The Case for Ohio State as No. 1 Team in College Football

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2016

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17:  Head coach Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes motions to his team against the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Norman, Oklahoma.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

An hourlong lightning delay couldn't slow down Ohio State.

Oklahoma wasn't able to either.

And by the time the third week of the college football season had ended, it became clear these Buckeyes may be the team to beat in 2016.

The only convincing part of Ohio State's two blowouts against overmatched opponents to open the season may have been its final margins of victory. But it was tough to argue with the case the Buckeyes made Saturday for being college football's top team.

Squashing the Sooners in Norman from start to finish, Ohio State passed its first true test of the campaign with flying colors, showcasing the type of national championship-caliber talent that should at least make the Buckeyes a playoff front-runner.

Factor in No. 1 Alabama's uneven, albeit victorious, outing against Ole Miss and the crushing 63-20 defeat second-ranked Florida State suffered at the hands of Louisville, and the No. 3 Buckeyes' 45-24 ousting of No. 14 Oklahoma seems like even more of statement.

"You go on the road and you find out about yourself," head coach Urban Meyer told Fox Sports in his postgame interview. "That was a good team we played, and our guys played well."

Having lost 16 starters—including 12 NFL draft picks and five first-rounders—from last year's team, the Buckeyes entered 2016 as one of college football's biggest mysteries.

And yet, Ohio State's early re-emergence isn't surprising—at least not if you believe recruiting rankings matter—as the Buckeyes are only now reaping the benefits of Meyer stockpiling top-five classes since arriving in Columbus in 2012.

Lose Joey Bosa to the NFL? Have no fear, Sam Hubbard is still around to apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, as he consistently did to Baker Mayfield on Saturday with a half-sack and an additional quarterback hurry.

Replacing three-fourths of your starting secondary? Safety Malik Hooker is present and continues to solidify his star status. And cornerback Marshon Lattimore recorded an interception for the second consecutive game.

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17:  Dede Westbrook #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners tackles Marshon Lattimore #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes as he ran an interception back in the first half of their game at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on September 17, 2016
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Offensively, the Buckeyes seem to have upgraded from a year ago, despite returning just three starters from last season's team.

Even with workhorse running back Ezekiel Elliott no longer around, Ohio State has consistently spread the ball around to its plethora of emerging playmakers, including H-back Curtis Samuel (118 total yards, one touchdown vs. Oklahoma), running back Mike Weber (123 rushing yards) and wideout Noah Brown, who caught four touchdowns in his breakout performance against the Sooners.

"Coach Meyer was saying all week this is the type of game where you need players to play their best," Brown told Fox Sports after the game. "I feel like I owed that to my teammates."

But for all of the new stars making names for themselves around him, the heart and soul of the Buckeyes remains quarterback J.T. Barrett, who tallied 226 yards of total offense against Oklahoma. His numbers likely won't ever be as flashy as Louisville's Lamar Jackson's. Ohio State doesn't need them to be. But make no mistake: Barrett is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate, the best player on what appears to be college football's best team.

"The sign of a leader is you raise the level of the play of the guys around you. He does that," Meyer said. "There's a bunch of young cats out there playing for the first time. To have a leader behind center, that really matters."

It's still early in the season, and resumes across the country vary. But as the Buckeyes enter a bye week before hitting Big Ten play, Ohio State has outscored its first three opponents by a total margin of 170-37. The Buckeyes can now tout a legitimate road win over a team that entered the season ranked third in the country, even as the Sooners' status will take a hit following their second loss in the past three weeks.

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback J.T. Barrett #16 of the Ohio State Buckeyes throws a pass during the first half of their game against the Oklahoma Sooners on September 17, 2016 at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. (Photo
Jackson Laizure/Getty Images

It's safe to say this Ohio State team is ahead of where it was two years ago, when the Buckeyes bounced back from a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech and found a backdoor entrance into the inaugural playoff. Unlike that similarly inexperienced Ohio State roster, these Young Bucks already appear to have forged an identity, putting them in the driver's seat of their playoff hopes.

"Win the Big Ten and you're in" should be Ohio State's postseason mantra, especially with the Big 12 already seemingly eliminated from the playoff picture with Oklahoma's second crushing defeat. Elsewhere across the country, only Louisville can tout as impressive of a three-week start, although unlike in the Buckeyes' big win Saturday, the Cardinals enjoyed the benefit of playing at home.

Plus, when it comes to talent, it's tough to argue with Meyer's track record of regenerating his roster. Only Alabama is in the same class as Ohio State when it comes to that. And as of Saturday, the Buckeyes have been more convincing than the Crimson Tide, who fell behind 24-3 before pulling off a 48-43 comeback over Ole Miss.

Until Alabama loses, its No. 1 ranking may not come into question. But at this moment, Ohio State looks like the better team, and it has the more impressive resume to back it up.

We're only one-fourth of the way into the 2016 season, but Ohio State no longer looks like an unknown. Rather, the Buckeyes seem to possess the familiar feel of a Meyer team that could once again find itself on top of the college football world at season's end.

     

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruiting and class ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings.