Ohio State and Penn State will leave it all on the line

Ohio State is the most dominant team in college football this season and the bookies’ favorite to win the national championship. It has one guy (Chase Young) who was an early Heisman Trophy frontrunner and another (Justin Fields) who is emerging rapidly as a late one.

It has beaten its opponents by a combined margin of 417 points over the course of 10 swashbuckling wins, while thrashing the 13th- and 20th-ranked teams in the country into oblivion.

Opponents — both of the scheduled variety and potential postseason foes — fear them. Defensive coordinators get headaches just thinking about them. The College Football Playoff selection committee drools over them.

And if things somehow go wrong in the toughest game of Ohio State’s campaign on Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes’ season could effectively be over.

That’s how tight the margin of error has become in the fascinating 2019 college football season; one where the script gets torn up as quickly as it is written and where the most earnestly-argued predictions are swiftly made to look foolish.

Ohio State doesn’t accept any official rivalries beyond its eternal feud with Michigan, but the way things have transpired with Saturday’s opponent Penn State (FOX, 12 p.m. ET) has shown there is a lot more bubbling here than the usual hostilities.

The last three times these teams have met, the final score has been separated by a grand total of just five points, with the Buckeyes prevailing in a pair of one-point thrillers the past two seasons. In 2016, the then-unranked Nittany Lions conjured an unthinkable comeback to begin a run to the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.

“The last few years, because of the quality of team that Penn State is, that’s become a war,” iconic former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer told the Big Ten Network. Meyer will be part of the FOX broadcast crew for Big Noon Kickoff on Saturday, live from the Ohio State Campus.

“My first year we beat them up there (in Happy Valley),” Meyer added. “And then we came back (home) and beat them soundly, and then from that point forward it’s been overtime. We lost up there in a ‘whiteout,’ and then these last two games we’ve come (back) from a couple scores behind in the fourth quarter. My goodness — two very good teams; two very good programs. Good players all over the field, but it’s become a rivalry in a sense. There is so much on the line.”

He’s not kidding. Just as fans in Columbus are dreaming of a potential title, especially with Alabama at least presumptively out of the Playoff reckoning, the whole thing could go up in smoke. The bookmakers, at least, are still firmly on the side of the Buckeyes, who are -1000 favorites to win the Big Ten (compared to +900 for Penn State), according to FOX Bet. OSU is also a +195 favorite to win the national title, compared to whopping +15000 odds for the Nittany Lions. (Yes, that’s plus fifteen thousand.)

But as we’ve covered, this is college football in 2019, where seemingly nothing is certain. Could it really be that Saturday’s game might be an eliminator not only for one-loss Penn State but also the home team, even after a season in which commentators have purred over their apparently unstoppable march to victory after victory?

FiveThirtyEight’s Playoff prediction model certainly thinks so. It believes that a loss would drop Ohio State to just a 10 percent chance of reaching the Playoff, while defeat for Penn State would cause a fall to less than 1 percent.

It would take a lot for the Buckeyes to overcome a loss — and at that point things would be entirely out of their own hands. It would likely take a Penn State defeat in the Big Ten title game and a bunch of other carnage elsewhere. And that still might not be enough.

Back in 2016, Ohio State did make the Playoff, even when Penn State won the Big Ten title. This year, Penn State would have likely done enough to get a top four spot if they are able to run the table between now and the end of the regular season.

Head coach James Franklin knows there is no bigger challenge his team can face — and he’s ready for it.

“My message to the team: (Ohio State) is going to make plays — we’ve got to match them,” Franklin told reporters. “It needs to be one of those types of games, like a heavyweight fight. That guy delivers a blow, you counter. That’s what it’s going to need to be.”

Despite the nail-biting nature of the last three encounters, the Buckeyes are strongly favored on Saturday, with home field seen as a crucial factor. As of Friday morning, FOX Bet has the Buckeyes as massive 19-point favorites. New coach Ryan Day has momentum on his side. The team has not lost at home since a defeat against Oklahoma in September of 2017.

LSU’s win over Alabama pushed it to the top of the committee’s favor, but Ohio State is about as strong a No. 2 as you could imagine.

“The complete nature of the dominance and the overall quality we have seen from Ohio State … you can do the eye test; you can do the analytics,” FOX college football analyst Joel Klatt said. “It’s pretty much no question they are the most complete and dominant team in the country.”

Much of that can be attributed to quarterback Fields, who has never let his composure slip and has grown significantly in confidence over the past few months. FOX expert and former USC Heisman winner Matt Leinart believes Fields has a serious shot at challenging LSU’s Joe Burrow for this year’s Heisman Trophy.

“Joe Burrow has had his opportunity; the national spotlight games,” Leinart said. “Justin Fields has that (national spotlight) the next three weeks. You always talk about the Heisman race in November … Justin Fields has three massive games to close that gap.”

Saturday’s clash is Fields’ latest chance to shine, but it is so much more than that. It’s the latest installment of a battle that has provided extraordinary entertainment and simmering tension for the past three years.

Each team faces its toughest test of the season, with zero margin for error. Like LSU vs. Alabama two weeks ago, this is a playoff game before the Playoff — and everything that has happened so far, all the plaudits and praise and the 19 wins between them, count for nothing now.