What we learned last week: With time to prepare running out, Ohio State is not ready for its biggest test of the year.
After declaring late in the fourth quarter Saturday night Ohio State has yet to become a championship program in year three under Urban Meyer, I got some pushback that included comments about losing the star quarterback before the season.
I'm aware this happened -- just as much as I'm aware of multiple recent articles putting Ohio State back into reconsideration for the first College Football Playoff thanks to a month of blowouts in which the new QB was among a bunch of players who were playing really well. So if people around college football were beginning to ask the question of how good they are and including "good enough to make the playoff" as a possibility, my statement seems pretty reasonable to make.
How folks take it is another matter. If you read that as an indication people should be disappointed, that's fine. I look at it more as a mere statement of fact. Interpretation is then a matter of expectations.
Winning the Big Ten and making the playoff were never really about the quarterback this season. I picked Ohio State to do one but not the other both before and after Braxton Miller was injured. The quarterback was going to be the potential difference in the playoff when the talent gap narrows and winning becomes mostly a matter of which team does more special things than the other. Until that point, the winner is usually determined by talent and execution. The former usually isn't even, and the latter determines how much that matters.
The talent gap ended up deciding the Penn State game, too, but not until the last play. Up until that point, Ohio State had spent most of the night squandering its many advantages. When the going got tough, Ohio State couldn't do what was needed to close out the game -- at least not in regulation. Only after getting a reset in overtime did the Buckeyes finally regain their composure, and even then they still allowed a touchdown to an offense playing with one arm tied behind its back.
Becoming a championship team this season was an issue of fixing the defense, rebuilding the offensive line and finding playmakers to step up to replace Carlos Hyde and take pressure off the quarterback. Without doing those things, it didn't matter who was catching the snaps. If you doubt that, look again at their record against top 10 teams last year when they had one of the most dynamic players in the sport doing that.
Getting all that taken care of is a tall task, but it's also not out of the question based on Meyer's work at Ohio State in year one and at previous stops.
The Buckeyes have made progress in all those areas mentioned above, but more work still must be done.
J.T. Barrett has for the most part maintained the baseline effectiveness of Miller -- the aforementioned dynamic player from last year who is out for the season with a shoulder injury -- while getting others to replace some of Miller's explosive plays.
The defense is a lot better than last season, but giving up fourth quarter leads was a problem long before the bottom fell out of the unit in 2013. I think it stems from a crisis of confidence that leads to lack of execution, and no one seems to have quite figured out how to fix that even as the players have changed over the years.
It's easy to call plays and execute them when things are going well, but trouble seems to snowball at the first sign of adversity. So does execution, which might explain why the play calling gets questionable.
Why is that?
I tend to think this is a question Meyer wants answered, too. That's why he spent the offseason working on leadership and development of players within a unit, emphasizing effort and fundamentals to create a greater whole.
Change doesn't happen overnight -- I get that -- but that doesn't mean we can't do a progress check in the middle of a game that had an awfully familiar feel in the fourth quarter.
What can we expect to learn this week: Probably not much. Illinois is coming off a home win over a solid Minnesota team, but that was only their second Big Ten win in 26 tries since the middle of 2011. Such a record is not a fluke.
The Fighting Illini might be better than last year when they went 4-8, but they had an awful long way to go. They'll enter this game 4-4 and ranked 80th in the country by
We already know what Ohio State does to teams like this -- at least if there is no hostile environment to deal with -- so seeing the Buckeyes destroy Illinois won't prove much.
The ultimate test for this season remains Michigan State, a game one week away, and even if Ohio State overlooks the Fighting Illini and gets upset, that probably won't affect the conference race because beating the Spartans would give Ohio State the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Buckeyes could still use a confidence booster before going north, though, and a young team needs all the reps it can get.
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