The college football season began visibly off script for Ohio State. On the first defensive snap of its first game against Notre Dame, the Buckeyes missed a tackle, allowed a 54-yard completion and earned a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer. By the end of the first quarter, it had lost the nation’s best wide receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) to an injury and punted twice after drives rapidly petered out. Alarmingly, a unit that featured three of the eight players with the shortest preseason Heisman odds — a unit that at least one outlet thought had the potential to be the greatest offense ever — was both outgained and outscored in the opening half by an unproven Irish team without its preseason All-American lineman.
It didn’t ultimately matter: The Buckeyes pitched a second-half shutout and left the Shoe with an 11-point win. And the subsequent weeks have been mostly devoid of on-field adversity. Those two punts in the team’s first three drives? Ohio State then went seven consecutive games without a first-quarter punt. The defense that effectively kept the Buckeyes out of the playoff in 2021? Ohio State now features one of the nation’s strongest — especially along the interior, where they lead the Big Ten in expected points added against the run. That offense making do despite injuries to preseason All-Americans Smith-Njigba and TreVeyon Henderson? Ohio State has averaged a nation co-leading 0.32 expected points added per play through nine games, one of the highest marks in the playoff era.
All told, Ohio State has outscored opponents by a combined 270 points and has looked every bit the part of a national title favorite. But that doesn’t mean it has been treated like one.
Despite two top-15 wins and top national marks in ESPN’s total efficiency and SP+ metrics, Ohio State has yet to reach No. 1 in either the AP or Coaches polls, and came in second in the debut edition of the 2022 College Football Playoff rankings. Two different teams have received top billing in the AP Poll, but not Ohio State, which opened the season as the No. 2 team and has won all of its games by double digits. In Week 10, Tennessee — which started the season unranked — received more first-place votes than Ohio State.
It’s all enough to wonder: Why? Has SEC dominance evolved to such a degree that any team outside of its orbit — even the Big Ten’s finest — is unable to crack the marquee? Have voters only tuned in for the first half of the season opener or last weekend’s cartoonish first half in Evanston, Illinois, when wind gusts exceeded 40 mph?
To be sure, Ohio State is no charity case. The Buckeyes are a playoff mainstay with sights set on a fifth appearance. But perhaps that cuts against them as well. With a 60-5 record over the first three months of the season during the playoff era, it can be easy to take Ohio State winning streaks for granted. And in a sport that so infrequently rewards newcomers, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a novel story like TCU’s or Tennessee’s1 registers nationally in ways continued excellence doesn’t. But it seemed that just as much if not more oxygen was lent to a then-one-loss Alabama team last week than to Ohio State, which got leapfrogged for the No. 2 spot in the Week 10 AP Poll by Tennessee. Google Trends can demonstrate the Buckeyes’ relative dearth of coverage, too.
And yet, at this point in a season, Ohio State has looked this good only once: 2019.2 In fact, this team is tracking more than 7.0 points of efficiency higher than it did in 2014, when the Buckeyes ultimately won their eighth national championship.
At the center of it all, quarterback C.J. Stroud is playing like the Heisman contender and probable top NFL draft pick he was projected to be. The second-year starter leads the nation in Total Quarterback Rating (91.1) and ranks second in passing touchdowns (29). Against Iowa, Ohio State hung 54 points on the second-best defense in the country, a total that hadn’t been produced against the Hawkeyes in more than a quarter-century. Before last weekend’s windswept battle against Northwestern, Ohio State had gone seven consecutive games with at least 44 points, a Big Ten record. In the rain and wind, they still managed to post 20-plus points for the 70th consecutive game, an FBS record.
But perhaps the bigger story to emerge from Columbus is a rejuvenated defense under new coordinator Jim Knowles. This is a unit that gets opponents off the field in a hurry: Only 15 opponent drives this season have reached the red zone, the fewest of any team in the country. The Buckeyes defense ranks in the top 10 in three-and-out rate and lowest opposing third-down conversion rate, in large part because they have the second-best pressure rate in the country.
So why isn’t Ohio State getting its due?
Without question, the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs have intermittently looked the part of a title favorite again, with the season-opening blowout of Oregon and last weekend’s stellar defensive effort against Tennessee sticking out for voters. A year after winning it all, Georgia will likely retain the top spot in every poll moving forward unless it loses. But this is also a team that very nearly suffered an upset to an unranked Missouri team with a losing record.
Ohio State doesn’t have the strength of record that Georgia does, nor does it measure as well in ESPN’s Football Power Index (or our Elo model). But the Buckeyes also have never been in jeopardy of losing and are the only team with a top-5 offense and defense. They have produced more points per game (45.78) on more yards per play (7.3) than any team in the country — essentially doing it entirely without Smith-Njigba, a receiver who last year broke a 20-year-old conference receiving record and was favored to win the Biletnikoff Award. And yet, they received a single first-place vote in the most recent AP Poll.
“Disrespect” is subjective, relative and perhaps even a touch strong for what Ohio State has experienced in 2022. Perhaps “overlooked” is a better way of putting it, or “taken for granted.” But the Buckeyes should be comfortable being in that spot. Astonishingly, it’s been seven years since they were last ranked first in the AP Poll. That’s right: They were not even No. 1 when they earned two top-15 road wins by mid-October in 2016, nor when they won two top-15 games by the end of September in 2018, nor when they bulldozed the regular-season slate by a playoff-best average margin of victory of 33.1 points in 2019.
Will that change this season in Columbus? Maybe — provided the Buckeyes keep winning enough to grab the attention of voters and the playoff committee. But for now, one of college football’s powerhouse programs has been flying strangely under the radar all season long.
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