I feel bad for Ohio State.
I'm sorry; this isn't the type of thing anyone is supposed to say after Ohio State beats Penn State 63-14 -- or ever, really. But don't blame me; the BCS made me do it.
Over the weekend, I wrote that even if the Buckeyes beat everyone else on their schedule by 50, their only realistic chance at the BCS national title is for at least two of the three teams ahead of it to lose. Whether or not that happens, the situation encapsulates everything wrong with the BCS process we've put up with for 16 seasons, further boggling my mind that anyone, anywhere, possibly could still support this system.
Of course, the latter doesn't really matter anymore, because the battle has been won, and the College Football Playoff is on the horizon. Still, with two months left in the lifespan of the BCS, there likely will be plenty of opportunities to get more than a decade of BCS bashing out of our systems. Style points don't matter. No. 4 Ohio State is at the mercy of (1) a schedule created years ago, and (2) conference opponents not carrying their weight. Thus, one of the most consistently successful programs in college football -- one that is 20-0 over the last two seasons, and coached by one of the two or three most successful coaches of the 21st century -- may be just as hopeless in its quest for a national championship as it was when it was specifically banned from doing so a year ago.
The Buckeyes have not lost, and among the undefeated teams left, they are the most likely to finish without a loss. Yet at the moment, they have little if any control of their own non-Rose Bowl destiny, making them, maybe for the first time ever, a sympathetic victim of circumstances. (I also feel bad for Baylor, and much of this column could be applied to the Bears, and the same can be said for current No. 3 Florida State -- who presumably will eliminate Miami from this discussion. But examining plausible scenarios, Ohio State is the most likely to come out of it both undefeated and feeling screwed.)
Within the current system, no, there probably isn't a legitimate case to be made for Ohio State over an undefeated Alabama, Oregon and/or Florida State. Those three teams have been the most consistently dominant, and they all have better wins than an Ohio State team that has feasted on a weak Big Ten and had its big nonconference game against one-win California. Alabama beat Texas A&M on the road; Florida State smoked Clemson on the road; Oregon pummeled Washington and UCLA. All have quality opponents remaining. Ohio State, meanwhile, has an underrated home win over Wisconsin, and that appears to be it. A curious Michigan team and then the Big Ten title game are the only impactful (using a loose definition of the word) games left.
Still, the Buckeyes shouldn't be so easily dismissed, either. They became known, and rightfully so, for squeaking out close wins against inferior teams last year, and recent games against Iowa and Northwestern (given its recent freefall) have the same sort of flavor. But make no mistake: This is a better Ohio State, better than the one that finished undefeated last season despite its flaws. This is a better Ohio State, one that plausibly could have gone undefeated even if playing the same schedule as Alabama, Oregon or Florida State.
For one, Braxton Miller is healthy now, and at full strength, he's made a significant leap from year one to year two of the Meyer era, becoming a more poised and more accurate passer, after already having finished fifth for the Heisman in 2012. He ranks seventh nationally in passer rating and sixth in completion percentage, at 70.6 percent, a massive improvement over last year's 58.3 percent. He completed 22 of 27 passes against Iowa and 18 of 24 against Penn State. While Ohio State likely will never need him to be the type of quarterback who throws 50 times per game -- he's never attempted more than 30 -- it's clear that he's more comfortable and more dangerous in the pocket.
He can still run too, of course, but the emergence of his supporting cast allows Ohio State to protect him a bit more, not relying solely on his big plays to bail the offense out. Running back Carlos Hyde has done his own bit of growing up; rebounding from a lost first half of the season that opened with a three-game suspension, he's breaking out as one of the best running backs in college football. Hyde belongs to a special class of big power backs -- LSU's Jeremy Hill is another -- who maintain quick feet, explosiveness and balance despite having the look of a between-the-tackles grinder. In the last three games, he's rushed for 464 yards and seven touchdowns on 66 carries (7.03 yards per rush).
Throw in the emerging potential of speedy freshman Dontre Wilson as a movable chess piece in the offense, a line that has given up 11 sacks in eight games, and a decent receiving corps headlined by Devin Smith and Corey Brown. Ohio State's offense has made the leap from streaky to dominant, with the height of that transformation occurring against Penn State last Saturday night.
This is a complete unit that appears capable of keeping pace with anyone, and the much-anticipated emergence of young players on defense, particularly end Noah Spence, makes it appear that the defense is starting to make that leap as well. The Ohio State offense has improved from 6.08 yards per play to 6.87, while the defense has held steady at just above 5.0, despite losing six starters out of its front seven.
Because of all this, Ohio State is able to do things like beat Penn State 63-14 and subsequently get accused of running up the score, because this is a ridiculous sport breeding a situation in which, through no fault of the Ohio State players, the Buckeyes can't win in the big picture. Again, they appear to be better than when they went undefeated last year, but there is a good chance they won't be able to validate those appearances -- because, for example, Florida State was lucky enough to become a powerhouse in a season in which conference rivals Clemson and Miami are also good. Whether Ohio State would beat Alabama, Florida State and Oregon head-to-head is up for debate, but it's a debate that may not even happen. Those three are considered to be in a different class, and those perceptions are nearly impossible to break.
The problem with the BCS, as always, is that the sport with the most limited regular season has the most limited postseason. Games against cupcakes often make up a quarter of a team's schedule, teams in different conferences rarely have common opponents, and our assumptions about schedules within conferences are based on historical perceptions. The process of determining a champion is always going to be flawed thanks to a small sample size. (The lack of an analytics presence on the College Football Playoff selection committee is an egregious oversight.)
Expanding the scope to be more inclusive is one way to mask those deficiencies. It is unlikely this column will need to be written a year from now -- undoubtedly a step in the right direction. No. 3 getting left out of a two-team event will always be worse than No. 5 getting left out of a four-team playoff.
November is only about to begin, of course, and there's always danger in writing definitive statements about the BCS with so much still to be decided. For all we know, four of the six remaining undefeated teams from AQ conferences will lose, trying a neat little bow on the final season of the BCS, possibly with Ohio State heading to Pasadena on Jan. 5 instead of Jan. 1.
But for now, impending doom and chaos is the name of the game. The ability of the BCS to evoke sympathy for the unfair treatment of Ohio State, a college football one-percenter, may be its most devilish trick yet.
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