IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The season began with a debate. Only a month ago, Ohio State was named No. 1, but on a soft consensus. The Buckeyes collected fewer than half (63-of-130) of the combined first-place votes in the Associated Press and USA Today polls. Six other teams split the rest.
Five games into the season, and especially at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night, the Buckeyes proved there is nothing soft about them. Not their offensive line. Not their quarterback. Not their defense. And certainly, after a 38-17 victory at No. 13 Iowa, not their standing as the best team in the nation.
Ohio State (5-0, 2-0) extended the longest winning streak in Division I-A to 12 games. Quarterback Troy Smith completed 16 passes, four of them for touchdowns. Tailback Antonio Pittman bounced outside on play after play, rushing for 117 yards and a touchdown. The stars became so numerous that head coach Jim
Tressel may need to run over to Staples and buy a bunch of Buckeye helmet stickers.
"It's the best we've played," said left offensive tackle Alex Boone, who, alongside left guard Steve Rehring, opened one hole after another for Pittman and tailback Chris Wells (14-78).
"I don't coach at Ohio State, but from my vantage point, this is the best they've played all year," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
The top three teams in the nation played conference road games this weekend. No. 2 Auburn beat South Carolina, 24-17 on Thursday night, but only after a Gamecock dropped a game-tying touchdown pass on the final drive, which ended when quarterback Syvelle Newton threw an incomplete pass into the end zone on the last play of the game.
No. 3 USC beat Washington State, 28-22 on Saturday evening, despite being outgained by the Cougars and giving up two turnovers. The game ended with Washington State in USC territory, out of time.
As for the Buckeyes, they seized control of the game by scoring a touchdown on their first possession of the game. They drove for a touchdown to go ahead 21-10 late in the first half, an 11-play, 89-yard road-grading drive that mixed Wells, Pittman and Smith in wonderful rhythm.
"A huge confidence builder for us," Tressel called the drive.
The Buckeyes came out of the halftime locker room and drove 80 yards in 11 plays, concluding with a 30-yard touchdown reception by wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez. The junior probably covered more than 50 yards, crossing to the left hash, then reversing field and scoring at the right pylon behind great blocks by fellow receivers Ted Ginn Jr., and Brian Hartline.
Toss in four Hawkeye turnovers that Ohio State converted into 14 points, and you have the story of the night.
No, check that. You have the story of the first month of the season. Ohio State has defeated three ranked teams -- No. 2 Texas, No. 24 Penn State, and the Hawkeyes -- by an average margin of 20 points.
"One of the great challenges that we talked about a lot was how brutal that September schedule was," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said, "We've played against some tough teams that brought all they could bring at us."
And only one of them -- Penn State -- had the ball in the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the Buckeyes. Ohio State responded with two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns. Before this game, Ohio State had increased its share of first-place votes to 118 of 128 (two coaches didn't vote). After this game, the Buckeyes' haul should be complete.
Smith, who plays a violent, fast game with unhurried grace, said the Buckeyes believe they are the best.
"I think if there was a guy in the locker room who said we weren't the No. 1 team in the nation, he'd have a problem with me," Smith said. "Of course, you have to have that kind of attitude, that kind of swagger."
The night was a culmination of weeks of fanfare. The Hawkeye faithful turned Kinnick Stadium into a "Gold Bowl." Yellow shirts were everywhere, with a hint of Ohio State scarlet around the edges. The crowd is a big reason why Iowa had won 25 of its last 26 home games.
But the Buckeyes said the noise only pumped them up. That is, except when they quieted the crowd, which was often.
It's not as if Iowa played poorly. Tailback Albert Young's 15-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the first rushing score Ohio State allowed this season. The Hawkeyes forced Ohio State to drive 10-plus plays on two touchdown drives, one more lengthy drive than the Buckeyes had in their first four games.
"They're No. 1 in the nation," Iowa middle linebacker Mike Klinkenborg said. "Their offense is fast. That's all you can describe it as."
September is over. Of the Buckeyes' next six opponents, only the next two have winning records: Bowling Green and Michigan State. Tressel won't allow them to cruise until
No. 6 Michigan comes to the Horseshoe on Nov. 18. Neither will Smith.
"You never want to get into a time where you say, 'OK, now we're fine,'" Smith said. "We don't have to do anything more. We have to get better, day in and day out. We can still get better."
That's not good news for the rest of college football.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions/comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.