Ohio State's playoff hopes aren't over
The real Ohio State finally showed up for their final game of the season, outclassing Michigan 42-13 in Ann Arbor, and looking very much like the team that romped through the playoffs last season.
If it weren’t for their slip up against the Spartans the week before, the Buckeyes would be strong contenders to defend their crown. Instead they are on the outside looking in, sitting sixth in the most recent College Football Playoff rankings. Those aren’t the final rankings though, and if either Clemson or Alabama should fall this weekend, the Buckeyes can make a case for being the team that takes their place. Earlier in the season that case was based primarily on potential, but after Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes can point to performance as well.
It was thought that a good game from Michigan QB Jake Rudock would give the Wolverines a real chance to knock off their biggest rival. He did indeed play well, earning a +5.3 overall grade, and it didn’t matter — the Buckeyes were simply too strong and their big game performers came to play. QB J.T. Barrett and RB Ezekiel Elliott posted matching +2.7 overall grades, and RG Pat Elflein earned a +3.0 run block grade, as Ohio State’s two-pronged ground attack hit top gear — the Buckeyes ran for 369 yards.
A number of players stood out on the defensive side of the ball, but no one played better than DE Joey Bosa (+8.3). Bosa tormented the Michigan pass protectors throughout, racking up two sacks, two further hits and nine total pressures, he was unblockable.
It was the best that Ohio State had looked since beating Oregon to become National Champions, and it gives the playoff committee something to ponder. Prior to the Michigan State loss, Ohio State had the committee’s favor, despite the absence of a marquee win or great performances; the committee was clearly mindful of their potential. Now that they’ve played up to that potential, the Buckeyes are sure to be in the conversation when the committee meets on Sunday.
Of course, the elephant in the room is their schedule. Their out-of-conference games came against Virginia Tech (6-6), Hawaii (3-10), Northern Illinois (8-4) and Western Michigan (7-5). Their cross-divisional games came against Illinois and Minnesota, two 5-7 teams that finished fifth and sixth in the West, respectively. Ohio State has lined up a series of home-and-home games against notable Power-5 programs — Oklahoma, TCU, Oregon and Notre Dame. It just happens that they hit the Hokies during a down spell, leaving their schedule weaker than it should have been. Aside from the games against Michigan State (which they lost) and Michigan, none of the Buckeyes’ opponents will finish the season ranked.
That softer-than-ideal schedule is compounded by the manner in which Ohio State has navigated it — they’ve won consistently, but not convincingly. Rather than overpowering opponents, they relied on a terrific defense to outlast them. That defense covered up a surprisingly underpowered offense. The offense was better in the second half of the season, but struggled mightily against Michigan State and only truly came to life in Ann Arbor.
Had Ohio State played the way they did against Michigan throughout the season, or even just in November, there could be little debate over their playoff prospects. Because they didn’t, they’re reliant on other results breaking their way this weekend, and if they do the Buckeyes can certainly make a case for being one of the four best teams in the nation right now.