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.

Going Pro

Yesterday Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins announced that he will leave college to participate in the 2019 NFL draft.  Haskins is a redshirt sophomore, which means he will be giving up two years of college football eligibility in order to turn pro.

web1_Haskins_MVP-1The decision surprised exactly no one.  Haskins was the Ohio State starter for only one season, but in that season he shredded the record books, setting new single-season Ohio State marks for attempts, completions, completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns and single-season Big Ten records for passing yards and touchdowns.  He’s easily the best pure passer and pro-style quarterback the Buckeyes have ever had.

He had a remarkable year, and the experts have graded him accordingly.  The NFL Draft Advisory Board, which exists to give college players who are considering leaving school early a sense of where they might go if they stand for the NFL draft, gave Haskins a first-round grade, and he is widely considered to be the best quarterback prospect in the draft and a likely top ten pick.

None of this is a surprise to anyone who follows football.  So why am I writing about Dwayne Haskins going to the NFL?  Because while his decision was predictable, what’s changed has been the reaction to it.  In the past, college football fans used to hold a grudge against players who left early, viewing them as betraying their alma maters to chase the almighty dollar.  Now, there may be some people out there who still hold to that view, but the majority have shifted to a different position.

We see how much money professional athletes can make, we know how that kind of money can be life-changing for the athletes and their families, and we also know that, in a sport as violent as football, you never know whether the next play might inflict a gruesome, career-ending injury.  As a result, for the most part, fans have come to view decisions to turn pro by high-caliber players like Haskins as a rational, reasonable judgments — even though we’d love to see them continue to perform for our favorite college teams.  We get why they don’t want to take a huge risk that they might end up regretting forever.  In short, we’ve reached the last stage of the seven stages of grief and have accepted the way the world now works.

So Godspeed, Dwayne Haskins!  It was fun watching you play football for the Men of the Scarlet and Gray . . . while it lasted.

QB U

Many people think that all football players are knuckle-dragging dimwits.  That may have been the case back in the leather helmet days, but it hasn’t been true for a long while — and it’s particularly not true these days, with the complicated offensive and defensive schemes found in college and professional football alike.

If you don’t believe me, watch the Big Ten Network segment above, in which former coach and BTN commentator Gerry DiNardo sits down with Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins to break down a few plays from this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game.  You can’t help but be impressed by how Haskins analyzes defensive coverage, sets offensive blocking schemes, and evaluates his various “reads” — and then explains it all in a coherent, step-by-step fashion using the special vocabulary of football.

Ohio State used to be called Football U.  That’s never been true, not really, but even if it were it’s clear that Football U. does in fact involve a lot of teaching, and a lot of learning.

CFP’d Off

I’m warning you in advance that this post is going to sound like sour grapes.  And, in fact, some of the motivation for writing it in the first place is sour grapes.  But I’m here to tell you that the College Football Playoff process that was rolled out to great fanfare only a few years ago is already broken.

ype12feWho made the college football playoffs last year?  Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia.  Those same four teams finished in the top five this year.  It was only because Notre Dame ran the table against a weak slate of opponents — and, because ND is nominally independent, a slate that doesn’t include a conference championship game — that college football fans everywhere avoided watching the same four teams play each other again this year.

In the five years the College Football Playoff has been in existence, Alabama has made it every year.  Clemson has made it four out of five times.  Oklahoma has made it in three of the five years.  It’s the same old, same old.

And, for Ohio State fans, what’s especially galling is that this year the playoff selection committee ranked a two-loss SEC team that didn’t win its conference — i.e., Georgia — ahead of a one-lose Big Ten team that won its conference championship.  I can understand Ohio State, which got whacked by Purdue during the regular season, being ranked behind Oklahoma, even though I think the Big 12 is a pretty weak conference.  But I don’t understand how a one-loss champion of a major football conference like the Big Ten can be ranked behind a two-loss non-conference champion.  To me, that result says that the selection committee has quaffed the SEC Kool-Aid and lost any claim to objectivity.  Every year we start with the presumption that the SEC is the best conference in college football, and every year every inference goes in the SEC’s favor.

Who did Georgia play out of conference this year?  Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State, and the University of Massachusetts.  They aren’t exactly powerhouses, are they?  The rest of the schedule is SEC teams.  Georgia got pummeled by LSU and played Alabama close before losing.  The latter result reflects favorably on Georgia only if you conclude that Alabama is a bunch of supermen — but we don’t know that, either, because Alabama played only SEC teams, along with an out-of-conference schedule that included Louisville, which ended the season 2-10, the Citadel, Arkansas State, and University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

The system needs to be changed.  The playoff should be expanded, and every major college conference champion should be included.  I happen to think that Ohio State could give Alabama, Georgia, and any other team a good game — just as it did in 2014, when the Buckeyes somehow beat mighty Alabama and went on to win the national championship, to the surprise of every pundit and talking head on ESPN.

The champion should be crowned on the field, not in backrooms based on hype.

Where Can I Get A Recording Of The Game?

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I’m not saying my decision not to record The Game was outcome-determinative, but . . . well, c’mon, you know it was!

What a performance by the Buckeyes, their coaches, their much maligned defense, and their equally maligned offensive line!  Beating That Team Up North never gets old.  And this win is made all the sweeter by the fact that Michigan came in expecting to win.

Seriously — where can I get a recording of The Game, 2018?