The final score won’t tell the full story. Ohio State looked completely fallible for one half against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday night. And because of it, the Buckeyes are the No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff instead of No. 1, with a more difficult path to a title.

If Ohio State led from start to finish and dominated like LSU had in its respective conference championship game, it would probably still be the top seed. After all, with 13 wins by 11 points or more (something accomplished by only five teams since 1936), that’s a tough resume to top. LSU has had close games this season, but it has never looked beatable the way Ohio State did on Saturday night.

What ended in a 34-21 victory over the Badgers started like Ohio State no-shows of the previous two years. The Buckeyes flopped against Iowa in 2017 and Purdue in 2018, and this was trending that way. Wisconsin — a run-heavy, ball-control offense — just wanted to burn the rest of the first-half clock and get to halftime, but Ohio State wouldn’t let it, and the Badgers took a 14-point halftime lead.

Until Saturday night, the Buckeyes were the only team in the country that had yet to really sweat. LSU had the games at Texas and Alabama, and Clemson had the UNC close call. This was Ohio State at its worst — or at least worse than any of us had seen of the 2019 squad.

If there was one mystery to this Ohio State team, it was a scenario like Saturday night: How do they react to adversity? It’s like the dominant college basketball team that breezes through the regular season, but gets tense during the NCAA Tournament at the first sign of adversity.

As Chase Young said afterward, “We didn’t just come back. We came back and we dominated.”

Question answered.

The mark of a great team and a great coach are the adjustments and response to adversity. How do you know Ryan Day is a good coach? How do you know he didn’t just take the baton from Urban Meyer and put this operation on cruise control? Look at the way Ohio State regrouped at halftime each of the last two weeks.

  • At Michigan: Ohio State allowed 285 first-half yards (250 passing) but yielded just 111 in the second half.
  • Vs. Wisconsin: Ohio State allowed 294 yards in the first half in trailing 21-7 before out-gaining the Badgers 144-23 in the third quarter and holding them to 138 in the second half (83 came in garbage time).

That’s overwhelming evidence. For the first time as a head coach, Day was up against it. For the first time as a starting quarterback, Justin Fields was up against it. And they passed in overwhelming fashion.

You have to admire Fields for a gutty performance on a sprained MCL. He clearly lacked his usual mobility and took five sacks. He has held the ball maybe a second too long on many occasions this season, and with his left knee hobbled, he couldn’t quite escape a very good Wisconsin defense that could charge at him without fear of Fields doing too much damage on the ground. Including sacks, Fields rushed for a season-low one yard on 12 attempts. But did he make some beautiful throws, showcasing once again that his rushing ability is one aspect of his skill set, not the whole thing.

After 299 passing yards and three touchdown tosses, Fields is up to 40 touchdown passes and just one interception — a feat that has not been accomplished since at least 2000, according to College Football Reference.

And if there’s anything we’ve learned about Fields the last two weeks, it’s that he relishes these moments. His touchdown pass against Michigan on his first play back in the game after hobbling off with what some feared could be a serious knee injury was legendary. Down 14 at halftime on Saturday, Fields went 12 of 17 passing for 172 yards and three scores.

The Buckeyes went to more zone in the second half to take away some quick slants that Jack Coan hit Quintez Cephus on. It also helped to have Jeffrey Okudah back in the lineup, as he missed most of the first half with a possible concussion. The Badgers made it a point to target Okudah’s replacement, Cameron Brown. It sure didn’t feel like a coincidence that once the likely top five pick in the 2020 NFL Draft got back in the game, Wisconsin struggled offensively.

Ohio State’s embarrassment of riches was on full display again. When All-Big Ten lineman Wyatt Davis had to leave the game, the Buckeyes slid in Nicholas Petit-Frere — a former 5-star recruit who was rated higher than Young and Okudah. Must be nice, huh? The Buckeyes have 60 players who were 4-star or 5-star recruits; Wisconsin has nine.

That this was even a game is a testament to Paul Chryst, Jonathan Taylor and the Badgers. If you had told me Jack Coan was going to look like Lamar Jackson against this Buckeyes defense, I’d have said you were crazy. But Coan, who will never be mistaken for Jackson, ran for two first-half scores.

For Ohio State, the experience came with a price. Surely the committee was watching together and remarking how different the LSU win looked than this Ohio State victory. A few things to remember, though:

  • While Ohio State was out-played in the first half, it dominated the second half. It did not need some miracle or fluke play to win. It won going away.
  • This was Ohio State’s third win in three weeks over a team ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. That’s an absurd stretch of football, and the Buckeyes can be forgiven for one sub-standard half.
  • Ohio State dealt with injuries to key players (which limited the playbook, in Fields’ case) and still found a way to beat a team handily for the second time in a season.

There’s a lot to like for Ohio State, even if it isn’t the top seed. I mean, can you imagine if this was 2013 and the BCS still existed? Clemson would probably be in, since it was the preseason No. 1 team and never lost. And an undefeated SEC team is probably in on name recognition. This would’ve been 2004 Auburn all over again.

But, Ohio State has everything in front of them, and it finally got to experience what it feels like to play in a competitive football game. Now comes a chance to take down arguably the premier program in college football.

First reaction to the Ohio State-Clemson matchup

First off — and maybe I’m in the minority — I like that college makes us wait three weeks for this game. For one, the anticipation builds. But most of all, these teams can get healthy. I don’t want Justin Fields hobbling around in a CFP game. Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, Wyatt Davis and anyone else who was banged up, let’s get them all healthy.

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This is a national-title caliber matchup. In my opinion — and probably most of America — there were three clear-cut dominant teams, and it was always going to be beneficial to claim that top seed and get an easier semifinal (though Oklahoma should be able to put up some points on LSU’s defense).

In Ohio State and Clemson, we’ll be watching the two most complete teams in the country. They are both in the top five nationally in total offense and total defense (no one else is even in the top 15 in both). Each has a star quarterback, a star running back and a plethora of future NFL draft picks. It will rival and maybe even surpass LSU/Alabama in terms of shear talent.

Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence has the makings to be the next great quarterback rivalry. They were the top two overall recruits in the Class of 2018, and . They’re not Brady and Manning yet, but when you look at the skill set and makeup of both players, it’s hard to believe either won’t have a ton of success in the NFL.

My top concern for Ohio State would be getting Fields healthy. We saw what Clemson did to a banged-up Tua Tagovailoa in last year’s title game, and it wasn’t pretty. Clemson has the No. 2 overall sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, and is No. 1 on standard downs (and No. 9 on passing downs). After watching Fields fail to escape Wisconsin’s pass rush, that’s alarming.

I mentioned earlier how it was good for Ohio State to be challenged and put on the ropes. Well, we’ll see if that matters, because Clemson breezed through the ACC, which was the worst Power Five league this year. The Tigers played Texas A&M (No. 17 in ESPN’s FPI) in the second week, and aside from that, their toughest opponent was North Carolina (No. 40 in ESPN’s FPI). Virginia, the team Clemson dismantled in the ACC title game, is 44th. Ohio State has four wins over the top 12 in ESPN’s FPI.

Ohio State will far and away be the most talented team Clemson has seen this season — not that a program that has won two of the last three national titles will be intimidated.

Looking at the bigger picture, this is a chance for Ohio State to put itself back in the conversation nationally with Clemson and Alabama. Right now, I’d probably put it in the same tier as Oklahoma and Georgia, even though the Buckeyes have actually won a title. The last time Ohio State was in the CFP, Clemson won handily 30-3.

Could Wisconsin have made the CFP?

The same logic applies to Paul Chryst as outlined for Day. The mark of a good coach is one that can adjust and put their team in position to win when playing an opponent for the second time. Chryst took a Badgers team that hung around pretty well for a half in Columbus earlier this season to a team that unequivocally was the better team in the first half in the Big Ten Championship. (Sidenote: If Chryst is able to develop a plan to attack Ohio State this way, why can’t Jim Harbaugh? This is why Michigan fans are frustrated.)

The CFP field was drama-free for the very first time in its six-year history, and the only real debate was whether Ohio State or LSU would be the top seed. But, think if Wisconsin could’ve held on against Ohio State. Would the Badgers have been in over Oklahoma? I’d have argued that they should’ve been, and at the very least, it would’ve been an interesting discussion for the committee.


—Wisconsin would have had wins over current No. 2 Ohio State, No. 14 Michigan, No. 16 Iowa and No. 18 Minnesota. The Badgers would’ve had one win by seven points or fewer.

—Oklahoma has two wins over the current No. 7 Baylor and No. 25 Oklahoma State, while the latter played its backup quarterback. It also had five wins by seven points or fewer, which is one of the reasons it took the committee so long to move the Sooners up. They played with fire all season.

See? Ultimately, Wisconsin having two losses — particularly losing at Illinois — would’ve probably been the deal-breaker, but it’s at least a conversation. It was a scenario no one anticipated coming into this weekend, but it became a reality once Utah and Georgia lost and Oklahoma had to go to overtime. But alas, the Badgers will be just fine in the Rose Bowl playing against a vey good Oregon squad.

Heisman watch

Joe Burrow won the Heisman last month by beating Alabama. But who would you put at No. 2 and No. 3 if you had a ballot? For me, I’d stick with Chase Young at No. 2. But what about No. 3?

I wrote last week about how J.K. Dobbins had a legitimate claim to be a Heisman finalist over his teammate, Fields. It’s going to be hard for Dobbins to make it after another strong game from Fields, who now has 40 touchdowns and one interception. That alone is probably going to be enough for many voters to put Fields at No. 2, just because it’s so rare to see a quarterback be so efficient (especially if you have Jameis Winston on your fantasy team!).

But I just feel like it’s important to recognize how great Dobbins has been this season, the latest evidence being his 33-carry, 172-yard performance against Wisconsin. Dobbins is up to 1,829 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns (and 2,029 yards from scrimmage with 22 total touchdowns). At this point in their respective Heisman seasons:

  • Derrick Henry (Alabama, 2015) had 1,986 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns (and 2,083 yards from scrimmage with 23 total touchdowns).
  • Mark Ingram (Alabama, 2009) had 1,542 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns (and 1,864 yards from scrimmage with 18 total touchdowns).
  • Reggie Bush (USC, 2005) had 1,658 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns (and 2,041 yards from scrimmage with 17 total touchdowns). Bush did not have a conference championship game, though, so he had one less game than Dobbins, Henry and Ingram to this point.

So, just in case you’re sleeping on Dobbins, there’s some evidence that he’s having a special season and is being overshadowed by two of his teammates.

Young still would be at No. 2 for me because of his incredible impact on every defensive play. At one point in the game, broadcaster Joel Klatt remarked that he hadn’t said Young’s name much, but that’s because he’s being double-teamed regularly. And as you can see below, sometimes triple-teamed. That means Ohio State is playing 10-on-8 across the rest of the field. What an incredible advantage.

Young still had several big-time rushes late. You had to know Wisconsin was going to do everything possible to limit Young after he had four sacks in the first game. And he made a freakish play late by slowing Taylor with one arm when he appeared to have a clear shot at a first down.

It will be fascinating to see how the voting shakes out. I’d love to see Jonathan Taylor get an invite. It’d be cool to see Jalen Hurts, after losing his starting job at Alabama, in New York, as well.

One parting thought for each Big Ten bowl game

Michigan State (vs. Wake Forest in Pinstripe Bowl): It’s time for Michigan State to look to the future and get ready for next season. The Spartans have lost five of seven, with the two wins being Rutgers and Maryland (just barely).

Iowa (vs. USC in Holiday Bowl): What an interesting matchup. It’s a battle of an Iowa program that is all substance and no style against a USC program that is all style and no substance.

Penn State (vs. Memphis in Outback Bowl): Considering the Nittany Lions were in contention for the CFP at one time (No. 4 in the first rankings, remember?) and stood a chance at getting into the Rose Bowl if Wisconsin played poorly in the Big Ten Championship, this has to feel like a letdown, right?

Ohio State (vs. Clemson in College Football Playoff semifinals): It’s a tough draw, but you’d have to beat them sometime, right? It’s just unfortunate that Ohio State would’ve been a double-digit favorite against Oklahoma and now is an underdog against Clemson.

Illinois (vs. Cal in Red Box Bowl): Let’s hope Illinois isn’t just happy to be here, because all that momentum it built up this season could evaporate. It already started to by losing to Northwestern in the season finale. Next year could be big for Illinois, so don’t start it off on the wrong foot.

Michigan (vs. Alabama in Citrus Bowl): Yes. YES. YES! What a great matchup this is going to be, if only for the camera shots of Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban scoffing at their players not getting excited for the. In all seriousness, though, I wonder how seriously Alabama takes this game and how many of its NFL-bound players actually suit up. I can’t even remember what the Crimson Tide look like in non-CFP games.

Minnesota (vs. Auburn in Outback Bowl): This is a chance for Minnesota to prove that it belonged in the CFP discussion. The Golden Gophers, if you haven’t heard, didn’t have any marquee non-conference games, so this is important for their credibility.

Wisconsin (vs. Oregon in Rose Bowl): This game is going to be awesome. And I really hope Jonathan Taylor does play, though I don’t think he should.

Indiana (vs. Tennessee in Gator Bowl): I’m not going to lie, I really wanted an Indiana vs. Kentucky matchup since they won’t ever play in basketball anymore, but Tennessee apparently sabotaged that at the last minute. It’s still an interesting matchup. Who doesn’t love some SEC vs. Big Ten?