Ohio State won again last Saturday, extending college football’s longest winning streak to 18 games. As they approach the midway point of the regular season, the defending national champs are exactly where the preseason consensus thought they’d be: 5-0 overall, 1-0 in Big Ten play, and sitting atop both major polls by substantial margins. The Buckeyes have yet to lose a starter to long-term injury or to trail in the fourth quarter of any game. In every way that matters, they remain on track to fulfill their destiny as the best team in the nation for the second year in a row.
In so many other ways, it’s becoming harder and harder to shake the sinking feeling that something about the no. 1 team is … off. Certainly it wasn’t expected to struggle to this extent against the early-season filler. Relative to what we saw from essentially the same lineup at the end of last year’s title run, the Buckeyes who showed up for Saturday’s down-to-the-wire, 34-27 escape at Indiana looked sloppy, underwhelming, and vulnerable. Two weeks earlier, the offense sleepwalked through an equally distressing, 20-13 win over Northern Illinois, making the drama in Bloomington look less like an outlying blip than an emerging trend.1 The pieces aren’t fitting together as well as they did last winter. The offense has an abundance of talent but no real identity and a penchant for shooting itself in the foot. At times, it’s looked like it’s playing in quicksand for entire quarters at a stretch. At other times, it’s had to resort to playing in survival mode.
NIU subsequently lost its next two games to Boston College and Central Michigan, respectively, failing to reach 20 points in either case.
For most teams, a 5-0 record would speak for itself. But most teams — even most defending champions — don’t enter the season boasting an historic quarterback depth chart, the preseason Heisman favorite, the likely no. 1 pick in next year’s draft, and the expectation that they breeze through a mediocre schedule from start to finish. By those standards, Ohio State has barely resembled a burgeoning juggernaut. So, are the Buckeyes merely victims of unfair expectations while still working out the kinks? Or is it time to worry?
To its credit, Ohio State did look sufficiently dominant in its season opener, a 42-24 win over Virginia Tech. But while the defense has largely held up its end of the bargain, the offense’s potential has remained largely hypothetical.
Against lowly Hawaii, Ohio State managed just 17 points through the first three quarters, 10 of them coming as the direct result of short fields following turnovers. (OSU tacked on three more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, one courtesy of the defense, to win easily, 38-0.) Against NIU, the Buckeyes committed five turnovers (not including a sixth turnover on downs) and descended into such an irreversible funk in the second half that the winning margin had to be supplied by a pick-six courtesy of linebacker Darron Lee. Against Indiana, a team that hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 1988, the Buckeyes committed three more turnovers, went three-and-out six times, converted two out of 14 third-down chances, couldn’t reach the end zone in the first half, and failed to pick up another first down after staking out a two-touchdown lead early in the fourth quarter.
It was during the waning moments of the Indiana game, with the victory seemingly in hand late, that the OSU defense bent for the first time, allowing the Hoosiers to score 17 points in the span of roughly half a quarter2 with their starting quarterback and starting tailback watching from the bench. With a chance to tie (or win, with a two-point conversion) on their final possession, the Hoosiers drove to the Buckeyes’ 9-yard line before botching the snap on the decisive fourth-and-goal pass as time expired.
Including, inexplicably, a 79-yard touchdown run by a 180-pound backup QB named Zander Diamont.
Statistically, Ohio State lags well behind last year’s pace in scoring offense, total offense, and almost every other offensive category except yards per carry. Even on the ground, where tailback Ezekiel Elliott has largely lived up to the hype generated by his over-the-top postseason numbers from the previous campaign, the production has been largely boom-or-bust rather than steady. Efficiency-wise, they’re 103rd in third-down conversions, 108th in red zone scoring, and 117th in giveaways.3
Urban Meyer specifically cited turnovers and red zone production as areas of emphasis on Monday.
The all-purpose star of the Virginia Tech win, Braxton Miller, has largely disappeared from the game plan since, having accounted for just 50 yards from scrimmage on 12 touches in the past three games. And the guys who edged Miller out of the quarterback race, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, have thrown as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns while posting a combined pass efficiency rating (125.6) more than 40 points below last year’s rating (167.7). That number was the second-best in the FBS; this year’s number ranks 78th.
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
Not surprisingly, Jones has absorbed most of the backlash from the fan base’s impatient online fringe, after taking every meaningful snap the past two weeks against Indiana and Western Michigan.4 Initially, Meyer said he chose Jones to start the first game because, as the de facto incumbent from the end of last year’s title run, “for him not to take the first snap, he had to get beat out [in the preseason], and he wasn’t beat out.” But that pecking order wasn’t fixed enough to keep Jones from getting a quick hook after throwing a pair of first-half interceptions against Northern Illinois — Barrett came on to throw for a touchdown and an interception of his own against the Huskies — and Meyer’s decision to double down on Jones as QB1 after that game has only made the stagnant passing game feel more frustrating. Like the cliché says: When the going gets tough the backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team, and in this case the backup quarterback finished fifth in last year’s Heisman vote. The situation right now is the worst-case scenario. Meyer wants to stick with one guy, understandably, but when Jones struggles, even for just a quarter or two, it’s impossible not to think, “Well, Barrett is just sitting there.”
Barrett got in some garbage-time work against WMU.
The Buckeyes are still no. 1, and it’s still not very close. But it’s a lot closer than it was a month ago: After garnering every first-place vote in the preseason AP Poll, and picking up all but two in the Coaches’ Poll, OSU is down to 38 first-place votes (out of 61) on AP ballots and 50 first-place votes (out of 62) from the coaches, even though no consensus candidate has emerged yet from the pack of a dozen remaining unbeaten teams as a viable replacement.5
The voters abandoning Ohio State at no. 1 have scattered their first-place votes among TCU, Baylor, Michigan State, and Utah.
Their diminishing share in the polls is one indicator of the Buckeyes’ perceived vulnerability; another the fact they look increasingly less likely to run the table. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, which is designed to predict future outcomes, Ohio State’s chances of winning out against the rest of its regular-season schedule have dropped from 32.4 percent in the preseason to 22.6 percent, precisely the kind of trend one would expect from a team that has only seven games left to win rather than 12. FPI has also downgraded the Buckeyes’ chances of winning the Big Ten from an unimpeachable 68.6 percent in the preseason to 47.4 percent, still the best number of any team in the Power 5 conferences, but a considerable plunge nonetheless.
Elsewhere, the forecast against a backloaded slate is even darker. Game-specific S&P+ projections see more close calls in the coming weeks against Penn State and Minnesota, followed by a pair of losses down the stretch at Illinois,6 and Michigan.7 Add in a visit from Michigan State on November 21, and it’s very safe to assume Ohio State will not make it through the next two months unscathed if it goes on playing the way it’s played so far.
The Wolverines have climbed the advanced stats charts over the past few weeks as rapidly as the Buckeyes have slipped: As things stand right now, S&P+ predicts a shocking 15.8-point Michigan win over Ohio State, including a slight nudge to account for home-field advantage in Ann Arbor. The same numbers peg OSU’s win probability for that game at a dismal 18 percent.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The most obvious comparison for these Buckeyes is to last year’s front-running Florida State squad, which also began the season as a no-brainer favorite to repeat after taking the 2013 BCS crown, and which also exhibited warning signs in the early going that the encore — even while retaining most of the same cast from the championship team — wasn’t going to reach the previous season’s heights. The 2014 Seminoles never looked like a team operating on all cylinders, even as they kept winning regular-season contests, never playing up to their potential for more than a quarter or two at a time. They repeatedly eked out sloppy victories over inferior opponents, lagged far behind other highly ranked teams according to advanced stats and computer polls, and were eventually humiliated when they finally ran into a playoff-caliber challenger in the semis. FSU’s loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl snapped a 29-game winning streak, and came as a surprise to absolutely no one who’d actually watched the Noles play up to that point.
The other precedent is less obvious, but it may be more relevant: The 2009 Florida Gators. That team, also coached by Meyer, also opened the season as an overwhelming favorite to repeat after returning the vast majority of its lineup from the 2008 title run, including Tim Tebow. One key piece that the ’09 Gators were missing from the ’08 season, however, was their offensive coordinator, Dan Mullen, who had left Meyer’s nest for the top job at Mississippi State. Without Mullen, essentially the same offensive personnel that had run roughshod over the rest of the SEC for the previous two years was rendered suddenly toothless: Scoring in conference games plummeted by more than 17 points per game, and the Gators failed to score 30 points in half of their 12 regular-season wins. Florida kept on winning anyway until it ran into a first-class opponent, at which point it abruptly collapsed in a 32-13 debacle against Alabama in the SEC championship game.
In 2015, Meyer has once again been forced to replace his offensive coordinator following a championship run — last year’s chief playcaller, Tom Herman, left to be the head coach at Houston — and just like before the transition is proving rockier than anyone imagined, even with much of the championship lineup returning intact.
It’s still far too early to begin contorting the current Buckeyes to fit into historical templates when most of the season remains in front of them. After all, last year’s title run is a precedent, too. The schedule is designed for the long game, saving the steepest challenges for last, and the potential of this lineup is undiminished. The defense is fine. Zeke Elliott can be a workhorse or a game-breaker, depending on the situation, and he’s already proven he can bail out a struggling quarterback against the vast majority of Big Ten defenses. If either quarterback finds his rhythm, it’s full-speed ahead to a playoff bid. The big goals haven’t changed (and neither has the ceiling), and they’re all still there for the taking.
But we haven’t seen anything yet from this outfit that suggests it’s any more likely to put it all together in time for a late surge than, say, Clemson or Utah or Michigan State or any of a dozen other teams harboring equally valid ambitions — quite the opposite, in fact. Ohio State has yet to face an opponent with even the faintest hope of national relevance and has looked listless and ordinary, anyway. If nothing else, the residual juice that separated the Buckeyes from the pack in the preseason has evaporated. From here on the question is how much of it they’re able to start generating on their own.