STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Breathe, Buckeye fans.
Just breathe. Everything’s going to be just fine.
Despite suffering its first loss of the season — 24-21 to Penn State on Saturday night — all of Ohio State’s goals for the 2016 season are still attainable.
The Buckeyes can still win the Big Ten Conference. They can still win the college football playoff. Heck, the team that just surrendered a two-score, fourth-quarter lead in heartbreaking fashion just very well may be the team that wins this season’s national championship.
The road to doing so, however, just got a whole heck of a lot harder.
“Win the Big Ten and you’re in” has always been Ohio State’s pathway to the playoff, but at this point, that might not be enough. The Buckeyes can’t just count on winning the Big Ten, they need to do so without adding more losses to their resume — although additional defeats will likely eliminate Ohio State from conference contention anyway.
Yes, Michigan is still undefeated and looks every bit the national championship contender the Buckeyes hope to be, but their Nov. 26 meeting in Columbus makes any comparison between the two teams a moot point. The Wolverines could win out and so long as Ohio State does the same between now and then, the Big Ten East title will still be on the line in this year’s edition of The Game, depending on how a potential tiebreaker with Penn State would now play out.
All indications are that even with Saturday’s loss, winning out through the rest of the regular season would assure the Buckeyes a spot in the Big Ten title game, with a playoff spot likely on the line. In the event of a three-way tie — which is very much in play between Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State now — the most relevant tiebreaker would be the teams’ respective overall records, in which case, the Nittany Lions would be knocked out.
Factor in a potentially still undefeated Nebraska team making the trip to Ohio Stadium on Nov. 5 and the Buckeyes should have a chance to add not one, but two, quality wins to their resume before a potential appearance in the Big Ten championship game. Once in Indianapolis, a potential rematch with either Wisconsin or the Huskers would likely await, although it’s obviously too early for Ohio State to start looking that far ahead.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes looked sluggish and, in many ways, exactly how you’d expect the team that entered the season as the least experienced in college football to look. Untimely penalties and mental errors cost Ohio State on multiple occasions against Penn State.
A loss is a loss, no matter how you spin it, but the Buckeyes’ first L of the season continued an alarming trend of QB J.T. Barrett and the OSU passing attack being unable to move the ball consistently. If the Buckeyes are going to remain in the playoff picture, that needs to change or they may not make it to the Michigan game without adding another loss.
Other than that, if Ohio State was going to lose a game this season, while the Saturday showing wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t crushing, either. Come Sunday, Penn State (5-2) will almost assuredly be ranked. Factor in this loss coming on the road for OSU and it’s hardly enough to knock the Buckeyes out of playoff contention.
If the 2014 Buckeyes can endure a loss to a 7-6 Virginia Tech team, the 2016 edition could be just fine — assuming this loss is the only one they’ve suffered by season’s end.
Win the Big Ten — without adding any more losses in the process — and you’re still “in” if you’re Ohio State.
Each one of coach Urban Meyer’s three national championship seasons included a regular-season loss, although after Saturday, it’s understandable if that feels like a long shot if you’re a Buckeyes fan.
But for now, just breathe.