Buckeyes against a nation

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – As they drank away the hours to kickoff Saturday at the Legacy Bar just off campus here, fans of Alabama and Louisiana State couldn't agree on much.

There was the argument over whose coach sucked more, whether putting purple in houndstooth was sacrilegious and even which fans smelled more like corndogs (insider SEC joke). Considering the tales of fist fights all over town the night before, these arguments were not for the faint of heart.

It wasn't until a television showed Wisconsin taking a 17-10 lead on Ohio State that everyone – at least everyone who didn't have money on the game – found some common ground.

"Ohio State is a joke," one guy said. "Let 'em play a real schedule."

Meet your Ohio State Buckeyes, the top-ranked and perhaps most-doubted team in America (now that BC is finished).

Ten weeks and 10 victories into the season – not a single one remotely in doubt (they'd rally to hammer Wisconsin 38-17) – and the Buckeyes are so questioned they can even bring the Tigers and the Tide together.

No one seems capable of getting over Ohio State's title game performance against Florida last season or the weakness of its league this year.

So all OSU does is win, and all the rest of America does is doubt. All Jim Tressel's team does is show up on Saturday focused, prepared and fully motivated, and all everyone does is complain about the competition.

Not just here in the South, but out West where Oregon frets about being left out again, and on the Plains where three top six teams prepare for a battle royal that may mean nothing.

The Buckeyes, to so many, are just a product of a breeze of a schedule, which is essentially true, yet misses the point.

There is little question Ohio State is set to waltz into its second consecutive BCS title game via the easiest road imaginable. The Buckeyes haven't beaten a top-line team thus far and the only quality opponent remaining is Michigan, which lost at home to both a I-AA team and No. 3 Oregon, by 32 points.

Not even the Big Ten's angry, letter-writing commissioner can dream up a defense.

None of which addresses some simple points. First, the Buckeyes just might be really good – as in championship good – anyway. Second, how is it their fault? What exactly do you want Tressel and his head-strong, ultra-consistent, take-care-of-business team to do?

Ohio State may be the beneficiaries of a bottomed-out Big Ten, but it wasn't the Buckeyes who bottomed it out. If rival fans in rival conferences want to place blame on Ohio State skating to New Orleans, then blame Joe Paterno or Lloyd Carr or Joe Tiller.

Or blame your own commissioners for signing off on a championship system that rewards weak schedules and punishes difficult ones. Blame the apologists who sell the idea that the entire season is a playoff, even if not everyone has to face playoff caliber competition.

But don't blame Ohio State. They line 'em up and beat 'em, a remarkable 28 consecutive regular season games and 20 in a row in conference, a Big Ten record.

It wasn't Ohio State which fell to some middle of the road league opponent the way LSU, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Oregon did.

Tressel's teams just don't lose games they are supposed to win. Each week the Buckeyes live the coaching mantra of taking it one game at a time. Which is how they entered this season with lots of questions but turned it into the inside track on the title game again anyway.

Now, would any of the above mentioned teams also roll through the Buckeyes slate unblemished? Probably. Would Ohio State be exposed in a superior league, where the grind of multiple real challenges is the greatest hurdle? Maybe.

But there's nothing Ohio State can do about any of that. They play in a league that used to be good, should be good again someday, but is lousy right now. The league's signature non-conference victory is probably the Buckeyes over 3-6 Washington. Yeah, it's that bad.

Yes, Ohio State's non-conference slate was an abomination. As one fan pointed out on a message board, the helmets of its first four opponents spelled Y-A-W-N (Youngstown, Akron, Washington and Northwestern). And they played Kent State, too.

That said, Ohio State completed a home and home with Texas last year and is about to start one with Southern California. It kind of got caught in the middle this year.

And since neither the BCS formula nor the voters seem to care, why should Ohio State? It's just beating the system the way it beats up on its league, with shocking, mocking ease.

Still, all over America, fans are bristling, angry and united. By far the weakest of the BCS leagues is about to deliver the Buckeyes back to the title game, virtually untested.

You can understand the frustration. But they can also underestimate Ohio State at their own risk.

Because after all the unity and hi-fives at the Legacy Bar about how justice would be an Ohio State loss, the Buckeyes unleashed 28 unanswered points to overwhelm Wisconsin. It was a show of force &ndahs; a potent offense to go with a physical defense – if anyone was still paying attention.

Yes, the Big Ten and the BCS might stink, but that doesn't necessarily mean Ohio State does, too.