It’s kind of an uncomfortable question, but why wait to ask it? Here goes:
Are the Ohio State Buckeyes too full of themselves to repeat as national champions?
Saturday’s 20-13 victory over Northern Illinois — in which OSU fell four touchdowns short of covering a 34½-point spread — offered a strong indication that the Buckeyes’ intensity and focus were left behind in Arlington, Texas, the site of last season’s title game.
Not to make light of the Huskies’ effort at the Horseshoe in Columbus — it was inspired, to say the least — but we’re starting to see something of a trend from Urban Meyer’s team. It trailed at halftime of the season opener against Virginia Tech. The offense slogged through three quarters of an ugly win over Hawaii. And then the offense, once again the culprit, tried in myriad ways to help the Huskies pull off an all-time-huge upset.
There were five turnovers and a pathetic 14 first downs gained by Meyer’s guys. What gives?
“I know there’s going to be a million questions about the offense,” said Meyer, “and there should be. There’s a little discombobulation that’s got to get worked out.”
That discombobulation is quickly turning into a four-letter word to Buckeyes fans, who wouldn’t be wrong to wonder if the sudden superstardom gained by quarterback Cardale Jones last January is going to last. Jones threw two interceptions before being replaced for good by J.T. Barrett, who also was picked off and didn’t make any of his usual magic in the running game.
Who’s the starter now? We’re back to not knowing.
“We’ll go back to work and get it fixed, and get it fixed fast,” Meyer said. “I have not lose confidence in our staff and our players. Obviously, we have very good players.”
So did Florida State a season ago. The Seminoles blew the doors off everybody in winning it all in 2013, but 2014 was a different story; they were mistake-prone all season, especially quarterback Jameis Winston, and it all came to a head in a blowout loss to Oregon in the College Football Playoff.
There has been much said about the Buckeyes’ favorable schedule this season. They’ll get Michigan State at home; the rest was expected to be pretty easy. Maybe too easy.
There’s plenty of time for this mega-talented team to get rolling, but bad habits are hard to break and complacency is a formidable foe.
Again: Is this what a No. 1 team is supposed to look like?
“I don’t really want to speak on that,” said linebacker Darron Lee, whose third-quarter interception return for a touchdown proved more meaningful that anyone would’ve imagined. “But I know we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Even ESPN analyst Mack Brown, whose commentary tends to be kiddie-pool deep and ever-friendly to all, called the Buckeyes “entitled” after Saturday’s escape. If Brown will say it, why shouldn’t the rest of us?
It hardly matters who’s No. 1 in September. A year ago, the Buckeyes already had a loss and simply were trying to keep their heads above water. Things are far more promising now. They’ll still be favored every Saturday for the foreseeable future.
But easy? That, it isn’t going to be.
GAMES OF THE WEEK/WEAK
Week: Stanford 41, No. 6 USC 3x. No one who watched as the Cardinal offense was completely dominated at Northwestern in the opener would’ve been able to conceive of such a score. Everything clicked behind a line that gave quarterback Kevin Hogan time to shine and created space for running back Christian McCaffrey. Yet most will remember this as the night the Trojans’ playoff hopes died.
Weak: No. 22 Missouri 9, Connecticut 6. Mizzou is 3-0. Make that an almost shockingly unimpressive 3-0. How is this team going to pull off another SEC East surprise if it can’t do better than this against the lowly Huskies? (No offense to Huskies coach Bob Diaco, formerly of Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame staff.)
Week: Memphis 44, Bowling Green 41. Quarterback Paxton Lynch went off as the Tigers rallied from 10 points down in the second half to get to 3-0 on the season. Not long ago at all, Memphis was one of the most destitute programs in college football. It’s a whole new ballgame now, with Justin Fuente’s team thinking American Athletic Conference title. Speaking of Fuente, there might be a phone call from Champaign in his near future.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU: Forget everything you read before the season about the pecking order of running backs in college football. It’s Fournette’s world; everyone else is just, well, you know. His stats in the No. 13 Tigers’ 45-21 stomping of 18th-ranked Auburn — 228 yards and three touchdowns — don’t do justice to how spectacularly he ran.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma: Look, we’re not saying Mayfield was good in No. 16 Oklahoma’s 52-38 victory over Tulsa. We’re just saying he completed 32 of 38 throws for 487 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 85 yards and a pair of scores on the ground. We’ll let you decide if that’s good.
C.J. Prosise, RB, Notre Dame: Everything about the eighth-ranked Irish’s 30-22 win over No. 14 Georgia Tech was impressive, but nothing more so than Prosise’s 22 carries for 198 yards and three touchdowns. This is a special player.
Up: No. 23 Northwestern. Is there any doubt the Wildcats defense, which stifled Duke for four quarters Saturday, is one of the strongest units in the Big Ten? The offense is a work in progress, but big Dean Lowry and the D are clicking on every level. In an up-for-grabs Big Ten West, that’ll go a long way.
Down: No. 3 TCU. Long before it was TCU 42, SMU 37 in a nerve-wracking fourth quarter for Horned Frogs fans, it was plainly obvious that this supposed national title contender doesn’t belong in that conversation yet.
Down and out: Auburn. It’s hard to say what was worse: The Tigers’ overtime win over an FCS opponent in Week 2 or Saturday’s total no-show in Death Valley against LSU. The Gus Malzahn “genius” talk will be on simmer for a while.
Sad to say, but Bret Bielema has turned himself into the most disliked coach in college football. How? By talking smack about his Arkansas program, far more so than he used to do at Wisconsin (and even then it was a problem). Also, by ripping on other programs. And by complaining about seemingly everything.
A week after falling at home to Toledo, Arkansas was handled 35-24 in Fayetteville by Texas Tech. After the game, Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury made no effort at all to mask his dislike for Bielema.
“He just got his [butt] kicked twice in a row,” said Kingsbury, “and probably next week by [Texas] A&M as well.”
The Hogs are 1-2. They’ve been hit hard by injuries, but that’s no excuse in light of how big Bielema talked about his team heading into the season. His time at Arkansas has been, in all, a huge disappointment — to Hogs fans, anyway. Certainly not to a lot of coaches around the game.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.