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Ohio State has unexpected competition for the College Football Playoff

With Notre Dame in the mix, a tight race of conference champs just got more complicated.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Tech Lee Luther Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve struggled with that during my time here, complementing each side of the ball. We are beginning to do that much better. Our offense is complementing our defense, which we saw today.”

-Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, via Heather Dinich, ESPN

The College Football Playoff is inherently an imperfect system, albeit one which brings significant improvements over the BCS era. It is naturally impossible, for example, to place a range of five conference champions into four semifinal spots in the playoff, because math. Throw in another contender, perhaps from a non-Power-5 conference, and mayhem ensues as not one but TWO Power-5 conference champions are left out of the Playoff.

This scenario looks like a likely one this season, as Notre Dame has actually managed to live up to its hype for six weeks and remain undefeated. As an independent, Notre Dame has a long way to go to receive a Playoff bid, especially given that the Fighting Irish do not have a conference title game--one of the downsides of not actually belonging to a conference. In previous years, Notre Dame looked to shake up the nascent playoff system, but could never put together a convincing resume (i.e., the Irish lost by mid-October). The month is still young, but, by most accounts, Notre Dame looks to be past the worst of it’s schedule already. Most recently, the Irish recorded wins over ranked Virginia Tech and Stanford teams in the last two weeks. And with a win over a ranked Michigan team in its season opener, the team’s résumé could be Playoff-worthy even sans a conference championship. Notre Dame’s most difficult remaining test, in fact, looks to come in its season finale against USC. With the Pac-12 looking to be pretty much out of the Playoff race, a win over the Trojans might be just as good as a conference championship. Notre Dame could also be aided by a weak Big 12, given a loss by Oklahoma this weekend.

Of course, the committee will probably just put two SEC teams in anyway.

“Our big thing is consistency. That’s what we need to find. It’s not where we haven’t shown that we can’t, we have to do it consistently. That’s our charge right now.”

-Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, via Bill Landis,

The Buckeyes are undefeated through six weeks of the season, and, with the exception of a one-point win over a top-10 Penn State on the road and two-score win over TCU in Arlington, have won the remainder of their games by a margin of at least three touchdowns. The defense, however, remains a head-scratcher. Injuries are partially to blame. Safety Jordan Fuller was missing in the season opener against Oregon State, where the Silver Bullets gave up seven plays of at least 25 yards. Defensive end Nick Bosa got hurt against TCU and hasn’t played since. There is also no timetable on his return. Safety Isaiah Pryor missed the first half last week after a targeting call late in the Penn State game.

Essentially, it doesn’t seem like the Ohio State defense can get everything right at the same time. Against the Nittany Lions, Ohio State held a high-flying offense to just 26 points, but allowed quarterback Trace McSorley the best rushing game of his career. The Buckeyes stifled Indiana in the second half, but continued to allow the big play against the Hoosier offense.

Overall Ohio State still boasts one of the best defenses in the nation--in some categories. They’ve had three defensive touchdowns this year and average 3.7 sacks per game, which is good for fourth in the nation. They’ve been pretty good when it comes to the turnover game. In other areas, Ohio State has been comparatively dreadful. Total defense, for example, is 56th in the NCAA, as the Buckeyes have given up an average of more than 365 yards per game. Seven Big Ten teams rank ahead of Ohio State in the same category. And the Buckeyes are among the worst in the nation in giving up the big play, allowing 19 plays of 30 or more yards.

“Lethal. Filthy. Borderline unstoppable. Pick an adjective to describe Haskins’ stellar start and it’ll probably do the junior quarterback injustice.”

-Brad Crawford, 247Sports

With Dwayne Haskins winning his fourth Big Ten Player of the Week honor today, it’s apparent just how much of an impact he is having not just on his team, but on the conference and the nation as a whole. The junior quarterback has thrown for 25 touchdowns--more than any other quarterback in the NCAA--and is averaging nearly 320 yards through the air per game. Against Indiana, Haskins completed 33-of-44 passes for 455 yards and six touchdowns, tying school records for both completions and passing touchdowns. And with Oklahoma falling to Texas this weekend, Haskins’ chase for the Heisman has gotten a lot closer.

But Haskins wouldn’t be as successful on the field without the stable of outstanding receivers around him. He has been good at spreading the ball around, but Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin lead receivers in scoring with seven and six touchdowns, respectively. More impressive is the fact that McLaurin has had just 13 receptions on the season. Four receivers on the roster have touchdown receptions of 40-plus yards. Campbell himself leads the Big Ten in receiving yards with 501, while McLaurin boasts an average of 21.3 yards per reception. And while Campbell and McLaurin provide consistent playmaking, K.J. Hill has proven to be a clutch receiver, catching the game-winning touchdown from Haskins at Penn State last weekend.

On the defensive side of the ball, Dre’Mont Jones has been an anchor for the Buckeyes, holding things down up front along with Chase Young. With Nick Bosa out, the pair have continued to hold the defensive line to a high standard. Ohio State is among the best in the nation in sacks and tackles for loss. In the secondary, Jordan Fuller has been a force to be reckoned with for opposing quarterbacks. He leads the team in tackles and has been a leader on a unit that seemed to struggle without him in the season opener.