- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The exciting thing about Ohio State through the first four weeks wasn't that the Buckeyes won their games.
By most measures, they were supposed to beat Marshall, Miami, Ohio and Eastern Michigan.
It was how Ohio State won that got people really jazzed.
The Buckeyes surged to eighth nationally in total offense, averaging 506.8 yards per game. They led the Big Ten in scoring at 49.3 points a game, a total helped by a historic 73-point output against Eastern Michigan. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor seemed to be doing it all, accounting for six touchdowns in three different ways (4 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving) against EMU. The defense continued its opportunistic play, recording 13 takeaways in the first five games, while allowing only five touchdowns. National media members started to love the name, "Sanzenbacher!"
Ohio State not only looked really good, but, dare I say, flashy.
And in today's college football, where perception is everything, flashy can be better than really good.
There are a lot of good teams, and people need ways to distinguish the best. They look at the competition. They look at who's impressive.
They look at style points.
And that's where Ohio State fell a bit short in Saturday's 24-13 win against Illinois.
On a day when defending national champ Alabama eviscerated Florida and Oregon ran away from Stanford, Ohio State overcame a slow start and Pryor's brief absence because of a quad injury to win a hard-fought Big Ten road game against an improved Illinois team. Which is fine. The Buckeyes have won a lot of hard-fought Big Ten road games under Jim Tressel.
But Saturday's game didn't get people excited about Ohio State. The Buckeyes won in a manner they often do under Tressel: controlling the clock, running the football, executing on special teams and defense, and most important, and making fewer mistakes than their opponent. The game's defining drive was a 14-play, 59-yard push that ended with a field goal and ate up 7:52 of clock.
Ohio State fans love this style because it works, but for those trying to sort out a college football Saturday from coast to coast, the Buckeyes' performance wasn't eye-catching.
The Illinois game didn't cost Ohio State in the polls, as the Buckeyes remained No. 2. And the Miami win keeps looking better for Ohio State.
But Oregon closed to within just 22 points in the AP Poll and 77 points in the Coaches' Poll.
Despite Ohio State's win against Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl, the Ducks always will be cooler than the Buckeyes to most college football observers. That's not a knock against Ohio State. Oregon might have the highest Q Rating in the country with its dynamic offense, surplus of speed, rowdy stadium, ever-changing uniforms and Swoosh connection.
But to keep the Ducks at bay, the Buckeyes will need to win impressively along the way (my rhymes are sick).
Alabama has distinguished itself as the nation's top team, and if the Tide survive Saturday at South Carolina, their toughest stretch will be behind them. LSU is a paper tiger, and while Auburn looks good, Alabama hosts the Iron Bowl this year.
Bottom line: if 'Bama keeps this up, it'll be the battle for No. 2.
Ohio State still has the inside track and several showcase opportunities, including Oct. 16 at Wisconsin and Nov. 20 at Iowa.
But Oregon is lurking, and so are Boise State and TCU, two teams hated by many fans but respected by voters because of what they've accomplished over time.
To remain in the national title discussion, Ohio State must continue to handle its business.
But at some point, the Buckeyes will need to show some style, too.
2hJosh Moyer and Mitch Sherman
1dMitch Sherman and Josh Moyer