Rob Oller | Buckeyes' fall from grace was just a blip

Rob Oller
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is brought to the turf during a first-quarter carry against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Fields and the Buckeyes were largely stymied in the first half Saturday night before exploding past the Badgers in the second half. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

INDIANAPOLIS — The greatest team in Ohio State history … isn't this one.

I thought it was for a while. And I wasn't alone. Players from OSU's past — Buckeyes with more paunch than punch — who always think their era was the best shared similar platitudes.

So balanced, they said. So sold out for one another, they said. Seriously, what wasn't to like? The offense had more going on than a 2019 Honda dashboard. The defense, abysmal last season, swung back toward Silver Bullet territory.

The quarterback made a lot of people forget about Dwayne Haskins Jr. The defensive end was going to become the first defense-specific player to win the Heisman Trophy.

Sure, these Buckeyes had not been overly stressed. There was a drop of sweat against Penn State and pit stains against Michigan. But the eye test told the story. Stack this group up there with the Super Sophs of 1968 and the OSU monster trucks of the early and mid-1970s, with 2002 and 2014 tossed in for good measure.

Oh, and Ohio State first-year coach Ryan Day? A genius.

Never mind that the label “all-time best” should never be bestowed until season's end. And no team should be sprinkled with TBDTITL dust until it pulls off some kind of comeback. It doesn't have to be rallying from 21 points down; 14 would do.

Until Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, Ohio State had never trailed by more than six points. Even when that happened against Michigan — yawn — was Buckeye Nation really worried? Ohio State blew through its first 12 opponents, including some team from Wisconsin, by a 38.1-point average margin of victory.

That's getting it done. But best ever? Wisconsin killed off that that idea by taking a 21-7 halftime lead in the Big Ten championship game and … uh … wait a minute. Let me check something. Get right back to you.

Pause. Pause. Pause.

Uh … as I was saying, this may be the best Ohio State team since “Hang On Sloopy” was first played at the Horseshoe in 1965. Playing with a quarterback wearing a knee brace designed for offensive linemen, and struggling for stretches defensively — Chase Young was mostly a nonfactor for the second straight game — the Buckeyes solved the red-and-white Rubik's Cube that is Wisconsin by coming back from 14 points down and scoring 27 consecutive points in the second half to keep their undefeated season intact.

That's the requisite “rally to greatness.”

“You've seen our talent. You've seen our execution. You've seen a lot of things, but today showed our team's heart, and that's what makes this the best win of the year,” Day said afterward.

As for the Buckeyes' No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff? Maybe not intact. But who knows? Does the 13-member selection committee commend Ohio State for showing toughness in the midst of turmoil and keep it ahead of No. 2 LSU? Or did Ohio State's slow start in the 34-21 win against the No. 8 Badgers, coupled with LSU's 37-10 win against No. 4 Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game, assure the Tigers of taking over the top spot?

That's my hunch, but committee decisions are made less on precedent and protocol and more on simply having power in hand. They do because they can.

Day and his players hope I'm wrong. And they may be right.

“In my heart I think we should be No. 1,” quarterback Justin Fields said. “I hope we are.”

Young was more adamant that Ohio State deserves the top spot.

“I think we're No. 1, point-blank period. To see us not just come back but we dominated,” the defensive end said of the second-half shutout. “A team that flipped a switch like that is a No. 1-worthy team.”

Day put meat on any bone of contention that may exist with the committee.

“When you look at our resume, when you look at what we've done, beating Wisconsin when they were a top-10 team twice in one year, and then this three-game stretch (Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin) … unlike what any team had in the country,” Day said. “If there's a better team out there, I'd like to see it.”

If Ohio State remains No. 1 — and I could make the case that outscoring Wisconsin 27-0 in the second half nullifies the sleepwalking first half in which the Buckeyes forgot how to tackle — and the Buckeyes play Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta (the Sooners almost certainly moved into the No. 4 spot with their overtime win against Baylor in the Big 12 championship game), that would leave No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Clemson to travel to the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona.

How much do politics play into the selection process when pairing teams based on factors beyond football? I have a hard time seeing the committee wanting to send two Southern fan bases to the desert and risk having seats sit empty at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The committee knows Ohio State would be well-represented in the Phoenix area.

Why not move LSU past the Buckeyes, which would keep the Tigers closer to home in Atlanta and still pack the house in Glendale with scarlet and gray? The problem with that scenario is Clemson is a tougher out than Oklahoma, so why punish Ohio State based on fan travel considerations?

Still, my guess is we're looking at an Ohio State-Clemson semifinal in the desert. You will recall — even though you don't want to — the last time these two teams played there. Dabo's dudes thumped Urban's men 31-0.

That was not the Buckeyes' best team ever. This one? I'm keeping the TBDTITL dust ready. Just in case.


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