While the rest of the Big Ten has resembled a chaotic wilderness, with low-expectation teams topping the league and vice versa, Ohio State is still, well, Ohio State.
The eight-time national champ, with three College Football Playoff appearances in the past five years, has sailed through a high-scoring season, including handing its toughest East division opponent, Indiana, its first lost of the year at 42-35 last weekend.
Through four games this season, the Buckeyes rank seventh in the nation in scoring, averaging 45.3 points, and eighth with 535.3 yards per game. Quarterback Justin Fields, a Heisman Trophy contender, leads the country completing 79.6% of his passes for 1,208 yards and 13 touchdowns with three interceptions, all against Indiana.
But for as locked in as they seem for a 39th Big Ten title come Dec. 19, even potentially against a fellow undefeated opponent in Northwestern, the Buckeyes seem to have only a precarious hold on a national semifinal.
The first CFP rankings debuted Tuesday, putting No. 1 Alabama (7-0), No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0) and No. 3 Clemson (7-1) ahead of No. 4 Ohio State for the four spots.
Per Gary Barta, the Iowa athletic director serving as CFP selection committee chair, the Buckeyes offense is undeniably dynamic and loaded. But the committee had reservations about other aspects of Ohio State.
The defense, for one, has allowed an average of 26 points and 389.5 yards per game, ranking it about 50th of 127 FBS teams. Barta said the committee plans to observe that side of the ball critically in coming weeks.
Another issue is Ohio State’s Big Ten-only shortened and delayed schedule, with a game against Maryland already canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the Terrapins.
“Other than Indiana — and Indiana is certainly ranked high, 12th in the country — but the other three teams they’ve played have a combined record of 2-12,” Barta said. “That certainly factored in. It was one factor in where Ohio State ended up.”
The rest of Ohio State’s schedule isn’t much tougher with a game at Illinois on Saturday, a trip to Michigan State on Dec. 5 and a Dec. 12 game against Michigan before the Big Ten Championship Game Dec. 19.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day told reporters this week he’s tried to balance his coaching this year, making practices more fun and light considering the weight 2020 has put on his players for competing during a pandemic.
“People don’t realize the sacrifices they make, and their being so isolated, and then really, what is the reward for what they’re doing?” Day asked.
The immediate answer that comes to mind is the national title, the team’s first since 2014-15. But that wasn’t where Day was going.
“It’s being a part of a family and a brotherhood that’s trying to do something special,” he said. “But they’re not playing in front of 100,000 people. They’re not seeing their family after the game. They’re not seeing their friends. They’re not getting that instant feedback. And that matters. It just does.”
They are at least receiving weekly feedback from the CFP committee now, though. Just a handful of games remain to see how the Buckeyes heed it.