B1G debate: Who is Ohio State’s biggest challenger in the Big Ten?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who is Ohio State’s biggest challenger in the B1G?
RYAN: There was a time about a month ago when Ohio State was struggling (relatively, of course), and the Big Ten looked wide open. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The Buckeyes (5-1, 3-0) are once again the favorites, and that is despite there being 3 other teams in the East ranked in the top 10.
Forget for a moment that the Buckeyes haven’t lost a B1G game since 2018 and that this conference is theirs until someone takes it from them. That’s 24 straight wins.
Even for Ohio State, this offense is ridiculous. With Justin Fields at QB in 2019 and 2020, Ohio State averaged 6.9 and 7.3 yards per play, respectively. This season, the Buckeyes are averaging over 8.5 yards per play. That’s not a typo. Take away a generational QB talent and plug in a redshirt freshman who had never attempted a college pass, and the offense is … even better? Scary stuff, even for this Halloween season.
So, who is the Buckeyes’ biggest challenger? I wouldn’t have thought this coming into the season, and I wouldn’t have even thought this a month ago … but the answer is Michigan.
I know, I know. Michigan has had all sorts of trouble with Ohio State the last decade and a half, with 15 losses in 16 meetings since 2004. Here’s what Michigan has going for it (aside from being well past due to beat its rival again).
The Wolverines have the 5th-best margin of victory among Power 5 teams this season at 23 points per game. That’s inflated a bit by their 2 MAC wins, but Western Michigan (5-2) and Northern Illinois (5-2) are both having good seasons and upset Power 5 teams (including Western Michigan handing Pitt its only loss).
Michigan is the only contender that gets to play Ohio State at home. Penn State and Michigan State have to go into the Horseshoe and win. That’s not impossible, as Oregon proved, but it does lower the chances. Penn State is playing Ohio State at night under the lights, which will be a much different atmosphere than what Oregon had to deal with for a noon kickoff.
Plus, I still don’t feel like Michigan has played its best football, at least offensively. It feels like the Wolverines are just scratching the surface with what they can do in the pass game. They are 121st nationally in attempting only 22.3 passes per game, but they have been efficient, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt (25th nationally). And the guy who could be their best QB, JJ McCarthy, doesn’t even start — he just comes in and drops dimes in garbage time.
Anyways, Michigan has the look and feel of a contender this year, at long last.
Who do you think is Ohio State’s biggest challenger?
CONNOR: Wait, for real? Michigan? As in, the team that is riding an 8-game losing streak against Ohio State? Like, the team that has 1 win against the Buckeyes since I started high school in 2004?
I know, I know. This Michigan team is different. So was the last one. So was the one before that and the one before that. They’re all going to be Jim Harbaugh’s breakthrough team … until they’re not. There are certain rivalries I have given up on when it comes to breaking down with logic and reason, which you have plenty of (logic and reasoning would suggest that stat about the passing game efficiency will matter late in the year).
I understand the Wolverines are a force in the running game and Ohio State’s run defense is only slightly better than those defensive players you see on Herschel Walker’s high school highlight reel. Doesn’t matter. Cosmic forces won’t allow Michigan to break through against Ohio State until Ohio State isn’t Ohio State.
Penn State, however, is ready to take that next step and dethrone the Buckeyes. I bet the average fan doesn’t realize that they’re within an average of 4.6 points of each other in the last 5 years. There’s not some large gap separating this year’s teams, either. I envision CJ Stroud having a rough day against a Penn State defense that, despite the Iowa loss, is playing at an elite level. Here’s a passing efficiency stat — the Lions are No. 3 among Power 5 teams allowing just 5.5 yards per attempt. The only defenses in America who have allowed fewer passing touchdowns than Penn State are that all-world unit down in Athens and Purdue, which achieved world-beater status in Iowa City last week (only half joking).
Sean Clifford’s absence was the only thing holding Penn State back from being undefeated right now, which is something I never thought I’d type. But here we are. Clifford will be able to make some plays against an Ohio State pass defense that’s still trying to crack the top 100 in FBS. I’m also of the belief that Noah Cain will be able to run on the Buckeyes, who have improved defensively against some weaker offenses.
I’m realizing as I’m typing this that there’s a 5% chance that Mel Tucker is reading this on his phone with a fat cigar in his mouth, cackling at us for sleeping on his team. Are we not giving the future LSU coach enough love, here?
RYAN: Hahaha. Mel Tucker is a fantastic candidate. I really don’t think he should take that job. It’s too much, too soon. Stay in one place for more than a year or 2.
Anyways, I did consider Michigan State, but I am a little worried that they have already peaked. It’s possible Tucker has already squeezed the most out of this group that he can. Kenneth Walker III is already a Heisman candidate. Is there a next level for him to get to? Payton Thorne has played great, but can he take it to another level this season? I’m not sure. And right now, Michigan State is going to have to play a whole lot better to challenge Ohio State. The Spartans needed a pick-6 to beat Indiana and a punt return TD to beat Nebraska.
Penn State’s defense has been awesome, but I don’t think you’re going to win a slugfest with Ohio State the way you can with Iowa and Wisconsin. Ohio State needs just one big play, and they can get it in so many different ways. That means the Nittany Lions are going to have to score to keep up, and that’s not something I’m sure they are built to do right now. If Sean Clifford is healthy, then that’s a bit more interesting to me. But if he is limited after leaving the Iowa game with a rib injury, I just don’t see it. That game is next week. Ta’Quan Roberson just isn’t an option at this point, as he was awful against Iowa. It’s Clifford or bust. You’re riding with that?
The thing about Michigan is that it can hit big plays through the air or on the ground. It has 5 passing plays of 50 yards or more this season, the same as Penn State. But the difference is that the Wolverines have 5 runs of 50 yards or more this season, while Penn State has 0. If you think Noah Cain is going to be able to run on Ohio State, what will Michigan’s dynamic duo of Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum do? Cain hasn’t broken 70 yards this season, and he’s averaging just 3 yards per carry. Maybe he’s not healthy, but that game is in 8 days. He hasn’t broken 25 yards in over a month.
If Michigan and Penn State played today, I’m not sure who would win. Possibly Penn State, assuming Clifford is healthy. But the reason I like Michigan is that I just think there is another level for it to get to. The Wolverines can open the playbook up a little bit, use Caleb Williams (whoops, I mean JJ McCarthy) a little bit. You know that defense, led by Aidan Hutchinson, is legit, as Nebraska was the first team to break 20 on them.
Hey, did we forget to mention someone? Or maybe an entire division? Yeah, we did. What about the West? Any faith in Iowa or Purdue?
CONNOR: It’s weird because if you told me that Ohio State just had to get to Indianapolis and face a West team, I’d say, yeah, you can spot the West winner 21 points and Ryan Day’s team would still find a way. That’s essentially what Wisconsin did in 2019. Purdue is suddenly a lot more interesting after what that defense did to Iowa, but I’d have a tough time seeing lightning strike twice. It is strange, however, to think that Minnesota is the only West team to control its own destiny to Indy.
It would be wild to see this as the year in which the West finally claims a conference title. If the West were to somehow beat Ohio State/another East winner, the narrative would probably be that the division beat up on itself too much. Fair or not, the East might have 4 teams better than the West. And that’s coming from the guy who argued against the East’s strength last week. How quickly things change!
I should get back to the matter at hand. Let’s go out on this thought as it relates to a West team threatening Ohio State’s run through the league for the 5th consecutive year. I think the hay is in the barn in Lincoln, and I’m not predicting this to happen, but … the micro and macro impact of Nebraska upsetting Ohio State in a couple weeks would be wild. Would a win like that save Scott Frost’s job? Would it significantly jeopardize the league’s Playoff chances if Ohio State still won the division by sweeping the East?
I find myself rooting for chaos at this point of the year. Of the 14 B1G teams that have played in Indianapolis for a B1G crown in the Playoff era, 9 of them went to Ohio State or Wisconsin. We know one of those is about to change. For my money, Penn State is the best hope at getting another fresh face to the conference title game.