Buckeyes Must State Case In 'The Game'
By RJ Young
FOX Sports college football reporter
As the SEC, ACC and Big 12 all announced plans to play their seasons during the pandemic, Ohio State coach Ryan Day was in the midst of stumping not for a chance to play in the College Football Playoff, but simply a chance to play.
He was joined by players and coaches across the Big Ten in asking for that chance. Then, in one of the most surreal moments of the longest preseason in modern history, Day published a statement on Twitter that he signed and stamped with a Buckeye insignia with his feelings laid bare.
“These young men and their parents have asked so many questions that I do not have an answer to, but the one that hurts most is ‘Why can these other teams and players play and we can’t?’ Duke is playing Notre Dame, and Clemson is playing Wake Forest this weekend. Our players want to know: Why can’t they play?”
Months later the Buckeyes are not only playing, they’re playing for a chance to win their second national title in the CFP era, and their most recent victory is their best case (so far) to earn an invitation to the national semifinal.
No. 4 Ohio State proved its depth in a 52-12 rout of Michigan State.
This Saturday against Michigan in "The Game" (noon ET, FOX), the Buckeyes will once again look to prove their dominance at the Horseshoe in Columbus.
With injury and COVID-19 protocol forcing absences last Saturday, Ohio State was down 23 players, including three starters on the offensive line.
With both Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis among four full-time coaches who didn't make the trip to East Lansing, it was easy to see a recipe for disaster for the No. 4 Buckeyes.
However, by the time that game ended, an undermanned Ohio State team had rolled into town and kicked it like Leonidas in Sparta.
The Buckeyes demonstrated their culture in this game as much as their depth of talent. In this moment, Buckeye leaders Justin Fields and Jonathon Cooper were asked to assume an even bigger role than either might’ve dreamed when the season began.
Fields responded with a display you not only expect from a Heisman front-runner, but a beloved and disciplined captain who the Buckeyes wanted to follow on the field.
The statistics weren’t as gaudy as his presence calming a jittery offensive line and emergency center Harry Miller, whose bad snaps could’ve meant ruin. But Fields turned those miscues into productive plays.
“With coach Dennis being out, coach Day being out, I had to step up a little bit more this week,” Fields said. “I had no problem doing that. I actually like it to be honest with you.”
In winning behind a patchwork offensive line, the undefeated Buckeyes proved they are deep enough and resilient enough to deserve a seat at the four-table invitational when the matchups are announced Dec. 20.
With a secondary missing safety Josh Proctor, the Buckeyes held MSU to just 180 passing yards after giving up 491 against Indiana.
Admittedly, the Hoosiers are a much better team than the Spartans. Admittedly, the discussion around the Buckeyes has not centered on who they play but how they look when they play.
Ohio State will be expected to hang half-a-hundred on the Wolverines and not break a sweat doing it.
With “The Game” hanging in the balance due to COVID-19 protocols at Michigan, there’s also the matter of whether Ohio State might be eligible to defend its Big Ten title in two weeks. The 14 athletic directors in the league agreed that a minimum of six played games is a criterion for the conference title game.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez stated last week he believes the conference might need to amend that rule if the Wolverines are the ones who can’t field a team Saturday.
“If [Ohio State] has a game canceled, I think we as athletic directors would have to revisit whether they should be involved [in the Big Ten Championship],” Alvarez said.
The opportunity to have a team represented in the playoff for the league begins and ends with the Buckeyes, and that is a large enough feather in their cap. But there’s also the money the league will potentially make if Ohio State is in the CFP.
The Big Ten could earn an additional eight figures if the conference has a team represented in the national semifinals in a year when nearly every major university athletic department is facing a budget shortfall.
That Ohio State is in this position is a testament to its culture.
While there have been several hundred opt-outs among players throughout the nation, Ohio State has watched players with first-round NFL Draft futures — like Fields, Cooper, guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade — opt to play.
Not many teams see losing nearly two-dozen players and multiple coaches — including the head coach — as a chance to prove their character. But the Buckeyes did.
They sent a loud message to the selection committee: We’re stronger than you think.
Last Tuesday, committee chairman and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said his panel entertained discussion about whether No. 5 Texas A&M should be ranked at Ohio State’s fourth spot based on a 20-7 victory against woeful LSU.
Barta said Ohio State’s ability to score points won out with the committee, but he also made an important point about the number of games the Buckeyes have played relative to the teams seeking to usurp them at No. 4.
“It’s not anybody’s fault, but trying to evaluate a team that has four games in versus a team that has seven, eight or nine in is definitely a problem,” he said, “and it’s created by the pandemic. The more games a team brings to the committee, the more we have to evaluate.”
The math is stacked against the Buckeyes, and they know that. At best, they’ll play seven games. Whether one of those games proves to be a conference championship is still in doubt.
SEC hopefuls Texas A&M and No. 6 Florida — especially Florida with an SEC title game against No. 1 Alabama — can still earn admission to the CFP with one loss. Indeed, the Gators are almost guaranteed a spot in the semifinals if they knock off Nick Saban’s No. 1-ranked Tide
The Buckeyes can’t afford to falter. But that’s fine for them. They just wanted a chance to play.
RJ Young is national college football reporter for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young. Subscribe to The RJ Young Show Podcast on YouTube. He does not like it when his socks get wet.