An 8 p.m. ET kickoff. A national television audience. All-black uniforms. Good-old-fashioned mid-October Big Ten football, and a hated cross-town rival in town.
If ever there was a moment for Ohio State to start looking like Ohio State again, you have to figure that this might be it.
When the still-No. 1-ranked but still mostly unimpressive Buckeyes welcome Penn State to Columbus Saturday night, they will be playing for plenty.
They’ll be playing to keep their undefeated record intact; they’ll be playing to keep pace in the race in the Big Ten East; and they’ll be playing to show the region’s top recruits that, while James Franklin may be trying to build a monster in State College, Urban Meyer already has a monster in central Ohio.
But in this era of the College Football Playoff—in this era that demands that teams not just win, but win pretty—the Buckeyes will also be playing, whether they’d like to admit it or not, to impress the members of the playoff committee. This is a big stage—and a big opportunity—for Meyer’s Buckeyes, and they must know that they can’t afford to waste it.
Especially given the way they’ve been playing so far this year.
It’s hard to figure out what, exactly, has been ailing these 2015 Buckeyes. After all, on paper, they look to be every bit as good as the team that steamrolled its way to the national title last season. But pretty much from the opening snap of the season, this bunch has looked a bit disjointed. A bit out-of-sync. A bit uninspired. And yes, a bit short on confidence. As a result, the nation may be losing confidence in them, too.
With each passing week, that Week 1 win over Virginia Tech looks less and less impressive, and so, too, do a few of their other victories this season—including their last two. The Buckeyes were sloppy and unconvincing in a way-too-close 34-27 win over Indiana two weeks back, and though the final score last week against Maryland looked impressive enough, the fact is that Ohio State found itself tied at one point in the third quarter against an absolute train wreck of a team—a team that was just getting ready to lose its coach and a team that, when all is said and done, may not win another game all year long.
In other words, no, the Buckeyes are not playing anywhere near to their potential.
This week, they will take on yet another opponent that, in theory, should not be able to compete with them for a full 60 minutes. Penn State has talent in spots—defensive end, defensive tackle, wideout, and tailback (provided Saquon Barkley is ready to play)—but James Franklin’s Nittany Lions most certainly don’t have anywhere near the depth that Meyer’s Buckeyes do.
Which is to say, of course, that if Ohio State comes to play, it should win. In fact, it should win easily.
That’s what the nation will be expecting to see this week, and if the Buckeyes don’t deliver, they may start to seriously suffer in the eyes of the playoff committee, who very well may eventually face a situation where they will need to weigh the overall merits of a one-loss, defending national champion Ohio State team against playoff rivals from the SEC, Big 12, ACC or Pac-12. That’s what on the line for the Buckeyes this week: their very reputation.
Is it really fair to expect this team to play its best football every single week?
Well, no, probably not.
But this is the world we live in, and that same expectation is heaped upon every other top contender in the nation—from Alabama and Baylor to TCU and Clemson and all the rest.
After all, there are only four playoff spots to be had.
They need to be earned.
And it’s time for the Ohio State Buckeyes to start earning theirs.