OSU makes case to be No. 1
One day after each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments. Their latest back-and-forth follows the Buckeyes’ blowout of Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon, arguably their most impressive performance of the season.
Kaufman: This was the last time Ohio State was going to play before the first College Football Playoff rankings are released Nov. 5. If it was looking to present a convincing case to the selection committee that it should be atop the initial rankings, it did a fine job. Not only did the Buckeyes defeat their highest-ranked opponent this season, as Wisconsin was No. 13 in the Associated Press poll prior to kickoff, but they routed the Badgers like they have everyone else on their schedule. It’s a useful juncture to take stock of Ohio State in the playoff race. Some of the other undefeated teams, Alabama, LSU and Penn State, who are challenging for the top spot, are also idle this weekend.
Rabinowitz: All that really matters is to be in the top four in the final rankings, but maybe being No. 1 in the first CFP rankings could give OSU a buffer if it needs it. I don't want to predict where the Buckeyes will be next Tuesday, though I'll say that they have as strong a case as anyone to be No. 1. OSU has been completely dominant on both sides of the ball and in all phases of the game. Last year, you could make the case that OSU excelled in only one phase — passing offense — and was deficient in all others. With this team, I challenge anyone to find a true weakness. To go eight games into a season and not have a game closer than 24 points is astounding.
Kaufman: Mainly, debuting at No. 1 would be a good omen for making the playoff. Four of the five teams that have been in the top spot in the initial rankings have gone on to make the four-team field. The Buckeyes’ case largely rests with their style of play. They’re throttling teams, winning by an average of 40 points, a stretch unmatched by the other top contenders. Only two other FBS teams (shocker: it’s Alabama and Clemson) have average scoring margins above 30 points. The Buckeyes aren’t playing slouches either. Seven of the eight teams they’ve faced this season are .500 or better. But let’s talk about their biggest win. That was Saturday over the Badgers, who were made to look far less brawny than usual.
Rabinowitz: I always thought that Ohio State matched up well against Wisconsin. The Badgers do what they do very well, but they're mostly a one-trick pony on offense with Jonathan Taylor. Give a disciplined, speedy defense the ability to focus on one player, and I like its chances. On offense, it's similar. Wisconsin's D plays in sync, but it just doesn't have the athletes across the board that Ohio State does. If the Badgers' front seven doesn't dominate, the Buckeyes have too many weapons to contain. Once OSU's offensive line took control, the game was over. And when you have stars playing like stars — J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young topped the list Saturday — well, that's a recipe for something like a 38-7 victory.
Kaufman: Some of Taylor’s least productive outings have been against Ohio State. Not only was he held to 52 yards Saturday, but he had a career-low 41 yards against the Buckeyes in the 2017 Big Ten championship game. That’s 93 combined yards in two games without a touchdown. In all other games in his college career, he averages 154 rushing yards. It shows the depth of the Buckeyes’ defensive line. It played without two of its top defensive ends. Jonathon Cooper and Tyler Friday were out, meaning sophomore Tyreke Smith made his second start of the season opposite Young. The Badgers still had trouble running the ball. It felt like they were doomed from the get-go. On the first series, they faced a third-and-3, but linebacker Malik Harrison shot toward the backfield to stop Taylor shy of a first down, prompting a punt and a quick three-and-out.
Rabinowitz: Young got a lot of the defensive headlines, and deservedly so, but it does take 11 players to do the job. That's what the Buckeyes are doing so well. They're so in sync that sometimes it seems as if there are 13 defenders on the field. At times last year, it looked like they had seven on defense. That's what happens when a unit believes in the scheme and in each other. Players trust that they can fulfill their own responsibilities and that everyone else will, too. On offense, let's give some more credit to the offensive line. Yes, Dobbins ran like someone with something to prove, but some of those holes were ones that you or I could have run through — OK, maybe just you. The pass protection was a little shaky at times, but having someone with the strength and speed of Justin Fields at quarterback to avoid the rush is invaluable.
Kaufman: Fields showed some moxie too. When Ohio State held a 10-7 lead early in the third quarter, he led a 75-yard scoring drive to answer a Wisconsin touchdown. During that drive, he found Chris Olave on a third-and-6 and ran for a 10-yard touchdown in which he was hit as he crossed the goal line, prompting a visit to the medical tent. It was the first time we had seen him in a tight game in the second half. By the way, it’s remarkable Fields has 33 total touchdowns through the first two months and might be the team’s third-best candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
Rabinowitz: I'd still say Fields is no lower than No. 2 among Buckeyes, pardon the uniform pun. Young is getting a lot of deserved love, but I think Fields is ahead of Dobbins in the Heisman derby. What's remarkable is that I can't recall any other team that has had three legitimate Heisman contenders. The Buckeyes now have an official off week, followed by two more that might as well be. Maryland has collapsed under the weight of injuries after a strong start. Rutgers got a win over Liberty but remains Rutgers. But then come two formidable games — at home against Penn State and then in Ann Arbor against suddenly revitalized Michigan. The Wolverines crushed inept Notre Dame Saturday night and have looked like a different team since halftime against Penn State. After eight blowouts and two more to come, Ohio State might face real competition to end its regular season.