When you are on top, staying there can be a challenge. Suddenly there are all kinds of distractions. People who previously lean and hungry may develop a more complacent frame of mind. And there is every temptation to start believing your press clippings.
The current national champion Ohio State Buckeyes are learning this life lesson. If they are listening to the over-the-top accolades and compliments that every casual fan and professional pundit is throwing their way, their heads have probably already swollen to the bursting point. They’ve been picked for all kinds of preseason award lists and slotted in to the next round of college football playoffs before one down has even been played. And this week, one of those dreaded “distractions” occurred when four players — including All-World defensive end Joey Bosa and three players who were expected to make big contributions on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams — were suspended for the first game against Virginia Tech for violating an unspecified policy or policies.
Fans grit their teeth at these kinds of off-field activities, but it seems entirely predictable in the modern world of high-powered college sports. For the Buckeyes, they will just have to figure out a way to overcome the loss of four key players — or not. It’s a kind of initial test in a season of impending tests, where the enemies will be the opposing teams but also overconfidence, clashing egos, petty jealousies, and concerns about future pro careers.
I’d rather the Buckeyes not have to deal with suspensions, but if they are going to happen — and, realistically, they are — I’d rather the process start now, before the season begins. Last year, Ohio State’s players adopted a “next man up” mentality that required every player to be ready to step in and pursue the team’s lofty goals, and it served the team well. At the quarterback position the next man up — and the next man up after him — in fact had to rise to the challenge and perform in the clutch. I’m hoping that Urban Meyer, who knows a thing or two about encouraging motivation and focus with student athletes, can use this incident to good effect in getting the team mentally ready, again. It wouldn’t exactly be seemly for the supposed Team of the Century to stumble out of the gate.