LINCOLN, Neb. – As Ohio State rolled to a 48-7 victory over Nebraska on Saturday night, its fourth straight win by at least 41 points, it was hard not to think about where the Buckeyes could be in December and January.
Ohio State’s first four wins of the season had to come with qualifiers: It’s just Florida Atlantic. It’s just Cincinnati. It’s just Indiana. It’s just Miami (Ohio).
By playing at the same level in Lincoln on Saturday night, though, the Buckeyes made a clear statement that they have what it takes to be one of college football’s best teams this year – perhaps even a national championship team.
In a game that was supposed to be Ohio State’s toughest test of the season to date, in a matchup that shared some parallels to the Buckeyes’ road losses to Big Ten West foes Purdue and Iowa over the last two years, Nebraska never threatened to even keep the game close. Ohio State scored on eight of its first nine possessions of the game, while Nebraska didn’t score on any of its first eight. The Buckeyes outgained the Cornhuskers by nearly 350 yards (580 to 231), marking the fourth straight game in which Ohio State’s offense has gained 500-plus yards and the fifth game in a row to start the year that Ohio State’s defense has held its opponent under 300 yards.
Ohio State will still surely face tougher competition than Nebraska. The Cornhuskers haven’t looked nearly to be the Big Ten West contender they were expected to be entering the season, and the Buckeyes’ regular-season schedule still includes Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan, among others.
Nearly halfway into the regular season, though – a season that was supposed to start with some growing pains in Ryan Day’s first year as a head coach, Justin Fields’ first year as a starting quarterback and the first year for a new Ohio State defensive scheme – the Buckeyes have played with a consistent level of dominance on both sides of the ball that makes a run at a national title seem increasingly realistic.
At this point, it’s impossible to imagine that the Buckeyes aren’t thinking of those possibilities themselves, too. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to dominate their opponents week in and week out. They credit that to the way they practice each week and focus on the season one game at a time, so they certainly don’t want to deviate from what’s worked for them to this point.
“We still got a long way to go,” Day said after Saturday night’s game. “This doesn’t mean anything if we don’t keep it going.”
As well as Ohio State has played so far this season, the Buckeyes know they still have many more games to win, and they know from experience that it only takes one bad game – like last year, when their 49-20 loss to Purdue was enough to keep them out of the College Football Playoff despite winning all the rest of their games – to potentially foil a team’s championship hopes.
“We’re not at any uncharted levels,” said Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah. “We’ve been 5-0 before. So I think the goal now is to have a complete season. Don’t have any slip-ups.”
“This doesn’t mean anything if we don’t keep it going.”– Ryan Day on Ohio State's 5-0 start
Okudah isn’t wrong about that, but there is a difference between limping to victories and making them look easy, and the latter is what the Buckeyes have done so far this year. That’s why college football analysts like ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and David Pollack and Fox Sports’ Joel Klatt are saying that they believe Ohio State has been the best team in the country so far this season, and why there’s already real reason to believe this year’s team has the potential for a historically great year.
There still could be some doubters about Ohio State and who it has played even after Saturday's game – safety Jordan Fuller said he knows “there’s people out there that don’t really believe the hype yet” – but the consistency with which the Buckeyes have dominated suggested that they are in fact playing at an elite level, not simply taking advantage of inferior opponents.
“Cincinnati's a pretty good football team. Miami (Ohio) won today, is a pretty good football team. Indiana played pretty good today. And this team had 700 yards last week. So these guys do deserve credit,” co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said. “Are we a finished product? No. Do I think we can get way better? I do. I guarantee when I turn on the tape on the plane, I'm going to be frustrated on things. But it's nice to do that when you win a game.”
The Buckeyes didn’t make any bold proclamations after Saturday’s game about what they could accomplish for the rest of the season, but they’re certainly playing with a lot of confidence. If the Buckeyes continue to work as hard all season as they have through the first five weeks of the season, Okudah believes “the sky’s the limit.”
“The country saw what we were echoing in the locker room before the game: We are who we think we are, because we put in the work and then we also put it on film,” Okudah said. “So I know everyone was kind of like doubting the schedule, but I think we were able to show what we’re capable of doing.”
After outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 262-43 in their first five games of the season, what the Buckeyes look to be capable of doing is winning a national championship. But if they’re going to have a chance to turn that potential into reality, they know they can’t let off the gas pedal at all.
“I think it makes you want to press even more,” Fuller said of Saturday night’s win. “Just to keep the momentum going. We know the ability for it to be taken away, so we’ll never take that for granted. We approach every week the same.”