ATLANTA — By any realistic and objective measure, Ohio State is one of the healthiest programs in college football. Since 2012, the Buckeyes have lost just 14 games – one shy of Alabama in the same span. They are one of six programs in the past decade to have won a national championship. And on Saturday, they’ll make the college football playoffs for the fifth time, which is more than everyone but Alabama and Clemson.
Curiously, though, it’s a sport where stories often matter more than results. And the narrative around Ohio State, especially in the past month, hasn’t been flattering.
The Buckeyes know it. They can’t help but know because on Nov. 26 they were blown out by Michigan for the second straight year, a loss of such magnitude that they spent the next week thinking they were doomed. to another listless month of preparation for a bowl they didn’t really want to play in.
“Last year we went to the Rose Bowl, we won the Rose Bowl,” catcher Marvin Harrison, Jr. said. “It was good, but it was a miss.”
If the norm for Ohio State is playoffs or failure, then by definition the reprieve they’ve been given to face No. 1 Georgia here means it’s been a successful year. As daunting as the task they face may be, there are 128 Bowl Subdivision programs that would gladly take the place of Ohio State.
But it is not that simple. While the Buckeyes themselves have endless gratitude for the opportunity, for a second chance that wasn’t guaranteed, what happens on New Year’s Eve feels like an inflection point – both for the iteration of Ohio State football and, above all, for the story and the atmosphere that surrounds it.
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These things, of course, are much harder to define than wins and losses. But you know it when you see it. And at Ohio State, the dividing line isn’t necessarily whether you win a national championship, but whether you compete at a level where it’s possible to do so.
Until Michigan lost in 2021, it would never have occurred to anyone who follows college football closely that Ohio State is on the wrong side of that line. But after a second straight humiliation from Wolverine, the question now is whether the Buckeyes are built to win at the absolute highest level in the sport or have become a soft and thin program whose culture crumbles when they are physically challenged by such talented teams.
“I think the whole month has been a really good month for us,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I think the focus was on very high levels of execution. I think the focus was on general physicality in training. As we were finishing up our work in Columbus, you could see that there was just an energy as (we) came down here.
Sure, that’s what Day is going to say, but fans aren’t in the mood for empty promises anymore. Day was promoted in 2019 to continue what Urban Meyer had mostly succeeded in doing over the previous seven seasons.
Despite some hiccups on the field and the controversy that eventually forced him out, Meyer had brought the Buckeyes to the point where they weren’t just dominating the Big Ten, they were transcending it. Ohio State may have played a Big Ten schedule, but it had the aura of an SEC powerhouse that you could imagine matching well with the Alabamas and Clemsons every year.
But you can only miss that wait a certain number of times before everyone realizes that, in fact, that’s not true anymore. And that’s why the stakes in this game are so high for the state of Ohio.
No one could get mad at Day for being blasted by Alabama, 52-24, in the national championship game at the end of a tough season defined by COVID-19 in 2020. But last year he was undeniable that Ohio State had lost and lost solidly to the two most physical teams on its schedule in Oregon and Michigan.
That’s why it was so crucial for Ohio State to beat the Wolverines this time around. That’s why they revamped their defensive coaching staff, bringing in coordinator Jim Knowles after a successful season at Oklahoma State. That’s why they’ve been talking all season about physical strength and proving they can head the ball.
So when it all went up in smoke in the second half against Michigan where the Buckeyes scored three and were again roughed up at the line of scrimmage, it’s understandable that there’s so much fear and celebration in Columbus about to face a Georgia team that is pretty much a much more talented version of the Wolverines.
“I expect people to bend, twist, change and turn against me. It’s nothing new,” quarterback CJ Stroud said. “It’s like that. You have to go out there and play the game why you want to play. If we start playing why everyone wants us to play and do things that everyone wants us to do , I think we’re going to go off schedule and not be Buckeyes and not be who we are to get here, so I’m definitely not surprised.”
In a way, it’s an unfortunate microcosm of what college football has become that Ohio State fans rarely enjoy anything these days despite winning 45 of their last 50. games, or that even their own players refer to a Rose Bowl-winning season as a failure because they weren’t in the college football playoffs.
But everything in the ecosystem of these elite programs has been geared towards its impact on winning national titles. For example, the recent early recruiting spree saw Ohio State lose the commitment of five-star quarterback Dylan Raiola and fail to close the deal with five-star rusher Damon Wilson, who picked Georgia. . The Buckeyes currently have the No. 6 recruiting class, and with everything that’s happened over the past month, that reinforces the feeling that they’ve fallen behind.
“Pretty high standards,” running back Chip Trayanum said. “But that’s why you come here. As long as we have this fat, I hope all this noise goes away.
If the Buckeyes upset Georgia, it won’t just go away, it will validate everything Ohio State has been working towards. It will be as if anxiety never existed. Even if they grow closer, some semblance of trust can be restored.
But if Ohio State once again appears to be competing at a lower weight class than the best college football program, there will be no way to reconcile the difference between the mood of its fan base and the Day’s winning percentage as a head coach.
Day surely aspires to one day win a national title with the Buckeyes. But for now, changing the narrative even a little is far more important to its long-term future.