Ohio State returned from its bye week yesterday knowing that winning on the scoreboard might not be its biggest fight as the season enters the stretch run.
This week’s opponent, Illinois, hasn’t won a Big Ten game in Tim Beckman’s two seasons as coach. Then comes Indiana, a long shot to qualify for a bowl. As for Michigan, well, let’s just say that Ann Arbor is not a happy place right now.
So much of the attention on the Buckeyes these days is about where they fit in the national picture. Ohio State is No. 3 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, and some believe that Baylor or Stanford could overtake them. If Alabama or Florida State loses, that could cost the Buckeyes a chance at playing for the national title.
Coach Urban Meyer has a vote in the USA Today coaches poll, which is one-third of the BCS ratings formula. If Meyer’s vote were all that mattered, the Buckeyes would be in position to play for the national championship.
“I have Ohio State in the top five,” Meyer said. “I believe it’s Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State. I’ve had us (No.) 2 all year. I just think we’re playing like one of the top teams in the country.”
Asked if it was uncomfortable having a vote for something that affects his team, Meyer replied, “Uncomfortable? No. At times, I don’t get to watch everybody. Sometimes (it) puts you in a hard position. This last week, I did get to watch everybody. There are some very good teams in the country, and I believe we’re a good team.”
Receiver Evan Spencer also watched several games over the weekend, including the Oregon-Stanford, Baylor-Oklahoma and Alabama-Louisiana State games. He said it’s natural to think about how Ohio State would fare.
“I guess I’m a little bit biased, but I think we’d wipe the field with both of them,” Spencer said, adding with a laugh, “but that’s just my bias speaking.”
Asked who the “both” was — Alabama and who else? — Spencer replied, “Whoever.”
Later, Spencer said, “If we execute for a full game, there’s nobody in the country that we feel can hang with us.”
Unsurprisingly, Spencer’s remarks blew up on Twitter. Some asserted that Spencer said that Ohio State would dominate Florida State, a team that never entered the discussion.
It is clear the Buckeyes know that the country is skeptical about their worthiness to play for the national title. They know they have to make their case as strongly as they can.
“We’ve got to win, and we’ve got to win big,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “They’ll talk about our strength of schedule, but if voters see us beating teams by a lot of points, they’ll have to give us a little credit.”
Of course, Ohio State falls out of the conversation entirely if it doesn’t win, and Meyer said that’s the first priority.
“But the message is, you have to play great,” he said. “We do. I mean, you’re held to a really high (standard), to be even mentioned with those other teams. Be careful what you wish for. That means you have to practice and play at a certain level.”
Meyer said the team practiced “at a very, very high level” after returning from the weekend, and believes that will continue. The stakes don’t allow for anything else.
This is a far different Buckeyes team than that last traveled to Champaign, in 2011. Ohio State won despite completing only one pass — for a touchdown from freshman Braxton Miller to tight end Jake Stoneburner — in a 17-7 win.
Of course, the Illini were much different back then, too. They were 6-0 and ranked No. 16 heading into the game.
That was the first of 19 straight conference games Illinois has lost.
Meyer dismissed the notion that the Buckeyes, a 32-point favorite, might take Illinois lightly.
“No issue whatsoever,” he said. “This is a very invested team. I’m watching that. I’m just telling you that as of Monday, (it’s) no issue whatsoever. There will be a bomb going off if I start to see that or we all start to see that, because this is a very invested team.”