OSU's Unprecedented Journey To The Top
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
Urban Meyer hears the criticism being leveled at Ohio State and he knows it has merit.
The three-time national title winning head coach and FOX Sports college football analyst knows that the shots being taken at his former program aren’t a fabrication and that they are based off sound logic and genuine factors.
Yet ahead of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis (12 p.m. ET on FOX), where the Buckeyes will take on Northwestern as 18-point favorites, per FOX Bet, there are two certainties Meyer holds close at the end of a season of unprecedented turmoil.
That the holes on Ohio State’s resume are not of their own choosing, or their own making. And that amid these strangest of days, the sport will be best served by having its best four teams in the playoff, regardless of how messy the schedule has looked.
"I think the criticism is justified and it is real," Meyer told me via telephone on Friday. "But the College Football Playoff committee has a responsibility to put the best four teams in there.
"It is a year of inequity – that’s reality, but Ohio State certainly can’t do anything about it. The critics aren’t wrong, but it is up to those committee members to see through it and get the four teams that play the best football into the field."
Few would argue that Ohio State is among the four best teams, even though they haven’t had the optimal chance to prove it. They needed a backdoor route even to get to the Big Ten title game, requiring an exemption after the league initially stated that a minimum of six games was necessary for eligibility.
The Buckeyes are 5-0 and have demolished everyone, with the exception of Indiana, who came up short in a late rally. They are fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings, and if victory is completed on Saturday, could be stacked up against the likes of 7-1 Texas A&M, 8-2 Iowa State and 8-2 Florida, all of whom have had a much tougher path.
"I know we’ve played 10 games," Florida head coach Dan Mullen said last week, in a clear shot at Ohio State. "I guess probably the best thing to do would’ve been to play less games. You seem to get rewarded for not playing this year."
The Gators were probably eliminated from contention by losing to LSU last week, but a surprise victory over Alabama in the SEC title game could give the committee a headache to grapple with.
Given that there is always disagreement and conjecture on such matters even during a normal campaign, there is certain to be brewing discontent when the final set of four is announced this time.
"This year you don’t have the data you have in the past, you don’t have inter-conference games, you don’t have big wins or the same number of games, they are all gone," Meyer added. "Now you have to simply look at it, you just have to pick the best team. You have to watch film and grade it.
"My biggest concern is how do they do that? There is going to be people making decisions based on the so-called ‘look’ test. What are the people in that room watching? If you’ve never watched video tape before or you have limited experience watching video tape, what are you looking at?"
Ohio State can’t change the number of games it has been able to play or the quality of opposition it has faced, but it has done everything it can to get on the field, with head coach Ryan Day an early proponent of saving the season despite the ravages of COVID-19.
"If we need to take a deep breath, let's take a deep breath," Day said in August, when cancellation remained a very real option. "But let's do everything we can (to play). We owe it to these kids to exhaust every single option we possibly can."
Part of Day’s motivation may have been that he has one of the most talented groups in program history and perhaps the most gifted in the nation. Justin Fields is destined to be a National Football League quarterback before long. Offensive guard Wyatt Davis and cornerback Shaun Wade were both projected as first rounders before opting out of the season, then returning to be part of Day’s push for a national title.
Day has impressed Meyer with his ability to keep things ticking smoothly, despite disruptions aplenty.
"I grade him an A-plus," Meyer said. "He has done a wonderful job. All you can do is deal with the situation in front of you and he has done that all year long. Now it comes time where you accept your situation – you have to not only win but look really good doing it."
Even with the Buckeyes’ favoritism, such an outcome might not be so easy. Unheralded Northwestern comes in at 6-1 and with the Big Ten’s tightest defense, which has allowed just 14.6 points per game and 5.0 yards per reception.
Furthermore, early Friday reports continued to emerge that the Buckeyes were dealing with more positive coronavirus cases involving key players, continuing the trend that each new week brings new hurdles to surmount.
"Nothing," Meyer said, "Has been easy for them."