The exhibition is over.
Now that they have dominated a pair of home games against Bowling Green and Tulsa by a combined score of 125-13, a talented and versatile crop of Ohio State football regulars has twice impressed 100,000-plus fans inside Ohio Stadium.
How they fare on the road, in a hostile environment, against an historic program and AP top-15 opponent indeed will prove a better indicator of whether or not a young and emerging Buckeyes team is primed to make a serious run at the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State plays its first road game of the season Saturday against the #14 Oklahoma Sooners.
In August, head coach Urban Meyer said during the first regular season press conference that he thought he had a “talented group.”
It was the kind of coach-speak, it’s-not-what-he-says-but-how-he-said-it comment that implied that Meyer thought his 2016 squad, while generally inexperienced at most of the skill positions and on the perimeter of both sides of the ball, was talented enough to return to the college football tournament.
Talent is one thing, but this a largely unproven team that returns just six starters from last season.
And two lopsided wins against lesser competition doesn’t necessarily mean this team has the focus and sense-of-urgency to do what fewer than 10 teams have done since Bob Stoops became the Sooners coach in 1999: Win at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.
Any questions about the talent level of this incoming batch of offensive and defensive starters was pretty well answered about the time first-year starting safety Malik Hooker ran diagonally the length of the field to break-up a pass, tip it to himself and come down with a one-handed, highlight reel interception in the season opener against BG; or when redshirt freshman K.J. Hill hauled in a 47-yard touchdown pass in tight coverage during the same game; or when Marshon Lattimore last week intercepted a pass and returned it 40 yards for a TD – a pick-six that went a long way towards taming any concerns about lingering effects of the leg injury that cut short Lattimore’s 2015 season.
Lattimore, Hooker and the rest of a defensive secondary that has combined for seven interceptions in the first two games is playing at a “high level,” Meyer said this week. Those seven INTs in two games are the most registered by an Ohio State defensive in 35 years.
And turnovers forced as a result of that ball-hawking defense had to be a point of emphasis this week for Buckeyes defensive coordinator Gregg Schiano, a defensive coach known for employing the kinds of exotic blitzes that help produce game-changing turnovers.
Now, how this Ohio State defense manages when plays break down will be something to watch. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield is generally considered at his best when he’s improvising. How a fairly green group of DBs react when Mayfield is extending plays outside the pocket will be a contributing factor to Ohio State’s chances.
Sooners senior receiver Dede Westbrook is an experienced perimeter threat. And Oklahoma enjoys one of the best thunder-and-lightning backfield tandems in college football with the combination of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
As it relates to college football, these foes are not familiar.
Ohio State and Oklahoma have played only twice previously, and not since 1983. The road team won each of the first two meetings. The Sooners prevailed in Columbus, 29-28, in 1977, and Ohio State returned the favor in Norman, Oklahoma in ‘83 by a final score of 24-14.
The previous two meetings showcased teams ranked in the top 10. That will not be the case this Saturday as Oklahoma is ranked 14th in the latest Associated Press poll. A preseason top-five, the Sooners’ rank dropped following a week-one upset against the Houston Cougars.
A win Saturday puts the Sooners right back into College Football Playoff contention. A win for Ohio State pretty much puts the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes firmly in their own hands as conference play looms.
The Buckeyes (18-0) have never lost a true road game under Meyer. Oklahoma is 41-2 in non-conference games all-time under Stoops.
The pair of all-time great coaches faced off in the 2008 national championship game, as Meyer’s Florida Gators defeated Oklahoma 24-14.
The introduction to the 2016 season has been written, and a promising stage has been set for what could potentially be a storybook, championship season, but the first major conflict facing this story’s heroes plays out Saturday.
This chapter has all the makings of a good ‘ol fashioned western shootout.