts in eight bouts, but they’ve been remarkably businesslike. If that were to disappear, it would be a huge shock. Can you even imagine this team winning a 52-51 game like it did at Maryland last year?

Kaufman: I was theorizing more than predicting. You’re right, they have been businesslike. A majority of the roster has never been to the playoff, including many juniors who likely will leave for the NFL after this season. This is their final chance to seriously pursue a national championship, and they should keep their focus. But they’re so talented and well-coached that it might take a mental slip-up for them to stumble — at least during the regular season.

Rabinowitz: I can’t see Ohio State giving up 51 to anybody, unless a playoff game becomes a shootout. This team is too good defensively. Any Big Ten team that beats the Buckeyes will have to play its absolute best — don’t forget that Iowa and Purdue did just that in recent years — and hope OSU has a clunker. But the Buckeyes’ talent and coaching is so good that they can survive even an off game except against Penn State and maybe Michigan.

Stein: Let’s look West, then, as we start to wrap up. Like OSU and Penn State, Minnesota is two games up on everyone in that division. Do the Gophers hold up?

Rabinowitz: I doubt it. I think they lose to Penn State and Wisconsin and thus would lose the tiebreaker to the Badgers. The Gophers also have to play at Iowa. Good luck rowing that boat into safe waters. Give credit to P.J. Fleck for making Minnesota relevant again, but I still think Wisconsin is the class of that division.

Kaufman: I think Wisconsin ultimately emerges in the West, but Minnesota won’t be easy to KO. While the unbeaten Gophers haven’t had a meat grinder of a schedule, they have been winning convincingly. Their past four wins, including ones over Maryland and Rutgers — fair warning — have been by 23 or more points. That’s not fluky.

Stein: The Gophers have some spunk, I’ll give them that. Not sure if that gets them to Indianapolis, but I think it would be great for the league. OK, brass tacks time: The first playoff rankings will be announced Tuesday night, four of the top five teams in the poll are off this week, and the fifth, Clemson, plays Wofford. So virtually nothing can happen that’s going to change the top four. Who you got?

Kaufman: LSU might have the best claim for the top spot if the selection committee continues to prioritize high-quality wins. The Tigers have beaten three teams ranked in the top 10 at the time — Texas, Florida and Auburn. No one can match that. Among the rest of the top five, both Ohio State and Penn State have beaten two teams currently in the top 25, and neither Alabama nor Clemson has beaten anyone now ranked. My best guess is No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Clemson.

Rabinowitz: I’d agree with that, but I think it’s a toss-up between LSU and Ohio State. LSU’s three biggest wins don’t look as impressive now, and some of the Buckeyes’ look better in hindsight. Cincinnati’s only loss is to OSU, Wisconsin is a good win and, heck, even Indiana is 6-2. I’d have to think the committee will look strongly at how dominating Ohio State has been. Beating opponents by more than 40 points per game is astounding. I’ll give a tiny edge to LSU over OSU, with Alabama and Clemson rounding out the top four.

 

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

rstein@dispatch.com