PLAYOFF PULSE: Ohio State readies for season-making stretch
No. 2 Ohio State negotiated its 11-week tuneup with a few missteps and some less-than-stellar performances, but the Buckeyes remain unbeaten.
At last there are some big games for Ohio State to play.
Next week, No. 14 Michigan State visits Columbus, Ohio. The following week, Ohio State is at No. 15 Michigan.
The defending national champions registered yet another ho-hum victory on Saturday, beating Illinois 28-3 in J.T. Barrett's return from a suspension. The Buckeyes have rarely been threatened by mostly so-so opposition on their way to 10-0, but they have also rarely looked like the juggernaut many expected this season.
The College Football Playoff selection committee slotted the Buckeyes at No. 3 in its rankings, a nod to their unbeaten record and maybe a case of the panel having a hard time wiping from its collective memory last season's impressive championship run by Ohio State.
Doesn't matter. All Ohio State's warts will vanish with victories against Michigan State, Michigan and then Iowa in the Big Ten championship game. There would be no question about whether the Buckeyes would get to defend their title in the playoff.
But what if it doesn't go so smoothly? Conceivably, Ohio State could lose to either Michigan State or Michigan and still win the Big Ten. At that point the Buckeyes would have few big wins, but could the committee shut out the Buckeyes if setting the playoff field comes down to a choice between one-loss conference champions? How much would the Buckeyes' reputation supplement their resume?
At Champaign, Illinois, the Buckeyes had a tough time protecting Barrett, back in the lineup after a serving a one-game suspension. So they leaned heavily on Ezekiel Elliot, who ran for 181 yards and two scores.
''We're going to start to play some teams here where we can't just run, run, run 40 times a game; we're going to have to throw some passes and drop back,'' offensive lineman Taylor Decker said.
It was Ohio State's decisive victory in East Lansing, Michigan, in November last season against Michigan State that essentially launched the Buckeyes on their championship run. The situation is different this season, but once again the Buckeyes will get a chance to prove themselves against the Spartans.
Michigan State is only a controversial late touchdown pass against Nebraska away from also being 10-0 and could force a tough call from the committee by running the table. Does the bad call mitigate the Spartans' loss? Or does it even out the miracle win at Michigan?
It is not just Ohio State that has had to get through rough patches to stay unbeaten this season.
No. 1 Clemson and No. 5 Oklahoma State survived classic letdown games on the road Saturday to keep their records perfect and avoid the type of losses that could have ended playoff hopes.
Deshaun Watson and the Tigers never could pull away from Syracuse in a 37-27 victory in the Carrier Dome.
The Cowboys fell behind by 17 in the first half at Iowa State, before rallying to beat the Cyclones 35-31.
The committee could drop Clemson, its No. 1 team, in the rankings for struggling, especially after Alabama looked awfully good in a 31-6 victory at No. 20 Mississippi State. The Tide was also coming off a showdown victory against LSU.
Oklahoma State routed TCU a week ago to move to eighth in the committee's latest rankings. Cowboys fans felt slighted, but it's unlikely the committee will be much kinder to their team come Tuesday night.
An Oklahoma State loss would have left Baylor, which played Oklahoma on Saturday night, as the Big 12's only unbeaten and maybe the conference's only chance to keep from being shut out of the playoff for a second straight season.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP