Buckeyes’ playoff hopes require help
Ohio State is back at the scene of one of its biggest highs and probably biggest low of the Urban Meyer era.
Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where the Buckeyes play Big Ten West champion Northwestern on Saturday, was the site of Ohio State’s shocking 34-24 upset by Michigan State in 2013. That loss was the first after 24 victories under Meyer and denied the Buckeyes a chance for a spot in the final BCS title game.
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The Buckeyes did a tad better the next year. An underdog against Wisconsin because of quarterback J.T. Barrett’s injury against Michigan, Ohio State rode the arm of Cardale Jones, legs of Ezekiel Elliott and suffocating defense for a 59-0 victory. The Buckeyes needed a rout that stunning to convince the selection committee for the inaugural College Football Playoff to catapult them into the final spot. The rest is history.
Last year, the Buckeyes defeated undefeated Wisconsin again, but their 27-21 victory wasn’t enough for the playoff committee to select them over eventual champion Alabama for the final playoff slot.
The question on Saturday is whether Ohio State will need a 2014 result or a 2017 one to make it to the playoff — that is, if it will be relevant at all for the playoff.
Ohio State (11-1) is No. 6, behind No. 4 Georgia and No. 5 Oklahoma. Georgia upsetting top-ranked Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game would be the ultimate nightmare for both Ohio State and Oklahoma. Alabama’s dominance would almost certainly make the Crimson Tide a lock for the playoff even with a loss.
Assuming an Alabama victory, Oklahoma has the edge for the fourth playoff spot. The committee views its schedule to be better than Ohio State’s, and if it beats Texas, it will have avenged its only loss.
If the Sooners do win, it’s likely the Buckeyes would need a 2014 Wisconsin-ish victory over Northwestern to have any chance to sway the committee. Otherwise, the Buckeyes look headed to the Rose Bowl.
If Texas, an underdog by a touchdown, did beat Oklahoma, then Ohio State would almost certainly slide into the fourth spot with a victory similar to the one it had last year against Wisconsin.
The Big 12 title game is at noon, so the Buckeyes will have the benefit of knowing that outcome. The way Ohio State’s players and coaches have talked, you’d think they might not even pay attention to it. They’ve done the equivalent of closing their eyes and covering their ears about any playoff speculation.
“That’s not our main focus right now,” right tackle Isaiah Prince said. “Our focus is to win and take one mission at a time. The next challenge we have is to beat Northwestern in the championship game, and that’s our only focus.”
A Big Ten title would be a major accomplishment for a team that overcame Meyer’s suspension and inconsistent play for a large swath of the season.
Ohio State is a 14-point favorite over Northwestern (8-4), which is making its first Big Ten championship game appearance. The Wildcats started 1-3 and lost all three nonconference games (Duke, Akron! and Notre Dame) but have won 15 of their last 16 Big Ten games.
After Northwestern lost star running back Jeremy Larkin early in the season, freshman Isaiah Bowser emerged and has averaged more than 120 yards per game the last six games. That has provided balance for a passing game led by senior quarterback Clayton Thorson.
Northwestern isn’t particularly explosive on offense. It ranks only 110th nationally in yardage (351.8 per game). On defense, the Wildcats are a middle-of-the-pack team statistically. But what they lack in star power, they counter with strong fundamentals and a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. lit up Michigan’s top-ranked defense last week, taking advantage of the Wolverines’ preference to play man coverage. Northwestern uses zone coverage primarily. He knows he’ll have to be more patient this week.
The Wildcats have tended to play to the level of their competition. If that happens Saturday, that might doom Ohio State’s playoff hopes even with a victory. Then again, if Oklahoma and Georgia lose, any win might suffice.