LINCOLN, Neb. — A matchup of two top-10 teams, this week’s game between No. 9 Nebraska and No. 6 Ohio State is certainly big. But it could have been bigger.
Had the Huskers held on last weekend at Wisconsin and knocked the Badgers, Saturday night’s game at Columbus could have been a preview of the Big Ten Championship in December, a win propelling Nebraska into the top 5.
This game could still be a conference title game preview, but for now it will have to serve more as a statement game for the two teams.
Ohio State (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) seems to be slipping. Nebraska (7-1, 4-1) needs to follow-up its first loss of the season — 23-17 in overtime — with a big win to prove it deserves to be in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. For both teams, a win would go a long, long way.
Here are five things to watch for on Saturday:
1. Camp Randall hangover?
When Nebraska coach Mike Riley saw these two weeks back to back for the first time, at Wisconsin then at Ohio State, he said he was actually pretty excited.
Now? It’s not as fun, he joked on Monday.
Nebraska seemed to handle Camp Randall in Madison, Wis., pretty well last weekend. The Huskers did have two false starts, but nothing super detrimental.
But this week, Nebraska will go into The Horseshoe — aka Ohio Stadium, a 105,000-capacity landmark of the Big Ten. It didn’t seem like Nebraska was shaken by the atmosphere last week, but how will they they deal with a more hostile Camp Randall 2.0.
2. Which Ohio State will Nebraska get?
There seem to be two Ohio State teams — and the one Buckeyes fans don’t like is the one they’ve seen lately.
In the early part of the season, Ohio State dismantled teams, such as its 45-24 drubbing of Oklahoma on the road in mid-September and 58-0 blowout of Rutgers the following game to open Big Ten play.
But the past three weeks, Ohio State has regressed a bit, particularly on offense. Wisconsin took Ohio State to overtime before losing 30-23 on Oct. 15. The Buckeyes then lost 24-21 at Penn State before holding off Northwestern by just 4 points, a game not fully in hand until a J.T. Barrett scramble with less than 2 minutes left allowed the Buckeyes to run out the clock.
So will Ohio State be the dominant team from the beginning of the year, or the pretty good team from the past three weeks?
3. The College Football Playoff
The first College Football Playoff rankings of the season are released Tuesday night. Ohio State will likely be ranked ahead of the Huskers, and with good reason. But like making the NCAA Tournament in basketball, it is now all about building a resume.
If Nebraska beats Ohio State on the road, they’ll surely jump into the top 5 of the rankings, meaning Nebraska would have a legitimate shot at being one of the four teams to play on New Year’s Eve.
This is the first time Nebraska has played a game with CFP implications. Will it affect the Huskers at all?
4. Ohio State is the best offense Nebraska will face this year
Nebraska has faced — and succeeded against —a variety of offenses already this season.
There was the Oregon up-tempo offense (Nebraska won 35-32), the Northwestern grind-it-out offense (held to 13 points by the Huskers), and Indiana’s mix of both (Nebraska won that one 27-22). But each of those offenses had relied on particular wrinkles for at least part of their success.
Now, the Huskers face simply the best offense in the Big Ten.
Yes, Ohio State’s three lowest-scoring games this season have been its last three, but the Buckeyes are still second in the conference in scoring at 42.6 points per game, first in total offense, first in rushing offense, second in pass efficiency, second in field-goal percentage, first in first downs, first in third down conversions, second in fourth down conversions and first in time of possession.
There isn’t a real way to stop this Ohio State offense. So how will Nebraska react in hopes of slowing down a very good offense?
5. Is this the best, or worst, time to play Ohio State?
Riley said on Monday his team is mad about the Wisconsin loss.
But that makes you wonder: How mad is Ohio State? The Buckeyes lost to Penn State, then only beat Northwestern by four, even though they were favored by 26 points.
This is either the best time to play Ohio State, with the Buckeyes struggling to figure out who they are as a team, or the worst time, when Ohio State wants to show they really are the best team in the Big Ten, despite Michigan’s superior rankings.
Which will it be?