Penn State game won't determine whether Buckeyes are CFP-worthy
If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck, or so the idiom goes.
Ohio State is walking and talking like a College Football Playoff contender. But we still don’t know whether it actually is one on account of some Ducks.
Ohio State’s 35-28 home loss to Oregon in Week 2 figures to be the wrench in the works when the CFP selection committee releases its initial 2021 rankings next Tuesday. Though the No. 5 Buckeyes are currently ranked ahead of both Michigan and Michigan State in the AP poll, the unbeaten winner of that game will likely leapfrog Ohio State in the CFP rankings.
Due to Penn State’s offensive downturn in its back-to-back losses to Iowa and Illinois, a game that looked like it belonged on the marquee with Michigan and Michigan State is now the unquestioned undercard. And for Ohio State, that has created an unfortunate consequence.
Not even an impressive win over the Nittany Lions will reveal whether the Buckeyes are a legitimate Playoff contender. The only thing we’ll learn about the Buckeyes this weekend is if they aren’t.
Heavyweights dunking on lightweights
For the past month, Ohio State has played like someone switched the settings to Junior Varsity in an old game of “NCAA Football.”
The Buckeyes have won their past 4 games by an average score of 58-12. Nobody in the country has looked better in October, because doing so would be virtually impossible. Ohio State is winning by margins that were common before the forward pass was legalized.
But as everyone else seemingly wants to coronate the Buckeyes as the best team in the Big Ten, please forgive us for tapping the brakes.
Not that we’re blind. From top to bottom, Ohio State does have the most talented offense in the conference.
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Offensive line. Wide receivers. If not the best running back in the league, the most explosive one. And if not the best quarterback in the league, certainly the one with the strongest arm. But all of them have been going up against defenses that make the very good look great and the great look invincible.
Ohio State’s 4 most recent opponents stack up thusly on defense:
- Indiana, 55th (362.6 ypg)
- Rutgers, 58th (368.9 ypg)
- Maryland, 82nd (396.3 ypg)
- Akron, 117th (449.1 ypg)
- Rutgers, 48th (22.6 ppg)
- Maryland, 96th (29.7 ppg)
- Indiana, 100th (31.1 ppg)
- Akron, 126th (38.9 ppg)
Granted, no one is asking questions about Ohio State’s ability to put points on the board. Minnesota has turned out to be pretty stout — the Gophers are 18th in total defense — and the Bucks still managed to hang 45 on them.
It’s the defense that’s the concern in Columbus.
And though Ohio State looks vastly improved since removing defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs from his play-calling role, it’s largely because they’ve faced some dreadful offenses.
- Maryland, 53rd (421.6 ypg)
- Rutgers, 107th (335.7 ypg)
- Akron, 110th (333.9 ypg)
- Indiana, 121st (307.7 ypg)
- Maryland, 74th (28 ppg)
- Rutgers, 97th (24.1 ppg)
- Indiana, 114th (20.1 ppg)
- Akron, 116th (19.9 ppg)
Unlike some Playoff hopefuls (cough, Oklahoma), Ohio State does not play down to its competition. But thus far the only result when facing a comparable opponent is a loss.
Penn State is not a litmus test, either
Penn State is still ranked at No. 20. But if we’re being honest, next week’s game at Nebraska actually poses a bigger threat for the Bucks than the Nittany Lions do. Though they’re terribly error-prone, the Cornhuskers can actually move the ball. And they’ve come within a score of handing both Oklahoma and Michigan State their only losses.
Penn State, on the other hand, has been dreadful in the game-and-a half since quarterback Sean Clifford exited the Iowa game with an injury. Clifford looked like he was at half-speed when he returned against Illinois, completing 19 of 34 passes for 165 yards — easily his season-low in yards per attempt (4.9.)
The Nittany Lions need Clifford so badly because they can’t run the ball. Penn State is 11th in the B1G with an average of 119.7 yards per game. The Lions are also 11th in explosive runs, with only 6 gains of more than 20 yards.
In Big Ten play, Penn State is averaging 304.8 yards per game — 12th in the league in total offense.
Long story short: Penn State’s offense isn’t good enough to put a stress test on what is still a questionable Ohio State defense. And if it somehow does, it will raise major questions about Ohio State’s CFP-worthiness.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, there are plenty of worthy tests lying in wait this November — Michigan, Michigan State and, yes, even Nebraska.
But barring some chaos in front of them this weekend, Ohio State fans should not expect the Buckeyes to be “in” when the CFP committee unveils the Top 4 next week. A win over this version of Penn State simply isn’t enough to prove the Bucks have gotten better since losing to Oregon.