Rob Oller: Ohio State holds on for one title, hopes to grab hold of another

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

INDIANAPOLIS — Nothing to do now but hurry up and wait, which perfectly summarizes 2020. Ohio State took care of business against Northwestern on Saturday, flew back to Columbus and hunkered down. 

The difference between the Buckeyes killing time and the rest of us counting the dull hours is that we binge on Netflix and they brace for a chance to win a Natty. If Ohio State receives an invitation into the College Football Playoff on Sunday, the hooting and hollering inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center will be topped only by the haranguing of haters mouthing their misgivings miles from the football facility.

Make no mistake, if the Buckeyes make the four-team playoff — and I would go all-in on that bet — the scarlet and gray brotherhood will have bull’s-eyes on their backs and “bullies” written across their foreheads.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and coach Ryan Day didn't have a productive day in the passing game, but beating Northwestern in the Big Ten championship should be enough to earn a playoff berth.

Such is the life of a college football powerhouse that plays about half as many games as other playoff contenders and lobbied the Big Ten into changing eligibility rules that made the playoffs even possible. At least that’s how non-Buckeye Nation sees it. And says it. 

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “If I was on a committee, it would be hard for me to leave out a 10-1 Texas A&M or an 11-game Florida team over a team that’s played six games.”

Swinney tossed that verbal grenade Dec. 10 on “The Rich Eisen Show.”

Added Florida coach Dan Mullen on Dec. 12 after the Gators’ loss to LSU: “I know we’ve played 10 games so I guess probably the best thing to do would’ve been play less games. Because you seem to get rewarded this year for not playing this year in college football.” 

And here you thought political campaigning ended in early November. Nope. Where coaches and their playoff bubble teams are concerned, every gripe becomes a potential playoff committee influencer.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day was in more of a celebratory mood after Ohio State’s 22-10 win.

“This is the most special group of men I’ve been around in my life,” Day gushed. 

Earlier in the week, Day took the high road when I asked to explain why his team should make the playoff at 6-0, which is half as many games as during a normal season. He repeated his answer on Saturday.

"I'm not going to talk about other teams," he said. "We have enough to talk positively (about ourselves). I will just say that if there is an opportunity to play anybody in the country in one game I'm going to take the Ohio State Buckeyes." 

He has explained why.

“We’ve had an amazing amount of challenges. Way more than anybody else in the country, in my opinion,” he said. “Up here in the north, the minute we went back inside, November, December, the numbers jumped through the roof. We’ve been through so much .... If people can’t see that, that’s their problem.”

Twice last week Day said, “This team can play with anybody in the country.”

But can the Buckeyes defeat everybody in the country? That question likely will be put to the test on Jan. 1 in a playoff semifinal, but the question got an early workout on Saturday against Northwestern at Lucas Oil Stadium. For three quarters Ohio State gave the CFP committee reason to wonder if OSU belonged with the likes of Alabama and Clemson.

Then Trey Sermon happened, and Ohio State fans responded, “Amen.”

Honestly, I initially didn’t think Northwestern would put up enough of a fight to keep the game within 20 points. But that was before Ohio State released its status report during pregame warmups.

The university does not differentiate between illness and injury on the report, but it is fair to assume that at least a handful of the 22 players who were listed as inactive tested positive for COVID-19. Regardless of the reason, the Buckeyes were without starting wide receiver Chris Olave, starting linebacker Baron Browning and punter Drue Chrisman.

Of the MIAs, Olave’s absence hurt most. The passing offense looked anemic at times — Justin Fields appeared tentative without his best route runner — which put more pressure on the run game.

In hindsight, that pressure may turn out to be a playoff positive, considering the committee already knew the Buckeyes possessed a high-flying passing game but now realize Ohio State can pound the rock when needed.

And against the Wildcats it was needed. Sermon rushed for a school-record 331 yards on 29 carries, breaking the 314 yards put up by Eddie George against Illinois in 1995.

Do the Buckeyes belong with the best? And, specifically, are six games enough to determine playoff worthiness? Swinney and Mullen obviously think not (although if Ohio State makes the field Swinney will make nice and gush about the Buckeyes).

Fields has no doubt. 

"Yes (we belong), because we're one of the top-four teams in the country," the quarterback said.

My view? It’s delicate, given the difference in number of games, which absolutely matters. But Ohio State entered the season as a leading playoff contender and nothing has changed my opinion. The Buckeyes may not be the best, but name four better.