EAST LANSING, Mich. — Some have wondered if the Ohio State football team — which is prohibited from participating in this year's post-season by the NCAA — has anything of importance to play for, other than pride?
In a nutshell ... yes, a whole lot.
Ohio State's record may be 4-0, but their season in essence begins this Saturday in East Lansing (Mich.), when they open up Big Ten Conference play against the 20th-ranked Michigan State Spartans (3-1). It marks the beginning of their quest for a Leaders Division title — something they are permitted to achieve.
Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer said that title certainly gives his team something to really focus on this season. A carrot, if you will.
"The first time we talked about that was yesterday in our team state of the union meeting," Meyer said. "You have an opportunity to go win your side of the Big Ten. So that is a goal. And that was not a goal when we were playing UAB, Miami (OH), Central Florida and Cal. It's a goal now. That's why we addressed it.
"So are we playing for something? You're darned right we are. It's really important here. Look around. Really important."
Meyer said that he can see a difference already in the Buckeyes approach this week. Not only do the games really mean something now, but it's against the Spartans on the road — a team that defeated them in Columbus a year ago. Simply said ... it's the Buckeyes first real challenge of the season.
"I do feel a different pep in their step," Meyer said. "I would expect it. This is a rivalry game. This is a game that's going to have an instrumental impact on the Big Ten conference.
"So I feel it. And plus going on the road. I think going on the road is sometimes overrated. I think it's a quality opponent when you go on the road. Going on the road against a team that you're far superior, that's not a big deal. Going on the road against this outfit, this is a significant challenge for us."
The Buckeyes will be going up against the best defense they have faced this season by far.
The Spartans have surrendered just 11.8 points and 233.5 yards per game this season — both tops in the Big Ten. The Spartans' defense has been extremely stingy against the run, allowing just 69.2 yards per game with just one rushing touchdown, through four outings.
In last season's game, the Spartans made Buckeyes quarterback a living hell, as the then-freshman compiled just 29 total yards and was sacked four times in the 10-7 loss.
However, that was then ... this is now. And Miller is a totally different animal ... now.
"We came out trying to throw a little bit and had a bunch of sacks," Meyer said of last year's game. "And the (Spartans) defense forces you to do that.
"But Braxton, that was his second start. He's come a long way (since then)."
When Miller is dialed in, there is no defense in the nation who can contain the dual-threat star. So, the Buckeyes' biggest concern going into East Lansing flips to the other side of the football — a unit that's been quite underwhelming in the opening four games of the season.
The Buckeyes are last in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up nearly 400 yards per game to the opposition, including 118 per game on the ground. That's not great news coming into a game where the Buckeyes will face perhaps the top tailback in all of college football this season in Spartans junior Le'Veon Bell.
Bell has toted the rock for a Big Ten-best 610 yards and five touchdowns this season, and is doing it by breaking tackles and muscling through defenses — something the Buckeyes have had great issues with thus far.
Meyer stated that his defense is made for a game like this, and must prove it if they want to remain unbeaten.
"If it turns into a 200-yard rushing day, then we're going to lose the game," Meyer said. "I think our defense is kind of built for this. It's not built for sideline-to-sideline dunks. That is the concern on that side of the ball."
Meyer compared Bell to a former Heisman Trophy winning running back.
"He reminds me of Ron Dayne, but even more athletic," Meyer said of Bell. "A guy that's extremely powerful, guy. Times up his blocks very well and runs through tackles and you see athleticism that usually people that size don't have.
"To tell you his athleticism, he returns punts as well. That might be the biggest punt returner in the history of college football. A 250-pound punt returner. I mean, you have to just think about that for a second."
It's all about being the defensive mindset for the Buckeyes. They cannot remain passive in the secondary and out of control up front, because a player like Bell will make them pay a steep, steep price.
If the Buckeyes can prevent Bell from breaking off big plays, it will force the Spartans to go to the air, an area of great weakness thus far with first-year starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell.
Look for the Buckeyes' defense to make that happen, and for Miller to have far greater success this season against the Spartans than last.
The Buckeyes will begin their Big Ten title quest with a double-digit victory on the road.
Prediction: OSU 23-13