In the Big Ten game of the year, Ohio State scored 49 points on Michigan State in East Lansing.
Michigan State had not allowed that many in a Big Ten game since a November 2008 trip to Penn State in Mark Dantonio's second year. The Spartans had not allowed that many at home since a 2005 game against Northwestern during John L. Smith's third year. In short, it's been a long time since a Big Ten team had demolished a Michigan State defense like the Buckeyes did.
And consider what Urban Meyer's team has faced. Ohio State came into 2014 replacing four starters on the offensive line, as well as its leading rusher and receiver. The team needed Braxton Miller to compensate, which made Miller's season-ending injury during fall camp especially damaging. The extent was apparent when J.T. Barrett and Ohio State struggled to move the ball in its home opener and lost to Virginia Tech.
Weeks later, Ohio State stands poised to win its first Big Ten championship of the Meyer era. In a normal world, this would place the Buckeyes right around the Playoff. After all, a four-team Playoff in a sport with five major conferences means that a league winner stands excellent odds of making the semifinals.
The conference's second-class status was a prevailing theme throughout Ohio State's two-year, 24-game winning streak in 2012-13, which didn't include a single victory over an opponent that finished in the AP top 20. Before the Buckeyes' loss to Michigan State last December rendered the question moot, the campaign was already in full swing to cancel Ohio State's pending ticket to the BCS championship game in favor of a one-loss SEC champion, be it Auburn or Missouri, on the basis that even back-to-back undefeated seasons in the Big Ten paled in comparison to claiming the SEC crown. (Auburn's athletic director described the notion of excluding the SEC champ, without irony, as "un-American.") That the Big Ten has something to prove to the rest of the country is taken for granted, even within the Big Ten.
Thus, even after beating Michigan State -- a top-10 team and the defending conference champion -- comfortably on the road, Ohio State needs help to make the Playoff. Right now, the four spots would seem to be spoken for by Florida State, either Baylor or TCU, the Oregon-Arizona State winner, and the Alabama-Mississippi State winner. There is a lot of football left to be played, but right now, Ohio State is on the outside looking in.
So how did this happen? Well, the one factor within Ohio State's control was a home loss to Virginia Tech, a team that sits in last place in the ACC Coastal. As a result, any discussion about good losses will be bad for Ohio State, as its loss is worse than that of any other contender.
Ohio State made a reasonable non-conference schedule, highlighted by Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. Ohio State also plays an eight-game schedule in the Big Ten. Let's look at that schedule in quarters:
Two games are against Indiana and Michigan State. Indiana is terrible, but we've come to expect that. Michigan State provided Ohio State with the one shining star on its resume.
Two are cross-divisional games against Illinois and Minnesota, a bad team and a decent team. The Buckeyes do not play the two ranked teams in the Big Ten West, Wisconsin and Nebraska, which deprives Ohio State of the chance for additional quality opponents during the regular season. The Big Ten has figured out that its top teams will need to play one another in order to have the strength of schedule to compete, but that change does not go into effect until 2016. In other words, the Big Ten understands one of its problems, but is in no hurry to solve it.
Two are against Penn State and Michigan, opponents that could normally be counted upon to provide stern opposition, but that are spending 2014 floundering because of NCAA sanctions and Dave Brandon's decision to value a two-hour interview more than a resume.
Finally, two are against Rutgers and Maryland, the league's latest additions. Neither appears in a top 25 list anywhere. At worst, these games damage Ohio State's strength of schedule. At best, they are wasted opportunities, replacing games that could have been played against better teams in the West or new additions to the league that would have bolstered the on-field product.
Who wants Ohio State?
Jim Delany chose to add two teams with mediocre football profiles because he was motivated by media demographics. The irony is that the analysts on BTN, Delany's beloved creation, have to dance around the fact that the league's standard bearer has a poor strength of schedule. Delany's league is on course to make record profits, but Ohio State fans can't use those profits to get to the Playoff.
Meyer is one of two active coaches to have won multiple national titles as a head man. The other is Nick Saban, whose team lost a game earlier in the season, but which has a chance to come back because Alabama plays in the best division in college football history. College football fans are treated to the spectacle of the sport's best coach testing himself on a weekly basis against elite competition. The same is not true with the sport's second-best coach, as Meyer's team cuts through a hollow shell of a conference.