COLUMBUS -- Making sense of this Ohio State football team is an exercise in futility.
No one knows which version of the Buckeyes, who pounded Illinois 52-14 on Saturday, will step on the field any given week. That's a problem, because there are two huge games staring this squad in the face.
When No. 9 OSU faces Michigan next week, and Wisconsin the week after that in the Big Ten Championship Game, who will stare back?
Will it be a squad that overcame an 18-point deficit to beat undefeated, No. 2 Penn State 39-38? Or dissolve into the defense that doubles as a yield sign to any passer with a pulse?
Will it be the group that ran for more than 300 yards and ripped 12th-ranked Michigan State 48-3? Or will it be a team that allows Iowa to score at will -- the same Hawkeyes who haven't come close to winning a game since putting an incredible 55 points on the Buckeyes?
Will it be an offense that ranks third in the nation in total yards and has scored at least 60 more points than every other team in the Big Ten this season? Or will it allow yet another quarterback to have a career day? Indiana's Richard Lagow, Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Iowa's Nathan Stanley and even woeful Nebraska's Tanner Lee have all shredded the Buckeyes' secondary.
It's a perplexing question to be sure. Even future Hall of Fame coach Urban Meyer has no idea what to expect from his team from game to game, and even play to play.
Saturday was a perfect example. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett smoothly guided the Buckeyes to a 38-0 second-quarter lead over hapless Illinois and Meyer pulled him in the first half to avoid injury. It was a nice scene, a big ovation from the home crowd in Barrett's final game in Columbus.
But backup QB Dwayne Haskins promptly coughed up a fumble that went 55 yards the other way for an Illinois touchdown. Earlier this season Haskins tossed a pick-six in another easy closeout. In extremely limited playing time he's shown a penchant for not taking care of the ball, and Meyer had clearly seen enough of it.
Barrett came right back in to fire a TD pass and make it 45-7.
"I was so pissed," Meyer said. "I just didn't want it to turn into a clown show, which it looked like it might for a minute."
Who can blame Meyer for having a short hook? His team has left him with no clue what it will do, or not do, next.
The Buckeyes (9-2 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten) were ranked No. 2 in the preseason. When they are right, they deserve that ranking and can look unbeatable.
When they are wrong, even the Illini can trigger the panic button.
That shouldn't be the case. Ohio State is brimming with talent and veteran, proven coaches.
"They are a fantastic football team in all three areas," said Illinois coach Lovie Smith, a former Buckeye assistant who once led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl. "They were better than us up front. They dominated us on both sides of the football. We had an opportunity early on a third-down play and we got a penalty. It was all downhill from there.”
Ohio State's win clinched at least a share of its sixth straight Big Ten East title, although tiebreakers and Jim Tressel's NCAA sanctions kept them out of three previous conference championship games. There are no such obstacles this year.
Even Michigan (8-3, 5-3) can't keep OSU from a title game date with undefeated Wisconsin, no matter what happens in Ann Arbor next week. Still, it's hard to imagine the Buckeyes overlooking their arch-rival. Wolverines' coach Jim Harbaugh, who knows a thing or two about wacky behavior, is a worthy foe, particularly in Ann Arbor.
A loss would wreck Ohio State's playoff chances and make Michigan's season. It shouldn't happen, but who knows which Buckeye team will make the trip north on Saturday?
"I definitely think that we are one of the elite teams," junior receiver Parris Campbell said. "However, I don’t think that comes without every single guy locked in and focused. We all have to be on our jobs, and I think when we’re that focused, then we are definitely one of the elite teams.”