Takeaways before college football championship week

Since opening weekend of this 2021 college football season, we’ve been offered weekly reminders of Georgia’s elite defensive fortitude. The Bulldogs suffocated Clemson, back when that was considered impressive, and have put on a clinic in weekly opponent offensive suffocation.

As the college football season has unfolded in a wondrous cacophony of fits, starts and surprises, there’d been no obvious foil for the top-ranked Bulldogs. Alabama flashed that potential before bursts of mortality. Oregon’s win at Ohio State thrust them into the conversation. Cincinnati’s march to perfection, combined with their last-second bowl loss to UGA last year, has moonlighted them in that conversation.

But it wasn’t until No. 4 Ohio State’s emasculation of No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday that a destination-caliber No. 1 vs. No. 2 match-up in the sport revealed itself. In the most dizzying, impressive and jaw-dropping half of football that 2021 has seen, Ohio State scored touchdowns on seven consecutive first-half possessions and didn’t yield a point.

Ohio State took a team ranked in the top 10 and rag-dolled them around The Horseshoe as if they were a directional Michigan. At times, more like Bishop Sycamore.

They filleted Michigan State’s suspect pass defense, turned Mel Tucker’s reported $95 million contract offer into a Twitter punchline and showed just how devastating the OSU offense can be when quarterback C.J. Stroud is working at peak accuracy.

Stroud finished 32-for-35 for 432 yards. To be clear, this was not Georgia’s defense. But it also wasn’t Otterbein. The Spartans’ pass defense ranked No. 56 in efficiency, but it yielded more passing yards per game than any team in the country.

Miyan Williams (right) of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrates his first-half touchdown run with teammates while playing Michigan State on Saturday. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

And that’s why it’s expected that the Buckeyes will appear at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday. No. 3 Oregon did the Buckeyes two huge favors — they rattled the program enough in September to make seismic changes. And then they no-showed in Salt Lake City, getting blasted 38-7 by Utah to end the Ducks’ and Pac-12’s hopes for a College Football Playoff spot.

Will Ohio State’s performance be enough to leap No. 2 Alabama? The Crimson Tide aren’t reaching the same crescendo as the Buckeyes, as they slogged through a workmanlike 42-35 victory over Arkansas on Saturday.

That comes on the heels of a listless showing against LSU. Don’t be surprised if Alabama is pressed at Auburn (6-5) on Saturday, even in the wake of Auburn’s three-game losing streak. Alabama hasn’t won there since 2015, and this could save Bryan Harsin’s largely forgettable first season on The Plains.

Regardless, Ohio State has shown enough offensive burst and consistency in recent weeks that it’d be fun to envision them matched up with Georgia. The Buckeyes have the sport’s best collection of receivers — Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba — and a quarterback who has gained the poise and experience to fully exploit those weapons. Freshman tailback TreVeyon Henderson continues an ascent to be one of the sport’s defining players in upcoming seasons, as he’s averaging more than seven yards per carry.

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Here’s the most under-appreciated part of a potential OSU and Georgia matchup: Ohio State’s offensive line is one of the few in the country that could measure up to UGA’s mauling defensive front. OSU’s offensive line has the size — RT Dawand Jones (6-8, 360), RG Paris Johnson Jr. (6-6, 315) – and experience with LG Thayer Munford having logged 43 career starts.

No. 4 Ohio State entered the game with No. 7 Michigan State as an 19.5-point favorite, so the notion that a Spartan grand gravitational comeuppance wasn’t that far-fetched.

But few could have envisioned the relentless and unmerciful tenor of Ohio State’s 56-7 evisceration of Michigan State. The Buckeyes didn’t just annihilate Michigan State, they managed to completely alter the trajectory of a Spartan program, the Heisman Trophy race and, along the way, the perception of Ohio State’s ability to win the national title. Georgia is still the favorite, but a fascinating foil has emerged.

There was good news for Michigan State on Saturday — any notion of Mel Tucker leaving for a job like LSU in this coaching cycle disappeared by halftime. Tucker’s career record fell to 16-14 with the loss, and any grand notions of Tucker serving as the answer for an ailing blue blood were put on ice. Tucker has been a very good coach for Michigan State, and he’ll continue in that role in the near future.

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Ohio State still must go to No. 5 Michigan next week. That does not project to be the same caliber of joyride, as Michigan has the country’s No. 7 pass efficiency defense and No. 4 scoring defense. Michigan hasn’t seen any offenses close to the class of Ohio State, and the Buckeyes haven’t played anywhere near as hostile as Ann Arbor.

Another aced test for OSU next week would solidify them as Georgia’s potential foil, and the drumbeat for that matchup would only pound louder as we go through league title games and the College Football Playoff.

Seminoles trying to win Florida

How wayward are things with the power conference schools in the state of Florida? With a win at Boston College on Saturday, Florida State improved to 5-6 with a chance to get bowl eligible and perhaps be the best-positioned program in the state for the immediate future.

A win at Florida on Saturday and a bowl bid in Mike Norvell’s second season would make FSU the most stable of Florida’s supposed Big Three. Consider that Miami is amid an athletic director transition that’s expected to yield a coach change. Florida is in the throes of a searing spiral that included a blowout loss at South Carolina, a historically bad defensive performance against Samford and an overtime loss at Missouri.

Florida State isn’t exactly channeling the 1990s, but it is 5-2 in its past seven games and won back-to-back gritty three-point games over Miami and Boston College. Despite the gut-wrenching loss to Jacksonville State this season and 0-4 start, FSU can play in the first bowl game under Mike Norvell while the other Florida schools appear on the cusp of recalibration.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Norvell told Yahoo Sports after the game. “For our guys to be able to go out there for a chance to win the state. With the win at Miami and the opportunity to go to Gainesville, it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

Nearly 75% of FSU’s roster are freshman and sophomores, which means a bowl game would offer a key chance to develop. That’s one of many reasons why the Florida game looms so large. Sophomore Jordan Travis finished with three touchdown passes and 251 yards on 20-for-34 passing on Saturday against Boston College. FSU is 5-2 in games he’s started this year and 0-4 in the others.

One more win would give Florida State a chance to help the young roster grow up a little more.

“If we can find a way to be successful, you get a chance to secure one more game with this team,” Norvell said. “It’s an opportunity to grow and develop a lot of momentum that is going to carry over into recruiting.”

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