What we're learning this month:Buckeye Nation is betwixt and between, but not for much longer.
October is looking like it will turn out to be far more of a month of reckoning, a referendum on three years, than most probably could have imagined before the season.
In August, I picked Ohio State to go undefeated.
I thought the Buckeyes would find a way to beat USC (with Beanie Wells in the lineup, of course), and whether they did or not, that the talent was so much greater on this team than it is on any of the other foes on the schedule that 11-1 was a cinch.
Now I'm not so sure.
I'm not stunned that some of the things that have gone wrong did (despite seven wins so far), but I didn't think it was likely.
The two-game series that started with the 45-7 shellacking of Michigan State should leave no doubt about what we've been watching since A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Nick Mangold and Santonio Holmes (among others) left town.
It's entirely possible that this team really was overrated all along. I'm certain the competition was not good most of the time. What I'm not sure of is how much better the Buckeyes really were.
To break it down, I'd say Michigan State has just enough weapons to be dangerous, but even an Ohio State team that is only as good as the rest of the nation thinks it is should be able to beat these Spartans when it plays its game.
Penn State, I believe, has more good players - at least on offense - than the average OSU opponent has in the past two-plus seasons, but I still believe Ohio State has a talent gap overall and should win as long as it doesn't shoot itself in the foot like it did against Florida, LSU and USC.
But if Ohio State is to lose to Penn State I might have to assume this team was never as talented as it looked.
Maybe some of those three-star recruits really are just average, and facing overrated Texas and Michigan teams and awful Washingtons and Minnesotas just made them look better than they really are.
That worked for Michigan in ‘06 until the Wolverines ran into Ohio State and it worked for those Buckeyes until they ran into Florida,
Because, let's face it, Ohio State did not play its best game against the Gators, but the Buckeyes lost by four touchdowns, and that was with the UF offense going into a shell in the second half because there was no need to score any more points with that type of lead and that type of defense, so it's not hard for me to conclude that Florida really was the better team, especially once it recovered from a grueling regular season and had another couple of weeks of bowl practice to implement Urban Meyer's offense.
The 2007 Buckeyes were not as good as the ‘06 version, but the competition was even worse. Ohio State's two losses that season were closer than what befell them in Arizona against Florida, but both were marred by critical mistakes.
Many of the same players who were learning the ropes - and sometimes looking very good doing it - in those past two seasons have done a lot of scuffling in the face of continually high expectations and honestly better opposition this season.
If they can continue putting behind them whatever was ailing them and put another good foot forward against Penn State, a team not only with enough talent to be dangerous but far less reason to be in awe of this band of Buckeyes as it stumbled through the first half of the schedule, then we'll know this has been a genuinely great team.
Maybe not the best, but one worth mentioning along with squads like the 1995 or ‘96 teams, or perhaps one of Woody's multiple missed-it-by-that-much squads in the '70s, that came so close to being legendary.
If Ohio State loses to Penn State, though, I'll probably have to conclude this was just a team with a bunch of solid players that happened to come along during a time when its league was really down and did what it had to to take advantage. And that should be commended, too. There's no shame in winning multiple outright Big Ten championships. None at all. Those still go in the record book, and rightfully so, but there is a matter of facing reality, that it's not so much that this team underachieved as it is that the last two teams overachieved.
What a situation, huh? Perhaps that is why there is so much angst expressed on the BuckeyeSports.com message board these days. People don't know if they are seeing a great team miss its potential or if they are being forced to come to terms with the fact that what they have been watching the past two seasons, what they believed to be the fallacy of the recruiting rankings of James Laurinaitis and Brian Robiskie and several others were, that in truth this was just a bunch of nice guys that took care of business when possible, playing above the inferior teams like it should but falling short when meeting a talent disparity.
It's hard to ever say for certain when a talent disparity exists, but we'll have a better idea by the time this month comes to a close.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: The two best linebackers in the Big Ten were on the field Saturday in East Lansing – Ohio State's Laurinaitis and Michigan State's Greg Jones. Laurinaitis had 11 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, and was key in stuffing the Big Ten's leading rusher, but on the other side Jones made his case to take Laurinaitis' mantle next season. The athletic, instinctive sophomore from Cincinnati Moeller had a game-high 13 sacks, including a sack as part of 2.5 tackles for loss. Also giving a standout performance was linebacker Eric Gordon, who had a game-high 3.0 tackles for loss and a sack among his eight stops.
DVR Directions: Ohio State's next opponent, Northwestern, travels to Bloomington to take on hapless Indiana at noon Saturday on the Big Ten Network. The 6-1 Wildcats are already eligible for a bowl but can strengthen their case for postseason play by taking care of business with the 2-5 Hoosiers, who have slipped badly after winning seven games last season.
At 3:30, ABC will show Big Ten-region viewers Michigan State's attempt to become the next team to snap a series losing streak against Michigan while others will get No. 1 Texas as it plays host to No. 7 Oklahoma State. The clash between the Spartans and Wolverines will be on ESPN2 for the rest of the country.
Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll (previous week's ranking in parenthesis)
1. (same) Penn State
2. (same) Ohio State
3. (5) Illinois
4. (3) Michigan State
5. (4) Minnesota
6. (7) Northwestern
7. (8) Iowa
8. (10) Michigan
9. (6) Wisconsin
10. (9) Purdue
11. (same) Indiana
Marcus Hartman is a staff writer for BuckeyeSports.com and Buckeye Sports Bulletin. He can be reached for comment, cursing or questions via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Marcus, read his blog at this link.