Travelers and Thieves

By Ramzy Nasrallah on December 6, 2017 at 1:15 pm
Dec 2, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Denzel Ward (12) intercepts the ball while Wisconsin Badgers tight end Troy Fumagalli (81) defends in the first half in the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Original | ©Trevor Ruszkowski - USAT Sports

Maybe the Big Ten champions were the victims of a vast conspiracy.

They checked all of the right boxes required for inclusion into the playoff. Ohio State is from the right conference and it has adequate star power on its roster to go with peerless celebrity on its coaching staff. The quality wins were there, as was the trophy celebration in Indianapolis.

There was also very little separation between 5-8 in the penultimate rankings. The Buckeyes were 8. Four teams ranked above them either lost or didn’t play by virtue of having already lost. It was a clear path to the top four.

But the Buckeyes still weren’t invited, which is to also say the Big Ten will be absent from the College Football Playoff for the first time. They checked all the right boxes, but also a couple of the wrong ones and at least one box that was previously invisible, with Alabama's inclusion for having beaten - these are the highlights - Fresno State (which lost to UNLV) and LSU (which lost to Troy).

It didn't scream quality, but neither did the Buckeyes' trip to Iowa City.

Barrett's relationship with the Buckeyes has been symbiotic for four years: They consistently bail each other out.

Don’t give up 55 points to anyone, let alone Iowa was a prescribed remedy, as was next time schedule Mercer instead of Oklahoma. Ohio State also forfeited an opportunity for a 59-0 Lite version of its 2014 Wisconsin conquest by leaving some touchdowns unscored against an undefeated team on Saturday night. Perhaps another video game score would have been enough to overcome all of that.

On the surface that all makes sense. Maybe if you uncheck just one of those bad boxes, Urban Meyer is preparing for Clemson again instead of Southern Cal. But that’s impossible to do in a linear time continuum. That’s now how playing God works - you cannot uncheck one thing without affecting everything that came afterward.

Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin appeared in that order. Once the Hawkeyes dropped their double-nickel, three different, superior versions of the same offensive philosophy showed up behind them. After Iowa happened, the Buckeye defense squashed each better version. It made no sense if you refuse to believe in lessons learned.

The week prior to Iowa, Penn State’s offense scored 31 of 38 points it put on the scoreboard. Flipping the Iowa result while leaving what happened post-Iowa intact is a failure to appreciate Ohio State's response to losing. Had they survived that Iowa City trip there’s no way to know if the Buckeyes still ravage the Spartans 48-3 the following week.

If you’re confused, think back to 2015 when Ohio State regularly survived its Saturday appointments until it didn’t, against Michigan State. After that, it became unbeatable. That loss was crushing, self-inflicted, late - and necesssary.

As for scheduling, Mercer visited Alabama as part of Chickenshit Saturday, the SEC’s conspicuous tradition of inserting virtual bye weeks directly ahead of November rivalry games. Their circular defense of this is chickenshit is 1) Chickenshit Saturday is unimportant and irrelevant and not at all a big deal but 2) it's so meaningless the SEC refuses to cancel it, and 3) if other conferences don’t like it, they should relent and create their own chickenshittery - with blessings from God’s Conference.

Chickenshit Saturday is college football’s dumbest mischief. There’s no what-if to be found there - Ohio State should not stop scheduling Oklahomas in September and playing conference games in November.

Wisconsin lost on Saturday night - as it would have repeatedly - if Saturday had been a 10-game series. An invisible Badger victimized J.T. Barrett early for a touchdown, just as an invisible Hawkeye had a month prior. When he wasn’t missing a couple of wide-open scoring throws, Barrett's receivers were having perfect arcs bounce off their hands. 

This sequence happened all season. Barrett misses; Barrett hits and Zone Six fumbles. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Mike Weber fumbled deep in Ohio State territory early on as well, which clenched the Buckeyes’ two-back attack and probably reduced how much they could have tenderized the Badgers’ front seven. The solution for 3rd and short was the same one throughout the evening; Marcus Baugh in motion, align to the right side of the slobs, run Barrett behind him, 1st and 10. 

When the Badgers finally solved it, Barrett improvised and singlehandedly converted a critical 4th quarter 4th down down by himself. His relationship with the Buckeyes has been symbiotic for four years: They consistently bail each other out.

J.T. Barrett converts 4th and 1 by himself

Twelve hours after Barrett's plunge the playoff committee decided it wouldn’t be bailing out Ohio State or the Big Ten when it came to playoff seeding. So maybe the Big Ten champions were the victims of a vast conspiracy. The winners in Indy own a two-year playoff absentee streak.

Two seasons ago the Spartans were invited to the playoff, but they didn’t exactly participate. Last year Ohio State snuck in and matched Michigan State's goose egg. It only took about 20 minutes of game play in Glendale to accept the Buckeyes would not be winning, let alone scoring that evening.

But this year isn’t last year or two years ago. Ohio State is now 9th nationally in yards per play with nearly seven per snap. Last season it was 47th. The squandered 2015 edition was 29th. The two seasons before that, 5th and 6th. Tim Beck may be gone, but his wildly incompetent ghost still looms large. The Buckeyes are a completely different offense without him.

That perception/stench still haunts the program. It should be gone in 2018.

Watching Barrett, in mid-double digit percentage health lead the team to covering-the-spread didn’t scream worldbeaters to anyone watching it just for the entertainment value. But worldbeating is not a playoff requirement, not for college football teams, and definitely not for a playoff that invited losers to Syracuse, Iowa State at home as a 31 point favorite and two teams that lost to Auburn.

Performing better in the CFP last year might have given Ohio State the benefit of the doubt, except that the 2015 Buckeyes just called and they’re still wondering why they got none of that for winning it all in 2014. They slipped once and were left out. The 2016 edition slipped once and got in, partially because Penn State was obliterated by Michigan before it put its own house in order. 

Maybe last year’s Buckeyes stole the playoff ticket from this year’s. Maybe the rules keep changing. Maybe there are no rules.

Gene Smith sat on this CFP committee. Back in 2011 Gene chaired the NCAA Tournament committee and the top-seeded Buckeyes somehow landed in the Bracket of Death with North Carolina, Syracuse, Kentucky, West Virginia, Xavier and PAC-10 Champ Washington as the top seven seeds. March Madness seeing has not seen controversy like that this decade.

Maybe Gene should stay the hell away from these committees. Maybe the Big Ten champions were the victims of a vast conspiracy.

What comes next is Southern Cal, the usual NFL defections, a customary monster recruiting class and another prime position to make a run at a playoff bid with more fresh data. Thanks to Tennessee’s boundless vanity, Ohio State should have two head coaches-as-coordinators again next season, which would provide the most stability atop the staff since 2014. Urban has been saying the future is bright at Ohio State for several years, and it's starting to look like he's consistently right about that.

The Buckeyes have stolen what wasn’t theirs plenty of times before. They might have been denied a legitimate shot at a playoff spot this time around, but they provided too much inconsistency, too much lacking discipline, too many reasons to not believe. Two loud losses. Too many evil spirits. Not enough boring, methodical annihilation of the opponentry.

It’s tough being the Best Team Not in the Playoff one year after being invited for dubious reasons. Ohio State will be back in the thick of it for years to come, and it very well may be forced to steal what it wants again. 

Hopefully next time it will make that crime pay.

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