It’s a simple question: Would the Ohio State Buckeyes beat Alabama or Clemson on a neutral field if given a chance to do so?

No, don’t assume the answer is obviously yes, because it isn’t.

Don’t assume the Buckeyes are the best team in the country, either — they made plenty of mistakes (most of them on defense) in Friday afternoon’s Fiesta Bowl win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Yet, the question is itself a commentary. It’s a commentary on how formidable Ohio State has once again become on offense, even with rough edges in the red zone and a drive-halting interception thrown by quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The Buckeyes topped the 40-point mark for the second straight game after their clunker against Michigan State. That in itself is noteworthy. What’s even more striking, though, is that the Buckeyes did not labor for the vast majority of their points. They attained 28-7 and 35-21 leads by hitting home-run plays and scooting past Notre Dame’s outmanned defense with alarming ease. It’s that last detail — the unbothered and easy smoothness of the Ohio State attack — which commands the attention of college football pundits right now. If the Michigan State aftermath and its recriminations were extraordinarily messy and soaked in the vinegar of bitterness, Ohio State certainly expunged that bitterness. More precisely, the Buckeyes expunged that bitterness by transforming it into a two-game revival against Midwestern neighbors Michigan and Notre Dame.

Understand this about Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett and the rest of the Bucks: They didn’t make marginal improvements against Michigan and now the Irish; they zoomed into an entirely different dimension of space and time. The difference between their loss to Michigan State — which the nation still can’t believe after Sparty’s no-show against Alabama — and these last two games against Michigan and Notre Dame is the embodiment of a 180-degree turnaround.

Not a 90-degree change. Not even a 135-degree shift. The full 180.

It evokes the fabled verse from the poet John Greenleaf Whitter:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

Just look at how easy it was for Ohio State to score on Notre Dame, even when accounting for the devastating first-quarter injury to Jaylon Smith, the Irish’s most important player:

The Buckeyes imposed themselves and their athleticism on Notre Dame. As much as the Irish were undermanned, depleted by a ridiculous run of injuries, Brian Kelly’s team established an uncommon level of reslience this season. Notre Dame was the team which didn’t go away and always punched back. On offense, the Irish did enough in this game to somehow keep it a conversation into the middle of the fourth quarter:

Notre Dame performed gallantly, if deficiently, on Friday. Yet, for all the determination the Irish once again displayed, they never came particularly close to the Buckeyes.

As soon as Notre Dame created a one score game — at 28-21 — in the third quarter, Ezekiel Elliott busted loose for a touchdown. When the Irish crept within 10 at 38-28 midway through the fourth quarter, they committed a huge holding penalty on fourth and 10, enabling Ohio State to drain two minutes of clock and kick a field goal. The Irish stared at the scoreboard with 6:09 left, knowing they needed two touchdowns and at least one defensive stop against a team they hadn’t been able to slow down all afternoon.

Caught in the death-grip of the clock, Notre Dame had no real options, no room in which to maneuver or throw clever looks at Ohio State’s defense. The Buckeyes devoured Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer on the next series, and the game was fully over.

It had been almost over for most of the day; only when Notre Dame briefly chopped its deficit to 28-21 was there even a shred of doubt in Glendale, Arizona, that Ohio State wouldn’t win this game.

The 2016 Fiesta Bowl didn’t rate as a blowout; Notre Dame’s competitive attributes wouldn’t allow a runaway to unfold. Yet, it can quite reasonably be said that Ohio State won this game easily. It can just as plainly be stated that the Buckeyes’ offense has become the smooth, silky river of rhythm it was for much of the 2014 season under J.T. Barrett’s guidance.

A team came together after its worst moment. A coaching staff and a roster learned the right lessons from a miserable experience.

Alabama and Clemson might very well beat Ohio State on a neutral field — not that we’ll have a chance to test either scenario.

However, give the Buckeyes this: They’re good enough to at least make a lot of people think about the answer to that very simple question.

About Matt Zemek

| CFB writer since 2001 |