LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — It's been pounded into the heads of Ohio State players since the winter, how losses to unranked opponents from the Big Ten West ended bids for the College Football Playoff the last two years.
The Buckeyes seem to have received the message. Their domination of Nebraska in a 48-7 win on Saturday night showed as much.
"If you look in the past, we've been here before," cornerback Jeff Okudah said. "We've been 4-0 and 5-0 before, so I think the goal now is to have a complete season and don't make any slip-ups. If we take it week-by-week and don't look ahead past anybody, I think that we'll be just fine."
The Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) might be more than just fine. They moved from No. 5 to No. 4 in The Associated Press Top 25 on Sunday, received a season-high seven first-place votes and are coming off a performance suggesting this might be the most complete Ohio State team since the 2014 national championship season.
Up next is another Saturday game in prime time, this one at home against No. 25 Michigan State (4-1, 2-0).
Ohio State remains in prove-it mode despite having outscored its first five opponents by a combined 262-43. The Spartans will be the Buckeyes' first ranked opponent.
"I still feel like we've got a lot of people doubting us," safety Jordan Fuller said, "but that's out of our control. All we can do is control how we play on Saturdays and, so far, we've done a pretty good job of that. We always work so hard during the week, so I always say that Saturdays are paydays, and we definitely collected a check."
Justin Fields strengthened his Heisman Trophy candidacy, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns and running for 72 yards and another TD. J.K. Dobbins rushed for 177 yards, his third straight 100-yard game against Nebraska, and the Buckeyes finished with 580 yards.
Michigan State should provide Fields & Co. their biggest challenge to date. The Spartans are seventh nationally in total defense and are giving up 15 points per game, though they allowed twice that in a 40-31 win over Indiana.
The Spartans, who have had some of the nation's best defenses under Mark Dantonio, don't figure to be intimidated.
"Nothing makes me worried," MSU safety David Dowell said. "Just as a football player, it's about mentality. They have elite players pound-for-pound. It's about being able to match up and play our physical brand of football."
Defensively, the Buckeyes sacked Nebraska's Adrian Martinez four times, with Chase Young recording his nation-leading eighth of the season, and they held the Cornhuskers under 100 total yards until late in the third quarter. Okudah had two interceptions and Fuller had one as the Buckeyes got out to a 38-0 halftime lead.
"The country saw what we were echoing in the locker room before the game: We are who we think we are, because we put in the work and then we also put it on film," Okudah said. "So I know everyone was kind of like doubting the schedule, but I think we were able to show what we're capable of doing."
Capable is the key word there. Always in the back of the Buckeyes' minds is how they were on the outside looking in when the four CFP teams were selected. In 2017, they were No. 6 in the CFP ratings the first week of November when they lost 55-24 at Iowa. Last year, they were unbeaten and No. 2 in the AP poll the third week of October when they lost 49-20 at Purdue.
Since then, the Buckeyes have won 11 straight. Only Clemson's 20-game win streak is longer.
Asked if his team sent a message to the country with its convincing win over Nebraska, coach Ryan Day said no.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "This doesn't mean anything if we don't keep it going."