With J.T. Barrett, Buckeyes Look Like National Champion Favorites Once Again

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterOctober 25, 2015

Oct 24, 2015; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) turns up field during the first quarter against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Ohio State won last season's College Football Playoff, Las Vegas odds have favored the Buckeyes to repeat as college football's champion in 2015.

But after seven weeks of sloppy play, inconsistent performances and unforeseen close calls, Ohio State finally looked the part of college football's championship favorite on Saturday.

Turning in its most complete performance of the season, Ohio State dominated Rutgers from start to finish in Piscataway, New Jersey, outgaining the Scarlet Knights 528 to 293 in what was ultimately a 49-7 Buckeyes road victory on prime-time television.

J.T. Barrett was locked in vs. Rutgers.
J.T. Barrett was locked in vs. Rutgers.Rich Schultz/Getty Images

It marked the first time all season this Ohio State team looked like its predecessor from a year ago, and for good reason: The Buckeyes had their quarterback back, with J.T. Barrett making his first start of the season.

"Played very well," Meyer said of Barrett's performance in his postgame press conference. "Energized us."

What the Cardale Jones experiment possessed in substance—Ohio State was 7-0 with the national champion-winning quarterback in its starting lineup this season—it lacked in style, as the Buckeyes eked out uninspiring victories over the likes of Northern Illinois and Indiana.

Ohio State remained college football's No. 1 team and Las Vegas' national champion favorite despite its surface struggles, but that was more due to the lack of a viable alternative than anything else.

When Barrett—who was Ohio State's starter a year ago before breaking his ankle in the regular season finale—provided a spark as a situational signal-caller in wins over Maryland and Penn State in the past two weeks, the writing seemed to be on the wall. 

The reigning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year rewarded his coach's faith by returning to his 2014 form, tallying 324 total yards and five touchdowns against the Scarlet Knights in what was indisputably the best performance by a Buckeyes quarterback all season.

Oct 24, 2015; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive back Anthony Cioffi (31) pursues Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) during the first quarterat High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Spo
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps most importantly, with the longest leash he's been given as a passer since his return from injury, Barrett completed 14 of his 18 attempts for 223 yards and three touchdowns, looking every bit like the player who rewrote the Buckeyes' quarterback record books a season ago in the process.

"I think he's in full swing now," Meyer said. "He was really efficient throwing the ball, checking it down when you're supposed to check it down, taking a shot and being accurate."

Combined with another strong outing from running back Ezekiel Elliott (142 yards, two touchdowns) and a defense that surrendered just seven points after allowing 10 to the Nittany Lions a week ago, Barrett's performance made Ohio State once again look like college football's national championship favorites, even if it's held that title all along.

Ezekiel Elliott (No. 15)
Ezekiel Elliott (No. 15)Mel Evans/Associated Press

Earlier this week, the Buckeyes were listed with 12-5 odds to successfully defend their crown, per Bovada (via Odds Shark), after possessing 9-4 odds following a 34-27 escape from Indiana at the start of Big Ten play.

With how well Ohio State played Saturday, oddsmakers could have another shift in order.

The Buckeyes still have some question marks, although they were noticeably less glaring under the lights of High Points Solution Stadium on Saturday. Nevertheless, Ohio State's rushing defense could eventually become a cause for concern, as it allowed 104 yards on the ground to the Scarlet Knights, one week after surrendering 194 rushing yards to Penn State's Saquon Barkley.

But with the way the Buckeyes looked with Barrett in the starting lineup, any issues Ohio State may have suddenly seem relatively minor—especially in comparison with the rest of college football's happenings on Saturday. The day saw No. 2 Baylor lose quarterback Seth Russell to a broken bone in his neck, No. 3 Utah fall to USC, No. 9 Florida State suffer its first loss of the season, losing to Georgia Tech, and No. 8 Alabama pull off a close call against Tennessee.

And then there's No. 7 Michigan State's flair for the dramatic, as the Spartans allowed Indiana to hang around until there were five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, a week after escaping Ann Arbor unbeaten thanks to the most improbable of plays.

Oct 24, 2015; Piscataway, NJ, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer prior to the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at High Points Solutions Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports
Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, appear to be hitting their stride at the right time.

"I think it was a turning point for us," Barrett told ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox after Ohio State's win. "We just gotta keep pressing, keep going and not get comfortable. But I think as an offense and as a team, we executed on both sides of the ball and on special teams as well. It was a good team win for us, but we know we can get better."

With an off week ahead followed by games against Minnesota and Illinois, the Buckeyes will have a chance to do just that before embarking on a three-week stretch that could include its three toughest tests of the season. Ohio State has its work cut out for itself with contests against Michigan State, Michigan and potentially the Big Ten title game to close out the campaign—three weeks that will likely determine whether or not the Buckeyes make the College Football Playoff.

But for the first time all season, Ohio State seems like a team capable of not only doing just that, but one that could very well successfully defend college football's crown.

"I think we've improved every week. I think we're playing at a very high level right now," Meyer said. "There's a good mindset in there. We have to continue to keep getting better. We know what's coming down the pipe here and some really tough games coming up. Some teams get better; some teams don't. We're getting better right now."

After Saturday's performance, it'd be tough to disagree.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Odds provided by Odds Shark. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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