INDIANAPOLIS — The uncertainty for unbeaten Ohio State going into the Big Ten championship game wasn’t about whether the Buckeyes needed to beat Wisconsin to make the College Football Playoff. It was about what they could showcase for the Playoff’s committee as they made a final push for the top seed.
The Buckeyes, confident and talent-laden with their agile quarterback, Justin Fields, the fleet-footed running back J.K. Dobbins and a host of other playmaking options, appeared poised to deliver a rout similar to the one they dropped on the Badgers earlier this season.
Yet when Ohio State was forced to rally from two touchdowns down to earn a 34-21 win, a new question emerged. Even at 13-0, just how equipped is this team to take on faster, more talented competition — beginning with the reigning national champion, Clemson?
On Sunday, a 13-member committee determined that Louisiana State, not the previously top-ranked Buckeyes, should enter the national semifinals as the top seed. That means Ohio State gets a matchup against Clemson and its talented quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, rather than a semifinal against No. 4 Oklahoma, the Big 12 winner, which is the only team in the Playoff with a loss.
Ohio State is the first Big Ten team to be a part of the Playoff since the 2016 season.
Early Sunday morning, once the Buckeyes had been showered with colorful confetti at Lucas Oil Stadium, Ohio State’s first-year coach, Ryan Day, declared that if there was a team in the country better than his, he would like to see it. But after the Buckeyes — led by Fields, who was declared the game’s most valuable player — put up 27 points in the second-half comeback, Day also acknowledged that his team was in need of a breather.
“They need to enjoy it,” Day said. He added: “This was a long road. These last three weeks were hard, tough, emotional. I think this team is blown out right now.”
While the committee on Sunday did not concur with Day, his players insist they will be better for having played through difficulties against Wisconsin.
This season, Ohio State outscored its opponents by an average of 38.1 points and only once won by fewer than 12, 28-17 against Penn State on Nov. 23. But after easily beating their top rival, Michigan, by 29 in the regular-season finale, the Buckeyes had an uncharacteristically sloppy first half on Saturday night that put them in a 21-7 hole.
The locker room at halftime was free of yelling or finger-pointing. Instead, Day told his players that the next 30 minutes of play would determine what kind of team he had and what it was made of — not only against Wisconsin, but against stiffer competition on a grander stage.
“Coach Day, he just kept saying, ‘Just keep swinging, just keep swinging,’” Ohio State defensive end Chase Young said. “We just kept swinging, kept swinging, kept swinging.”
Clemson swung plenty in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on Saturday night, beating Virginia, 62-17, and has plenty of reasons to keep doing so after being considered something of an also-ran for playing light competition on its way to a 13-0 record.
Late Saturday night, in the cramped quarters where Ohio State players took turns posing for photos with the Big Ten championship trophy, the common theme centered on their brotherhood and ability to fight together.
But its hopes for winning two more big matchups require Ohio State to play even more forcefully and eliminate the self-inflicted mistakes that put the Buckeyes in need of a comeback against Wisconsin.
Fields believes he and his teammates are up for the challenge.
“Just going through that, going through that little stumble or trial, I think that helped the team gain confidence and it definitely put us in a situation we had never been in before,” Fields said.