The national perception for several years is that Ohio State is simply a big fish in a little Big Ten pond.
Many critics believe the Buckeyes make their living feasting on inferior teams and don’t face a quality opponent until they reach a bowl game.
So the No. 4 Buckeyes had the perfect opportunity Saturday night to show the critics they were national title contenders with a dominant performance against No. 23 Wisconsin in the Big Ten opener.
They did not.
If anything, the Buckeyes might have hurt their cause with a 31-24 victory over the Badgers. There won’t be many voters lining up to put Ohio State in the national championship game if Alabama, Oregon and Ohio State all go undefeated and a lackluster victory like Saturday’s is one of the Buckeyes’ signature wins.
Wisconsin did what it does worst Saturday night, throwing the ball all over the field.
Superstar cornerback Bradley Roby was burned early and often by Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis, and unheralded sophomore quarterback Joel Stave finished with 295 yards and two touchdowns against a Buckeyes defense that will need to shut down big plays and speedy opponents if it reaches a BCS bowl, especially the national championship game.
Wisconsin outgained Ohio State 399-390. The Badgers put up 20 first downs to Ohio State’s 21. They owned the fourth quarter, scoring the final 10 points of the game and getting to within one score late in the game.
Most Ohio State fans will say that winning the game is all that matters.
That was true before the Buckeyes won the national championship, when a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl berth topped every fan’s wish list. Today, winning the Big Ten and earning a BCS bowl berth just isn’t satisfying enough.
Ohio State needs to look spectacular while winning in a one-sided manner if it continues to throw Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M on its non-conference schedule. The Buckeyes have to make the voters believe they could win against — insert your favorite Southeastern Conference team here — and it wouldn’t be a waste of time putting them in the biggest game of the season.
Beating California 52-34 on the road with the backup quarterback running the offense was a step in the right direction. Walloping Division I-AA Florida A&M 76-0 last weekend was a must.
Ohio State never trailed and was never in serious trouble against the Badgers, but it also failed to drop jaws and inspire fear with its play … which is what is needed for the Buckeyes to be taken seriously during the national championship discussion.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knows how to beat teams from the nation’s top college conferences. He won a pair of national championships with Florida, navigating the Gators through an SEC minefield year in and year out.
Meyer’s goal is to turn the Buckeyes into an SEC-style team that will be able to compete with any program in the nation. With the Big Ten’s showing against the SEC, the Buckeyes would become an even higher hurdle for Big Ten opponents once Meyer has the team he desires.
But it’s going to take two or three more years.
Meyer’s first recruiting class won’t hit campus until next spring. Elyria’s Tracy Sprinkle, one of this year’s freshmen, was recruited by Luke Fickell and his staff during Sprinkle’s junior season of high school. Sprinkle said he didn’t meet Meyer until after he had already committed to Ohio State.
Meyer was able to steer a couple players away from rival programs after he was hired, but there are few Meyer “guys” on the current roster.
That will change over the next couple of years, and Meyer will find the athletes, the right body types, the speedsters he covets to put together the type of team that dominated the college football scene for the better part of a decade.
For now, Ohio State will need to compile the wins while keeping its fingers crossed.