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It could be up to Ohio State to beat Alabama

Alabama has been dominant for the entire season, but the Buckeyes might hold the key for defeating Saban’s Tide.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

“Which brings us to my answer. The team I’d give the best shot of defeating this year’s Alabama team is the same one that handed the Tide their last postseason defeat--Ohio State.”

-Stewart Mandel, FOX Sports

Alabama has looked invincible for much of this season. From the absolute trouncing of then-ranked USC to open the season, to similarly sizable manhandlings of top-ten opponents Tennessee and Texas A&M, it seems that there are few teams who would prove themselves victorious against the Tide. With a 10-0 shutout of LSU Saturday, Alabama moves to 9-0 on the season with Mississippi State, Chattanooga and No. 8 Auburn left on the schedule. While Auburn has the best chance of anyone of defeating Saban’s team in the regular season, it seems unlikely that the Tigers can pull off the upset.

From a playoff perspective, Michigan would seem the obvious answer, sitting at No. 2 nationally in total defense behind Alabama and ranking ahead of the Tide in total offense. Still, Harbaugh’s pro-style offense doesn’t matchup with Saban’s defense, whose only losses in the past five seasons have come against teams running the spread and who have a mobile quarterback.

Which brings us, of course, to the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer’s 2014 squad was one which got much better as the season progressed, finally peaking in the postseason. This year’s group seems to be similar, overcoming a stumbling offense and creating a smooth attack which defeated Nebraska by 59 points Saturday. While the 2016 group is certainly not on the level of 2014’s national championship squad, they can certainly get there as more pieces fall into place on both sides of the ball as they look to the Nov. 26 matchup with Michigan. With Meyer and Saban boasting the same strengths--coaching, recruiting and a dual-threat quarterback--which could make for an interesting matchup come time for the playoff.

“We have a couple core leaders in there in Pat Elflein and Billy Price. The other guys are first time starters but they are getting better. We’re just continuing to grow there and I think it’s heading in the right direction.”

-Ohio State co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, via Bill Landis, Cleveland.com

Like many of the position groups coming into the season, the Ohio State Buckeyes’ offensive line was a cause for concern heading into September. Though the group boasted two returning starters where other units had none, both those starters moved positions as Pat Elflein shifted from right guard to center, and Billy Price moved from left guard to right guard. While we knew going into the season that there would be an inevitable learning curve, the unit started off the season with seemingly no break in their success. As conference play wore on, though, the offense began to stumble, with those frustrations reaching a peak when the Buckeyes faced Penn State, allowing six sacks on J.T. Barrett and a dozen negative plays.

Still, even in the last two weeks, the group has shown that they are able to gel, allowing just one sack and six negative plays against both Northwestern and Nebraska combined. In many ways, their development has mirrored the play of the 2014 offensive line, which also started the season with three new starters but which wound up being one of the best offensive lines in the nation by the time they met Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in the postseason. While this year’s group has a long way to go to reach that sort of peak, they certainly look to be on the right track to get there by season’s end.

With the offense putting up 590 yards against Nebraska--including 238 on the ground--dominating time of possession and recording 34 first downs to Nebraska’s nine, it would seem that the offense has once again found its rhythm, and Barrett credits the offensive line for leading that charge: “When it was a pass I was able to distribute the ball. When I was running, they were driving those guys off the ball. When the offensive line plays like that, that’s when you have games like that.”

“No one wants to see an all-Big Ten playoff ... But as of Nov. 7, the conference has four worthy candidates.”

-Teddy Greenstein, The Chicago Tribune

The Big Ten as a conference received more love than it might have anticipated with the release of the season’s first College Football Playoff poll last week. With strong performances by several of the conference’s top teams over the weekend (and some critical losses by others who were highly ranked), it is plausible to start to considering the possibility of more than one Big Ten team ultimately making the College Football Playoff.

At the No. 3 spot, Michigan was the highest-ranked Big Ten team in the inaugural poll last week. Outside the top-four, Ohio State came in at the sixth spot, Wisconsin at eight, Nebraska 10 and Penn State 12. The conference further improved their case with Ohio State obliterating Nebraska with a 62-3 win, and Penn State being equally impressive against Iowa with a 41-14 win in State College. With losses by Texas A&M (No. 4) and Florida (No. 11), Penn State could reasonably move into the top-10 this week, with Ohio State and Wisconsin both likely to move up in the poll.

While this is just a reflection of the second week of rankings, if one or more of the undefeateds including Alabama, Clemson and Washington loses, there is a reasonable case for an additional Big Ten team in the playoff. For example, if Ohio State wins out and wins the Big Ten Championship game, the playoff committee could still consider a one-loss Michigan squad. A 10-2 Penn State team which could finish the season with eight-straight wins would also be an appealing candidate.

The Big Ten, SEC and ACC all had five teams ranked in the initial poll last week (the Pac-12 and Big 12 each had four, with Western Michigan and Boise State representing outside the Power-5). But the Big Ten’s teams were collectively ranked higher than any of the other conferences. The SEC had three teams ranked in the top-10, including Alabama at the top spot, Texas A&M and Auburn (No. 9), while the ACC had two in Clemson (No. 2) and Louisville (No. 7). The Pac-12’s lone representative was Washington at No. 5. The Big 12 had no one.

“It’s a little relief to know that right now I saw some explosiveness that we’ve kind of been lacking in some positions. And I think relief is probably the correct word. We’ve all been waiting for that to happen. No better time than the month of November to get that thing going.”

-Urban Meyer, via Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s offense is not dead. Led by J.T. Barrett, they proved as much Saturday against Nebraska, scoring two touchdowns on the ground and four through the air. And the defense, which had been criticized, though not as widely so, added two pick-sixes to the total. Urban Meyer even smiled at the result.

While Nebraska has made significant improvements under Mike Riley, they have a long way to go until they beat the likes of Ohio State in the Big Ten, especially when Ohio State is finally able to get back on track and capitalize on the frustration of recent weeks, culminating in the team’s only loss and being left out of the top-four of the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings. In many ways, the win was akin to the Buckeyes’ 59-0 beatdown of Wisconsin during the 2014 Big Ten Championship game, when Ohio State was again on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in, and when they needed a dominant performance on a national scale against a formidable conference opponent.

This leap had been a long time coming this season. With struggles and miscues plaguing the team essentially since their shutout against Rutgers, things just didn’t seem to click on either side of the ball. But finally, according to defensive end Sam Hubbard, the team finally felt that sense of urgency and intense focus which led to the improved performance Saturday.

From a playoff perspective, Ohio State has yet another signature win under their belt to refresh the committee, if victories over Oklahoma and Wisconsin have gone stale at this point. Though Washington will likely fill the No. 4 spot formerly filled by Texas A&M, the Buckeyes have shown that they deserve to be in contention. Within Ohio State, the win has improved their sense of play, opening up an offense which had gone stale and elevating a defense that had somewhat fallen off the map.

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