The Context Of A Season

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Clemson Tigers in the first round of the College Football Playoffs. As a lifelong Buckeyes fan, I’ll of course watch the game, and I’ll be doing my part to move the karma dial in favor of the Men of the Scarlet and Gray by wearing the lucky hat I wore when I witnessed Ohio State beat Oregon for the National Championship and carrying two lucky buckeyes I picked up at our place in Maine.

Of course, a game like this is about players and coaches, not fans. Ohio State has released an epic hype video for the game that is so good even people who hate Ohio State are raving about it. The video is an adrenaline-pumper that does a great job of capturing the game in the context of a season — a season that, for the players and coaches, covers off-season conditioning, spring practice, fall camp, and three months of games leading up to this one. It’s been a fabulous season, and you know in your heart that the players and coaches will make every effort to see that season extended to include one more game.

No doubt Clemson players and coaches feel the same way. They’ve won a ridiculous 28 games in a row and are the defending national champions. That’s why the game tonight promises to be a classic.

In the context of a season, it’s a game, but it’s also another step in a long journey marked by hard work, effort, practice, and teammates helping teammates. May the Ohio State journey continue!

On To The CFP

It was nail-biting time for members of Buckeye Nation at about 9:30 ET last night.  A talented and gritty team from Wisconsin came out swinging in the Big Ten championship game, and when the Badgers scored an improbable touchdown to go up 21-7 at the end of the first half Ohio State fans had visions of past disasters against Iowa and Purdue dancing in their heads.  But the Buckeyes made adjustments at halftime and righted the ship, scoring 27 points and shutting Wisconsin out in the second half to win, 34-21, and take home their third straight Big Ten crown.  Although the Buckeyes ultimately won by double digits, the Badgers fought until the final minute, and held the high-powered Ohio State offense to two field goals when touchdowns would have put the game out of reach.

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As the seconds ticked down to zero, I thought that Ohio State had been truly tested by a very good football team, and that the Big Ten championship game had taught us something about this Ohio State team — they don’t wilt in the face of real adversity on a big stage, the coaches and players are adept at making adjustments and game plan modifications under pressure, and the whole team can draw upon an ample reserve of inner toughness and guttiness.  And we also learned, again, that head coach Ryan Day has a bit of riverboat gambler in him, as his fake punt call showed.  Ohio State should be grateful to Wisconsin for making the Buckeyes draw deep and for providing a very stern test that will foreshadow what lies ahead.  Last night’s game showed why fans of the Big Ten like the conference and its particular, hard-hitting brand of football — which continued up until the final play, when the Ohio State defense gave the Wisconsin quarterback a tooth-rattling hit as the clock ran out.

Although things looked dicey at halftime, by winning Ohio State undoubtedly punched its ticket for the College Football Playoffs.  The big question to be answered by the CFP Selection Committee in a few hours is whether the Buckeyes will go in at number one or number two — or even number three, and that’s what the talking heads on ESPN and Fox Sports will be debating this morning.  I may be alone in this, but I really don’t care where the Buckeyes end up.  Ohio State clearly is an excellent unbeaten team, but so are LSU and Clemson — and I think all of this talk about “resumes” and “performances against Top 25 teams” and various weird computer metrics is kind of silly when the questions about who is more deserving will be resolved with actual games in about three weeks.  I also think such argument just puffs teams up — and that might not be good in the long run.  If I were Oklahoma, the likely number four seed and a great team in its own right, all of the talk about how important it is for other teams to make it to number one so they can play the Sooners rather than somebody else would be doing nothing except providing motivation and some prime locker room bulletin board material.

The reality is that there are many very good, well-coached teams in college football — Wisconsin is one of them, by the way — and if you’re going to win the national championship you’re going to need to beat a bunch of them.  Regardless of exactly who the top four teams are or where they are ranked, they’re going to need to beat two more great teams to get to the ultimate goal.  If Ohio State ends up playing Clemson in the first playoff game — and thereby lines up with a team that is the defending national champion and has never lost to the Buckeyes and pulverized them in the playoffs a few years ago — there is no chance that Ohio State will not go into that game emotionally pumped and ready to play.  That’s what I want to see.

So the selection show and final seedings announced today will be interesting, but I’m more focused on the fact that the Buckeyes won a very challenging game, are Big Ten champions, maintain their perfect record, and are moving on with a chance to get to their goal.  The members of Buckeye Nation are grateful that we get to watch the Men of the Scarlet and Gray continue their quest to be the best.

Big Head Syndrome

I’m worried about the Ohio State football game against Penn State on Saturday.

The Buckeyes obviously have a lot of talent this year, and they’ve played exceptionally well so far.  They’re undefeated, have won every game by huge margins, and have risen to the number 1 or number 2 spot in every football ranking service, including the rankings established by the College Football Playoff committee.

chase-young-ohio-state-wisconsin-gettyThat’s great — but it’s also the problem.  Ohio State has been so good during its first 10 games this year that people have started talking about them as if they are one of the historically great teams — not just at Ohio State, but in all of college football.  You’ll see analysis of how the Buckeyes match up with other all-time great teams in terms of statistical dominance, margin of victory, and other metrics.  And one telling measure of the praise that has been gushing around this year’s team is that Ohio State is a 19-point favorite to beat Penn State come Saturday.  That’s right:  Ohio State is expected to beat a one-loss, traditional powerhouse that has played the Buckeyes very close in recent years and that is itself ranked in the top ten — by nearly three touchdowns.  It’s an absurd example of the sky-high expectations surrounding this Buckeye squad.

I think it’s silly to talk compare a team to all-time great prior teams while there are still lots of important games to be played against excellent teams like Penn State and, next week, Michigan.  I also think it’s dangerous.  If you hear about how great and unbeatable you are long enough, you might actually start to believe it — and if you get the big head and start to believe those press clippings, you’re headed for a fall.  Ohio State fans have seen this story before, with the 1969 team, the 1973 team, the 1998 team, and the 2015 team.  Each team had lots of smoke blown up its behind about being the best ever — and then had a horrible stumble.  I’m worried we may be seeing a replay of the same disappointing story this year.

There are young Ohio State fans who have absolute confidence in this team.  Those of us in Buckeye Nation who are old enough to remember the crushing losses of the past, including in games where the Buckeyes were heavily favored, are very wary.

The hype can be a trap.  It will be up to Ryan Day and the other Ohio State coaches to make sure that the players disregard the praise, focus on their prior mistakes and getting better, and come out humble, motivated, and ready to play on Saturday.

A Few Modest Observations About The Buckeyes

It hasn’t been an easy year for Buckeye Nation. I went to the game yesterday, and that wasn’t easy, either, as Ohio State eked out a win over Nebraska. The game featured the painful aspects of this year’s team that have become all too familiar — a very shaky defense that routinely gives up big plays, a running game that often misfires in the clutch, and an absence of the big plays we’ve become used to seeing.

Ohio State fans are scratching the heads and wondering what has happened? Why aren’t the highly rated recruits we’ve been reading about crushing every opponent? Sure, the team is 8-1, but it’s a very uncomfortable 8-1.

I wonder if Ohio State hasn’t been, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Every year, a bunch of Ohio State players leave college early to go to the pros — often being drafted in the first or second round. Every year, Ohio State coaches move on to better jobs. Other than Urban Meyer, the turnover has been extraordinary. How much better would Ohio State be if all of those talented underclassmen were still playing, and those coaches were still coaching their systems?

I’m not making excuses, just an observation. Ohio State has been able to overcome the constant turnover and jell as a team in prior years, but that doesn’t mean it will happen every year. A lot of being a good team is continuity, experience, knowing the scheme, and playing together as a team. When you’re shuffling the deck every year, it’s hard to achieve that. How many of Ohio State’s struggles are due primarily to a bunch of new guys trying to learn to play together?

One positive sign from yesterday: at the end of the game, when the Buckeyes really needed to run the ball and keep Nebraska off the field, they were able to do that. Maybe the offensive line, at least, is starting to learn to play together.

Celebrating Gold Pants Day

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Today members of the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes football team received their treasured gold pants.  For members of Buckeye Nation, it’s a day worth celebrating.

In 1934, after years of Michigan gridiron dominance over the Buckeyes, legendary Ohio State coach Francis (“Close the Gates of Mercy”) Schmidt told the Men of the Scarlet and Gray that the Wolverine players put their pants on one leg at a time, like everyone else.  In short, the players on That Team Up North were human and could be beaten.  Ever since, players on an Ohio State team that beats the Wolverines in The Game receive an old-fashioned “gold pants” charm.  It’s one of the cooler traditions in the tradition-soaked world of  Ohio State football.

If you click on the link above, you can watch a video that Ohio State football released about the distribution of the gold pants, including comments from J.T. Barrett and some other recent Buckeyes about The Game — and how many pairs of gold pants they’ve earned during their Ohio State careers.

Farewell, J.T., And Thanks

Ohio State won the [insert corporate name here] Cotton Bowl last night.  With the defense smothering the USC Trojan offense, relentlessly pressuring and sacking its quarterback and forcing turnovers, the Buckeyes rolled to a 24-7 halftime lead and then endured a scoreless second half to get the victory.  It’s the first time the Buckeyes have beaten Southern Cal since 1974, and the dominant defensive performance gives Ohio State fans the ability to argue that the Buckeyes should have made it to the College Football Playoffs this year.

usa_today_10505433-1514599547The Cotton Bowl win was also senior quarterback J.T. Barrett’s last game at the offensive helm for Ohio State.  In fact, the game was a bit of a microcosm of Barrett’s career at OSU.  He scored both offensive touchdowns for the Buckeyes and became the Big Ten’s all-time total offense leader, but the offense became predictable and J.T. run-oriented and was stopped repeatedly in the second half, when with a few additional scores the Buckeyes could have blown the Trojans off the field and really made a statement.  That’s why many members of Buckeye Nation view JTB with mixed emotions — they acknowledge him as a winner and appreciate his skills as a runner and a leader, but they also think about what could have been if he had just played a little bit better in the handful of losses that have marred Barrett’s overall record.

I’m not one of the JTB doubters, because I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect perfection from college students.  J.T. Barrett has rewritten the Ohio State offensive record books.  He’s got a perfect, 4-0 record against That Team Up North, he’s come up big in a number of crucial games, and his play as a redshirt freshman was essential to putting Ohio State in position to win the first national championship in the College Football Playoff era.  Ohio State has been in the national championship conversation during each year J.T. Barrett has been at the controls on offense.  The fact that the Buckeyes have fallen short during three of those years shouldn’t take away what Barrett has accomplished.

So I say thanks, J.T., and godspeed!  You will be missed.

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.