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Buckeyes make emphatic case for playoff

INDIANAPOLIS -- The debate will continue until the College Football Playoff selection committee reveals its picks for the four-team field, and the controversy surely won't stop then.

Does No. 5 Ohio State belong in the playoff over Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor? Good luck to the committee figuring that out. But as far as closing arguments go, the Buckeyes couldn't have made a stronger case.

In a stunningly easy 59-0 victory over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State came as close to playing a perfect game as you'll likely see. Despite a new starting quarterback, the Buckeyes eviscerated a Badgers defense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the FBS. They turned Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon into a plodder and held him to just 76 yards on 26 carries. They piled up 558 yards and did not commit a turnover. Even Cameron Johnston's punting was spectacular.

"If that wasn't one of the four best football teams tonight," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said amid the celebratory postgame confetti, "then I don't know what you're looking for."

What made the performance all the more remarkable was how Ohio State overcame some potentially crippling adversity to get it done.

Starting quarterback J.T. Barrett broke his ankle last week against Michigan and watched the game from a wheeled cart on the sideline. Yet the Buckeyes just kept rolling with first-time starter Cardale Jones.

Jones finished 12-of-17 for 257 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. Jones said he didn't feel nervous going into the game, despite debuting with a championship and possible playoff spot on the line.

"He's just Cardale -- he's always just a happy, fun, silly guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "We knew we had to raise our level of play around him, and it ended up he played an amazing game. I don't know how he managed all that, but he did."

Ohio State has somehow managed to replace two star quarterbacks on the fly this season. At this point, you have to believe fourth-string quarterback Stephen Collier would be a Heisman candidate if he were thrust into action.

"It's the culture," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "I think Cardale understands that he had a responsibility to not just the team in general but that [quarterback] room. He had two guys in that room that had done amazing things at this position for this university, and he took that responsibility very, very seriously. He prepared as hard as I've seen a quarterback prepare this week."

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes defense -- which had struggled against top Big Ten running backs this season -- managed to check Gordon and not allow much in the passing game, either. The defensive effort came just days after the team attended the funeral of walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who was a pallbearer at the funeral, wore Karageorge's No. 53 for the game and had one of the best games of his career.

"I felt like we had a guardian angel out there," defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. "Kosta was our guide. We went out there and did it for him."

Jones won the MVP trophy, but the honor could have just as easily gone to several Buckeyes, including receiver Devin Smith (four catches, 137 yards, three touchdowns), tailback Ezekiel Elliott (220 rushing yards, two scores) or any number of defensive standouts. Everyone played an All-American. That's how complete a performance it was.

The question remains: Was it enough? Head coach Urban Meyer said the selection committee has a tough job ahead of it.

"All I can speak to is, I've been around teams that have competed for and won national championships," Meyer said. "This team -- the way it's playing right now -- is one of the top teams in America."

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was a little more forceful in his comments and said the Buckeyes absolutely ought to be in the playoff. Asked what separates them from TCU and Baylor, Smith answered, "We're better."

"The football people on that committee, who watched that game through football eyes, know that they saw a championship team that deserves to be in," Smith said.

During the fourth quarter, Ohio State fans began chanting "We want 'Bama!'" After the game, Jones and a handful of players celebrated with roses atop their ears; the only way the Buckeyes are going to the Rose Bowl is if they play Oregon. If the selection committee keeps them at No. 5, they're likely headed to the Cotton Bowl.

The destination didn't matter so much in the immediate aftermath of Saturday's game. Ohio State had won a championship -- its first Big Ten title under Meyer -- while avenging last year's crushing loss here to Michigan State.

"I really can't explain that feeling," Jones said. "I want that feeling again. Me and my teammates, we would do anything for that feeling again."

The Buckeyes might or might not get their chance to win another championship this season. But they sure presented an airtight closing argument.