Big Ten football in the playoff era has been easy enough to understand. Want to win the conference and compete for playoff spots and national titles?
Well, you’ve got to be able to beat that. And then you pointed in the direction of Columbus, Ohio.
Only four Big Ten teams have beaten Ohio State since 2014. There was the “Tim Beck game,” a 17-14 loss to Michigan State in which running back Ezekiel Elliot only had 29 carries. (He did average 43.6 carries per game that season and had carried 50 times the week before against Illinois.) The Spartans went on to win the East, the conference and make the playoff.
In 2016 unranked Penn State used a blocked field goal to upset No. 2 Ohio State 24-21 in State College. The Nittany Lions went on to win the East, the conference and didn’t make the playoff. The Buckeyes’ did.
Last year’s Big Ten loss was the strangest of them all, a 55-24 hammering at the hands of the Hawkeyes. Iowa didn’t win its division and didn’t make the playoff, making this one even more of an outlier. Ohio State didn’t make it this time either, finishing one spot behind eventual national champ Alabama in the final playoff rankings.
Then, of course, Purdue beat the Buckeyes two weeks ago in West Lafayette, 49-20. Division, conference and playoff fates still to be determined both ways.
But it’s the fact that most non-Ohio State fans probably remembered all four of the Buckeyes’ playoff-era Big Ten losses that says the most about their standard-setting excellence under Urban Meyer. The wins are so regular and routine that they blend together, but the losses take on the tone of tragedies. How? Why? What does it mean?
Nebraska (2-6, 1-4) gets to face the in-recovery version of the Buckeyes in Columbus on Saturday. Ohio State (7-1, 4-1) had a bye week after being beat by the Boilermakers, which offered plenty of time for a deep, hard look at this version of the Buckeyes. They’re as talented as ever, but the running game might be broken and the defense has given up a shocking number of big plays.
How bad did things get over the past week and a half? Bad enough that Meyer decided to be open about something –– the arachnoid cyst in his brain that causes him intense headaches and helps explains why he’s looked so anguished on the sidelines at times this year.
The real reason he decided to make that information public? Meyer gave the answer himself on Wednesday. (https://www.elevenwarriors.com/ohio-state-football/2018/10/98331/presser-bullets-urban-meyer-says-chris-olave-will-enter-wide-receiver-rotation-wyatt-davis-and-josh-myers-could-play)
“So I could quit having to answer questions like this.”
Turning points are tough to recognize in real time. They’re tough in retrospect, too. We’ve had 20 years to think about Nebraska football’s fall from grace and I still don’t think you could get widespread agreement on what the “turning point” was. (Other than Tom Osborne’s retirement.)
I don’t know if Ohio State has reached one here, either, all I know is that all of the talk around the Buckeyes seems more anxious than at any other point during the Meyer era. And there’s evidence on both sides. You could point to the fact that Ohio State’s four losses since New Year’s Eve, 2016, have come by 29, 31, 15 and 31 points.
You could also note that Ohio State’s still 19-4 over that stretch, that it’s ranked in the top 10 right now and controls its own fate in the division. Saturday is the Buckeyes’ chance to play well enough that it can quit having to answer questions like this. For now.
I’ve been going back and forth all week on if I believe this is Nebraska’s biggest advantage in this game or biggest disadvantage.
Meyer is known as more of a motivator than Xs-and-Os coach. He’s had two weeks to work on whatever fire and brimstone he deploys in the Buckeyes’ locker room Saturday morning and I’m guessing it will work pretty well. Ohio State has every motivation to play well against the Huskers. It needs to play well.
That last part might help the Huskers some. Nebraska has the opportunity to come in and simply fire away. There are no questions about the direction of the program, the future of what Husker football will be. If Nebraska’s play shows that absence of expectations, it has a chance. No fear of failure, right?
But I think it’s more of an advantage for the Huskers long-term. If Nebraska, even at 2-6, continues along its current path there will be elevated expectations entering 2019. And if things go as they should, higher expectations again in 2020.
If everything works the way Husker fans hope it will, Nebraska will one day be in Ohio State’s position, a lofty perch where every loss feels like a tragedy. But it’s not there yet, and the more it can use that freedom until it gets there, the sooner it will be there.