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.

Passing The September Test

There used to be a saying in college football:  September is for pretenders, and November is for contenders.  The underlying concept was that the good teams played a bunch of patsies in September and the tough games really didn’t roll around until November.  Thus, November was when you’d finally separate the wheat from the chaff.

That saying is true no longer, at least for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

0f7-web2psu-10jpeg-0163b7666e5c9c44Last night — on September 29 — the Buckeyes had to play the Penn State Nittany Lions at Happy Valley.  Penn State is one of the toughest teams in the Big Ten and a perennial contender for the conference championship, both teams were ranked in the top ten, and 110,000 screaming, white-clad fans packed Beaver Stadium to cheer on the Lions.  The sound in that Stadium last night was deafening.  It’s hard to imagine a better atmosphere for a big-time college football game, or a more daunting challenge for the visiting team.  It was a November contest being played in September.

Somehow, the Buckeyes came from 12 points down in the fourth quarter and beat the Nittany Lions, giving Ohio State a leg up over Penn State in the always tough Big Ten East.  The offense sputtered and coughed and the defense gave up some huge plays to let Penn State take the lead, but Ohio State never gave up and kept fighting until the final play.  Kudos should go to everyone on the Buckeye team, with a special nod to the punter Drue Chrisman, who repeatedly pinned the Nittany Lions deep after each unsuccessful Ohio State possession.

These days, college football in September is not for the faint of heart.  The Buckeyes have passed their first huge Big Ten test.  But if this is September, what in the world is November going to be like?

Next Day News


Kish and I have been up in Maine, staying in a cottage where there is no TV, no internet, and incredibly spotty cell phone reception.  We were going to go watch the Ohio State-Penn State game at a bar, but at the last minute the neighbors invited us over for a get-acquainted dinner and we couldn’t say no.  I drove to the store and heard the Buckeyes were behind 28-17, but after that point we were off the grid for the rest of the night without any way to check the score.  I am embarrassed to say that I figured Ohio State had lost.

So you can imagine my delight when I arrived at the Bangor airport, was able to check my emails and the news, and found the Buckeyes won a come-from-behind thriller that keeps them in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs.  Apparently J.T. Barrett played an almost perfect game, and the Buckeyes defense cam up big when it counted.  Sometimes next day news is good news.

Now I’m wondering if the YouTube 30-minute replay will be available when I get home.

Wishing, And Hoping

Today is the day the College Football Playoff Selection Committee earns its keep.

They’ve been watching games all season, and since mid-season they’ve been issuing interim rankings after each weekend of play.  But now the regular season games and the conference championship games are done, and it’s time to finally decide:  which four teams should be in this year’s playoff?

urban-meyer-explains-why-an-8-team-college-football-playoff-wont-work-and-he-makes-a-good-pointAlabama is in, of course, as the number one seed.  They romped through a pretty pathetic SEC without a loss and drubbed an offensively challenged Florida team in the SEC championship game.  That’s an easy call.  But who else do you select?  One-loss Clemson won the weak ACC, edging out a pretty one-dimensional Virginia Tech team in last night’s championship game, and has looked good at times but bad at times, too.  One-loss Washington played one of the easiest schedules in college football and won the PAC 12, beating up a hapless Colorado team in the championship game.  Oklahoma, with two losses, won the defensively challenged Big 12.

And then there’s the Big 10.  Ohio State played one of the toughest schedules in college football, smashed Big 12 champion Oklahoma on its home turf, and beat a series of top ten teams during the season, including winning a thrilling edition of The Game against Michigan.  But because Ohio State lost at Penn State, on a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes didn’t play for the conference championship.  Penn State did and won last night, coming from far behind to beat Wisconsin.  But the Nittany Lions have two losses, one of which was a 39-point thrashing at the hands of That Team Up North.

So who should join Alabama in the playoffs?  The dedicated members of Buckeye Nation obviously hope the Committee selects Ohio State, which was ranked number 2 after last week’s Committee vote.  Should the Committee just pick the one-loss teams from the Power Five conferences, which means Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington should make the cut?  Or should Penn State’s impressive run and conference championship knock out one of those teams?  But how do you vault the two-loss Nittany Lions above two-loss Michigan, which beat Penn State like a drum early in the season?

Ohio State fans are wishing, and hoping, that the Buckeyes make the cut.  Having watched a number of games with the top teams, I honestly think Ohio State is one of the top four teams — but I’m not on the committee.  We’ll know at 12:30.

Baby Steps

Through the first seven games of the season, Ohio State has established that it’s not the most dominating team in college football history.  It sounds silly, but the expectations before the season started were so high that’s how the team was being measured.

Still, the Buckeyes now stand at 7-0, and last night they hung a pretty convincing win on Penn State, beating the Nittany Lions 38-10.  And if you are an Ohio State fan, you can be forgiven for looking for little signs that the team is improving.  I think the signs are there.

Offensively, the Buckeyes seem to be moving toward making J.T. Barrett the starting quarterback.  The more he plays, the better the offense performs.  Cardale Jones is a fine player with a terrific arm, but with Barrett at the helm the Buckeyes simply seem more fluid, more confident, and more multi-dimensional — and Barrett has an uncanny knack for finding the first-down marker and keeping drives alive.  With Barrett playing increasing minutes, the Buckeyes have now gone two games without drive-killing turnovers and are turning red zone appearances into touchdowns.  And last night, they did it all against a pretty good Penn State defense that features lots of talent.

But we are talking baby steps here, and there are still steps to be made on offense.  Last night, the Buckeyes racked up more than 300 yards on the ground, with both Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott posting more than 100 yards gained, but the passing game suffered.  If Ohio State hopes to compete with the elite, it can’t play with one hand tied behind its back.

On defense, the situation is more difficult to assess.  Joey Bosa and the defensive line did a good job of rushing the passer and physically dominating Christian Hackenberg, when the game was on the line they held Penn State short on a key fourth down, and they forced a turnover that put the game away — but there were lots of negatives.  The D was gashed on the ground and made Saquon Barkley look like the second coming of Jim Brown, showed some really poor tackling and pass defense techniques, and seemed to have scheme failures where Penn State runners were 10 yards downfield before a tackler appeared.  All of this should be concerning, even after a convincing win.  Penn State couldn’t capitalize on these weaknesses, but there are teams from The State Up North who will unless Ohio State gets those problems fixed.

With the “Black Out” and uniform dust-up behind us, let’s focus on some football and continuing improvement and see what this team can really do.

Black Unis

Tonight Ohio State plays Penn State under the lights at Ohio Stadium.  In any rational world, that would be exciting enough.  Two big-time, tradition-rich programs matching up in prime time, with a lot on the line — the winner stays in contention for a spot to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, and the loser probably doesn’t.

But these days colleges and their athletic departments — prodded by corporate sponsors and marketers — are always looking to up the ante.  So tonight, Ohio State will host a “Black Out,” where all of the people attending are encouraged to wear black gear and the hope is to see the Horseshoe, and its 110,000 occupants, blanketed in darkness.  It’s a pretty cool idea, and definitely a departure from the standard look of the Stadium, where scarlet and gray are the dominant colors.  I’m sure it will help the attendees get even more amped up for the game.

But there’s a hitch — for some people, at least.  As part of the “Black Out,” the Buckeyes will be wearing black uniforms with black helmets.  Black uniforms?  Black helmets?  For some members of Buckeye Nation, the very thought is sacrilegious.  The traditionalists don’t want Ohio State to become the Midwestern equivalent of Oregon, which always seem to wear different, envelope-pushing (and frequently, in my view, ugly) uniforms in every game.  The conservative wing of Buckeye Nation likes the scarlet and gray and simply won’t tolerate any deviation.  The progressive wing, on the other hand, says that Ohio State needs to keep up with the competition, and that recruits — lots of whom will be at the game tonight — think black is really a cool color for uniforms.  Therefore, they argue, showing the option to wear black uniforms just might tip the balance in the Buckeyes’ favor when the time arrives for five-stars to declare the school of their choice.

I’m in the moderate wing of Buckeye Nation, I suppose.  I don’t mind when Ohio State modifies its look from time to time, as in recent years when the Buckeyes have worn “throwback” jerseys that are supposed to honor storied past teams.  Black uniforms will be a more significant departure because there’s no “throwback” argument, but if they make for a more exciting experience for recruits and the crowd at tonight’s game and help the Buckeyes to pull out a crucial win, I’m all for it.

On the other hand, I don’t want to make a habit of messing with the Ohio State uniforms.  We don’t need to get attention with different color combinations or designs or feathered helmets; we make our statements on the field.  Any college football fan who sees the regular uniforms, with their timeless look, knows that they are watching The Ohio State Buckeyes.  And after all, Ohio State picked scarlet and gray as its colors back in 1878 because it was a “pleasing combination” — and that remains true 137 years later.  There’s a reason why The Buckeye Battle Cry speaks of “Men of the Scarlet and Gray.”

Trappy Valley

Tonight the Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Beaver Stadium in Happy Valley to play the Penn State Nittany Lions.  Penn State has struggled this year, but this is a game that concerns me.  It’s one of those classic “trap games” that can reach up and bite you when your opponent gets pumped up because they can salvage their season with a win..

Since the Virginia Tech loss, Ohio State has racked up a lot of yards and put a lot of points on the board.  Many members of Buckeye Nation think Ohio State’s offense is an unstoppable juggernaut and terrific redshirt freshman QB J.T. Barrett is the second coming of Peyton Manning.  Let’s take a deep breath, people!  Ohio State’s recent performance is all well and good — but it has occurred against defenses that really aren’t comparable to Penn State.  As is always the case, Penn State has a lot of tough, hard-nosed athletes on the defensive side of the ball.  Statistically, the Nittany Lions are the best defense in the Big Ten, and they are especially good against the run.

With a huge home crowd behind them and roaring on every play, it’s not hard to imagine Penn State’s defense stopping the high-octane Buckeyes and keeping the score down.  Sure, Penn State’s offense has not been impressive, but Ohio State’s defense has given up a lot of big plays.  If the Nittany Lions can break through for a long score or two, and their defense keeps Ohio State out of the end zone, this game could turn into a close slugfest — and the longer the game is close, the more the crowd will become a factor.

As Ohio State knows all too well from the very successful Jim Tressel years, you don’t need to lead the nation in offense to win a lot of college football games.  Careful game management, a solid defense that doesn’t give up long touchdowns and keeps opponents off the scoreboard, and good fundamentals in the kicking and punting game can go a very long way to make up for a weak offense.  Tonight Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes might see some Tresselball from the opposing team, and Tresselball isn’t that easy to beat.