COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s big-game sign has a new friend. Or friends, rather.
At the locker room entrance of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the doors now include two “BEAT NEBRASKA” signs in addition to the one noting that the most prepared team will win. It’s the first thing players see when they leave the practice field.
There are dozens more of those signs across Ohio State’s football facility. From the weight room windows to the locker room walls, the Buckeyes are greeted with two words: Beat Nebraska.
Such is life for a team that has no margin for error. Ohio State’s loss to Penn State, coupled with the rise of Michigan, has left the Buckeyes with no wiggle room. As it currently stands, even winning out wouldn’t necessarily be enough to take the Big Ten East. If the undefeated Wolverines lose twice, Penn State could book a trip to Indianapolis by running the table. Even if the Nittany Lions disappear from the picture, Ohio State’s task is a tall one. Two teams currently ranked in the top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings remain on the schedule.
Michigan is the big one — the biggest one — but those stakes will shrink if the Buckeyes can’t handle No. 10 Nebraska. Losing to the Huskers would end Ohio State’s championship aspirations. A two-loss team may one day make the playoff, but it won’t be a team that didn’t even win its division.
Everything the Buckeyes have spent this season working toward will be on the line Saturday. Here’s what a win would mean for Ohio State.
As noted above, the Buckeyes are fighting to ensure the meeting with Michigan turns into a winner-take-all contest. Losing would essentially eliminate the Buckeyes from Big Ten title contention. Ohio State believes that if it wins the conference it will have a playoff spot — and with good reason. In both playoff years, the Big Ten has sent a one-loss champion to the semifinals.
Underneath the team’s clock counting down the hours to the game, there’s a “BEAT NEBRASKA” sign. But on the right hand corner of that, there’s another message taped to it: “GET TO INDY!!!” The Buckeyes can’t have one without the other.
Sending a message
Ohio State looked like world beaters against Oklahoma, and the Wisconsin win on the road was also very impressive. By the time the Buckeyes rolled into Penn State, they were clearly viewed as the most worthy challenger to Alabama’s No. 1 ranking. That would likely still be the case if the Buckeyes had found a way to win in Happy Valley, and this team can still compete for a championship.
With that being said, the Buckeyes’ last two games haven’t been great. Scoring 21 points against Penn State and 24 against Northwestern isn’t a good look. Beating a top-10 team — especially if it’s done in dominant fashion — would go a long way toward building confidence in the Buckeyes, both internally and externally.
“Ohio State vs. Nebraska … obviously the whole country will be peeking in on that one,” head coach Urban Meyer said.
Building Ohio State’s future
The recruiting visitors list for this game is outrageous. Seriously, click on that link and look at those names and ratings. While many of those players are commits, the Buckeyes will also host quite a few uncommitted prospects. That includes members of both the 2017 class who will be deciding soon and the 2018 class that is just developing.
“We have a slew of recruits coming in,” Meyer said. “It’s going to be a busy weekend.”
So what will Ohio State be looking to accomplish in that department? For starters, none of those players will make their college decisions based on the outcome of one game. A great Ohio State performance would be preferable for the staff, but past losses to Virginia Tech and Michigan State in front of elite recruits who still ended up in Columbus showed that defeats aren’t the end of the world. What is important, however, is the relationships those players build on the visit. A great atmosphere wouldn’t hurt, either.
Crushing an upstart
Nebraska has rarely been competitive in the national championship race since it last won one in 1997. The Huskers have a number of recruiting challenges that will likely keep it that way. Still, it’s easy to envision a program with those resources competing for Big Ten championships.
Mike Riley had an uninspiring debut with a 6-7 record. A five-win regular season was somewhat salvaged by a bowl invite and win, but the optics weren’t great after firing a coach who never won fewer than nine games. The Huskers roared out to a 7-0 start this season before losing to Wisconsin. How good are they? That’s still unclear, given that their best win is probably against unranked Wyoming.
Winning seven games only to lose to the first two legitimate teams on the schedule wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would probably bring a swift end to any speculation that the program is returning to its old form.