No. 4 Ohio State enters Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game as the subject of endless debates.
Did the Buckeyes (5-0) play enough games in 2020? Should Ohio State even be in the Big Ten championship game? Is this team worthy of College Football Playoff consideration under second-year coach Ryan Day?
Fox play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson — who will call the game at noon ET on Fox along with color analyst Joel Klatt and sideline reporter Jenny Taft — isn’t listening to those questions. This will be the 10th Ohio State game Johnson has called over the past two seasons.
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“There’s no debate,” Johnson told Sporting News before turning up the volume. “Did you hear me? There’s no debate. The Big Ten did what the Big Ten was supposed to do. Ohio State is one of the best teams in America. We’re not going to penalize one of the best teams in the country. One of the best teams in America is not going to be penalized by their conference with some rules that were made during uncertain times in sports — especially in college sports. Period. Come on. Let’s not stand on ceremony.”
The Big Ten waived its eligibility requirements for the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 10, a decision that followed the cancellation of Ohio State’s rivalry game against Michigan.
The Buckeyes’ schedule has been questioned — but they still have an offense that averages 46.6 points per game led by 2019 Heisman finalist Justin Fields. Should the two-year starter be considered for the award again this season?
“He’s a Heisman finalist,” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt about it. Like I said, let’s not stand on ceremony. You can’t penalize these kids. They didn’t do anything wrong. It’s COVID, and it has an impact on everybody.”
Northwestern (6-1) is looking to end Ohio State’s string of three straight Big Ten championships. The Wildcats won the Big Ten West for the second time in three seasons. Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey steadied the offense, and the defense allows just 14.6 points per game, which ranks second in the FBS.
Do the Wildcats have a conference championship upset in mind?
“They’d have to play the best games they’ve ever played in their lives, and Ohio State would have to play maybe their worst,” Johnson said. “I think Northwestern is going to play them hard and tough, but when it comes to Ohio State they have some of the best players in the country. This is where pros go to learn how to be pros.”
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To Johnson’s point, the Buckeyes are 20.5-point favorites. The five-game sample, however, seems to be a part of a larger conversation. How does Ohio State stack up against the other heavyweights in No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 3 Clemson? That is where those debates have been popping up more often, and it centers around the Buckeyes’ defense.
Ohio State has allowed 23.2 points per game, which is almost 10 more points than last season’s unit, which featured All-Americans Chase Young and Jeff Okudah.
“They lost the No. 2 and No. 3 picks in the NFL Draft, so maybe they aren’t as good, but what’s that mean?” Johnson said. “What is good? They’re still undefeated. They’ve had one kind of close game with Indiana, which was never really in doubt. We’ll see how good they are when they play Clemson or Notre Dame or … Alabama.”
That is an expected scenario that excites Johnson.
“Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama? I’m going to get some special popcorn for that,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to say Northwestern can’t win, but if those four teams get to the final, then it’s on.”
The College Football Playoff pairings will be announced Sunday, and Johnson — like most other college football fans — is taking a day-by-day approach because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we’re going to have the Big Ten championship,” Johnson said. “Once we get there, let’s sit back and enjoy this game.
“We’re going to see a big-time game and Ohio State has that chance to keep moving on and represent the conference in the (College Football Playoff),” he said. “We’re going to get out of the roaring ’20s and get on to some new pastures in 2021.”
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