In its past two nonconference games, Ohio State has suffered its worst home loss since 1999 and its first shutout loss since 1993.
That those two games were against the defending Big 12 champions and the eventual national champions provides no solace. This is Ohio State, owner of college football's best winning percentage since 1950 and loser of only seven games since Urban Meyer took over as head coach in 2012. Every loss matters, because such a high standard has been set that nearly every loss comes as a surprise.
Saturday's 31-16 loss to Oklahoma felt a bit different than others for a few reasons. One, it happened at home, capped by Baker Mayfield's now-infamous planting of an OU flag at midfield. Two, it happened a year after the Buckeyes blew out the Sooners by three TDs on the road. Three, it showcased many of the same problems visible in the 31-0 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson last Dec. 31.
Few teams have a playoff-or-bust mindset in college football, but Ohio State is in that small group. Was Saturday night merely a bump in another big season? Or do season-long expectations need to be tempered?
Why Ohio State can still make the playoff
1. Three of the four playoff teams have had one loss in all three years of the playoff era.
That includes Ohio State … twice. Last year, the Buckeyes lost on the road to eventual Big Ten champion Penn State and still made the playoff. In 2014, the Buckeyes lost in Week 2 at home to Virginia Tech by 14, a result that should feel quite familiar. After losing at home in nonconference play, that Buckeyes team, with a redshirt freshman named J.T. Barrett at quarterback, hit its stride in the second half of the season and became the best team in the country in the playoff. In this case, Oklahoma is likely to be a much stronger team than the 2014 Hokies were and, thus, a "better" loss.
Remember, the Big Ten was written off in the playoff chase after that 2014 Week 2 that also included Michigan State losing to Oregon and Michigan losing to Notre Dame. A few months later, Ohio State made all such predictions appear foolish.
2. Ohio State has as much talent on its roster as anyone not named Alabama.
According to the 247Sports composite rankings, Ohio State has signed a top-seven recruiting class each of the past five years. 247Sports also has a "Talent Composite" tool that ranks current rosters based on recruiting rankings; predictably, only Alabama is ahead of the Buckeyes. Does that mean Ohio State is going to be the second-best team? Of course not. Oklahoma is only 16th in those rankings and just demolished Ohio State. The Buckeyes nevertheless have the overall roster talent and athleticism to overcome their deficiencies against most teams, as we saw in the opening win over Indiana.
The Buckeyes' offense played poorly for much of that game, and yet the Hoosiers couldn't keep pace for 60 minutes and Ohio State ended up with 596 total yards and a 28-point victory. It was the type of game that we've seen a few times the past couple seasons when Ohio State's offense has struggled to find a rhythm. Meyer's 62-7 record in Columbus is a reflection of just how dominant he is on the recruiting trail.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett has clear limitations, but most of his career he's been an effective chain-mover, thanks especially to his running ability, with Ohio State winning 27 of his 32 career starts. The game-breaking ability of players like Parris Campbell and J.K. Dobbins combined with the talent in the defensive front will be enough to push this team over the top most weeks.
3. No team was better equipped to negate Ohio State's biggest strength than Oklahoma.
Perhaps only Clemson has a better defensive line than Ohio State, which boasts Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Dre'Mont Jones, Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle and others -- not to mention a stellar linebacking corps behind them. Oklahoma lost much of its skill-position production, but it returned Heisman candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield, a mobile master of improvisation, and arguably the nation's best offensive line. Oklahoma struggled to run the ball on the Buckeyes, but the Orlando Brown-led O-line and the ability of Mayfield to escape pressure and make plays even when the pocket breaks down combined with Lincoln Riley's play-calling acumen to push Oklahoma over the top.
Ohio State's defensive line is capable of dominating most opponents on its schedule. The remaining opponent most similar to Oklahoma is Penn State, which is improved on the O-line but not as strong there as the Sooners, although it does have a more proven receiving corps. Oklahoma proved to be a bad matchup that the Buckeyes won't have to deal with the rest of the season, Penn State possibly excepted.
Why Ohio State is not a playoff-caliber team
1. Ohio State's list of weaknesses is larger than usual, particularly at defensive back.
Last year, Ohio State beat Oklahoma in part because it contained Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma passing game. It did so despite losing three starters from the secondary, because it still had three players who would become first-round draft picks in Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker. Like every other position, the Buckeyes still have talent in the secondary now, but there appears to be no instant reload this season. Ohio State gave up 420 passing yards to Indiana -- the Buckeyes couldn't handle WR Simmie Cobbs in particular -- and then gave up 386 to Oklahoma. That's 806 opposing passing yards, more than anyone else in the country so far, and it comes after the Buckeyes didn't allow more than 265 passing yards in a game all last season.
Obviously, Ohio State will have far better than the nation's worst pass defense, and upcoming games against Army's option offense and Rutgers will ensure that the horrific early numbers improve significantly. Still, it is reasonable to wonder how the secondary will grow this year with so much talent lost from the past two units. Again, there aren't many great Big Ten passing games to test Ohio State, but its biggest competition in the conference could be a big-play happy Penn State team that beat it last year.
2. The road through the Big Ten East is more difficult than 2014.
Michigan State was the only ranked opponent that Ohio State faced in the 2014 regular season after losing to Virginia Tech. Michigan was in the final days of the Brady Hoke era, and Penn State -- which nearly upset the Buckeyes anyway -- was a mess offensively. Yes, Michigan State has fallen off since then, but now Michigan is much more powerful under Jim Harbaugh (and a young team will be stronger in November) and Penn State is a legitimate playoff threat with an explosive offense. Throw in improvement by Maryland and road trips to Nebraska and Iowa, and it's not as if anyone can be confident that a flawed Ohio State team will run the table against a better Big Ten. Ohio State has changed, and so has its competition.
3. The offense is regressing.
The 2014 Ohio State offense ended up finishing sixth in yards per play. The 2015 unit fell to 29th despite returning nearly everybody. Last year, that ranking fell to 47th. Through merely two games in 2017, the Buckeyes are 48th under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
Barrett is a dangerous runner who doesn't make many big mistakes as a passer -- although he did throw a crucial fourth-quarter interception against Oklahoma -- but he continues to struggle to regain his pre-injury 2014 form, when he completed 64.6 percent for 2,834 yards and 34 TDs and rushed for 938 yards and 11 TDs to finish fifth in the Heisman race. He averaged nine yards per pass attempt that season. Since then, he's averaged 6.8 yards per pass attempt. Barrett's problems with inconsistent accuracy and an inability to stretch the field haven't gone away and don't appear to be going away.
Of course, Barrett doesn't deserve all the blame. The receiving corps was a huge problem area last year and lingers as a substantial question, especially with hybrid runner/receiver Curtis Samuel gone. The offensive line has also had issues in big games, losing the battle at the line of scrimmage against Penn State, Michigan and Clemson last year and now Oklahoma this year.
Ohio State still scored 39.4 points per game and looked occasionally unstoppable in 2016 -- it beat Nebraska and Maryland 62-3 in back-to-back games -- but the pieces of the offensive puzzle just haven't fit together quite right, and questions have emerged about whether Barrett is truly Ohio State's best option at quarterback. Meyer has said that Barrett is not currently in danger of losing his job -- intangibles can't help but play a role, as Cleveland.com wrote -- but there appears to be a ceiling to the Barrett era right now.
Compared to the rest of college football, Ohio State's positives far outweigh the negatives. The Buckeyes lost to the defending Big 12 champions, who have an excellent offensive line, an improved defense and a Heisman candidate quarterback. It happens, and it's not the end of the world, for a team that is still a strong bet to win double-digit games for the 14th time in 16 years. Even Woody Hayes lost three games in a season 12 times, something Meyer has yet to do at Ohio State.
But with a lot of experience returning from an 11-2 team, a new offensive coordinator and a preseason No. 2 ranking, Ohio State had little reason to see itself as anything but a playoff frontrunner this season, despite what happened in last year's playoff. Nobody in Columbus wants to alter expectations, and dismissing the Buckeyes after one loss to a quality opponent would be a terrible idea.
However, in the early stages of the season, it's hard not to see the arguments against Ohio State living up to its playoff potential outweighing arguments for it. The Buckeyes proved what could be possible in 2014, but everything needs to be perfect to replicate that run. It's hard to see this team responding with perfection.