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Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

Miller vs CheeseheadsAs I watched Ohio State struggle through their lost 2011 season, I thought, for the sake of the future, it was best to fall on the sword right then and there.  It probably would have been a good idea to make that call before the season started, before Jordan Hall and Travis Howard threw gasoline on the fire and before the Buckeyes considerable no-show in Miami Gardens on September 17th.  Their 24-6 trouncing at the hand of the Canes, paired with a pseudo-shutout against Michigan State at the ‘Shoe and a collapse in Lincoln put Ohio State in a bad position to say, “You know what?  No bowl for us, NCAA.  We've been misbehaving, and we’re going to slap out own wrist.  Do you see us policing ourselves NCAA?”

When bad news drops, it’s never convenient.  People always call it bad timing if doomsday comes in the midst of anything else that causes malcontent, but the worst time for bad news is always “now”.  Take Georgia quarterback, Adam Murray, who lost badly to South Carolina on Saturday, then found out his father has cancer, and came home to find his home vandalized after it all.  Yes, the situation is compounded by it all happening at once, but “dad has cancer” doesn't really lend itself to any good timing.  However, the Buckeyes were presented with a golden opportunity to self-impose a bowl ban in a season that was undoubtedly lost, but didn't necessarily present itself that way on the surface.

On the eve of a Browns game in San Francisco, I sat in a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf only half-watching the Wisconsin-Ohio State game.  In that Pac-12 market, it was the Stanford-USC game that drew local interest, and deservedly so.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught that the Buckeyes 26-14 lead had disintegrated, and Wisconsin led 29-26 with about 80 seconds to go.  Well, we know how that one ends; drive home safe everyone, right?

I paid the tab and headed back to our hotel.  On the ride home, we listened to the thrilling conclusion of Stanford-USC, a triple OT masterpiece down in L.A., but I decided to check my phone just to make sure the Badgers had put the final nail in the coffin in Columbus.  Lo and behold, the Buckeyes led 33-29 with :20 to play.  I didn't know the details, because to read “Braxton Miller pass complete to Devin Smith for 40 yards for a TOUCHDOWN” on a Blackberry doesn't quite capture the thrill of what I would see later on the highlights.  It was a euphoric night in Central Ohio.  The Buckeyes were 5-3, and the Rose Bowl was very much in play.

Rose BowlMy mind wasn’t in a state of euphoria.  I was thinking big picture, and sure I was being a wet blanket, but that’s what the situation demanded damage control, not celebration.  It wasn't a done deal, but by then, it was imminent that the NCAA would somehow drop the hammer on them eventually.  So, here we had this team that stumbled out of the gate without the players who started this mess in the first place, and they looked like they’d adapted with a freshman quarterback.  Maybe, they had it figured out, and they were Rose Bowl bound.  To enforce any infractions with any level of substance, in the words of Kill Bill’s O-Ren Ishii, “Now is the (freakin') time!”

I cannot sit here and tell you with any level of certainty that it would have been enough.  It’s possible that taking away 2012 was the plan from the get-go, and if Ohio State decided to take action themselves on the 2011 season, so be it.  I really don’t know, but a 6-7 season, by Ohio State’s standards, seemed like a very harsh punishment in and of itself.

ScamNow, nearly a year later, things are better on paper.  The Bucks are 6-0 under Urban Meyer, and 12-0 is definitely in play, but a National Championship definitely isn't.  I’m reminded of the Auburn Tigers, not the Scam Newton Tigers of 2010 that were rewarded a title, but a team from a few years back that was perfect and not rewarded with a National Championship, but a consolation prize.  In fact, I’m thinking of another Auburn team, one of even a few years farther back that was consoled with nothing and these 2012 Buckeyes are following their path, unfortunately.

The Ohio State brand is certainly not that of Notre Dame Ilk, but it does carry them a little further than, perhaps, they deserve to be sometimes.  So, they have never had a perfect season go unrecognized by those who declare champions, albeit mythical,  at college football’s highest level.  Their Head Coach knows that experience, as does his successor at Utah; the undefeated Utes were the 2005 Fiesta Bowl and 2009 Sugar Bowl Champions, but nothing higher than #2 on a national level.  Boise State and TCU have also been there, but they ran the table in conferences not held in high enough regard, so they find themselves telling tales of perfection at the kid’s table.

Auburn '04Auburn, on the other hand, sits with the big boys.  In fact, their Southeastern Conference pedigree guarantees it will be a long time before they are shunned again, as they were in 2004.  Although they played four games against teams that were ranked at the time, the BCS didn't deem that particular SEC Champion to be better than USC or Oklahoma, and Auburn had to settle for a Sugar Bowl win over #9 Virginia Tech.  Their 16-13 win over the Hokies in that game didn't inspire enough of a voter revolt to put them on top of USC, who destroyed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, for a split title, which USC benefited from the year before.

The closest parallel that comes to mind in recent Ohio State history exits only in a hypothetical world.  I’m thinking of the 2009 season, a season that ended with their first Rose Bowl appearance and victory since taking down would-be National Champion Arizona State.  The Buckeyes had no claim to anything resembling a National Championship with losses at home to USC and at Purdue, but those losses might not have been the only thing that shut them out of title town.  There was a cluster of undefeated teams that year, but Texas (snubbed the year before) and Alabama were a step above the rest.  It’s hard to believe that Ohio State’s wins over USC (who finished the regular season #18, even with the win at the ‘Shoe), Penn State, and Iowa would have been enough to put them in Pasadena for the big game.  I’m quite certain The Rose Bowl was a great experience for those student-athletes, but to offer some perspective; they could have lost to Navy and Michigan, and still met the Ducks in the “Granddaddy of Them All”.  Of course, the comparison would also work with subtracting the loss at Camp Randall in 2010, but unlike the University of Auburn, Ohio State had to vacate their 2010 season.

It was the same deal with Auburn’s 2005 Sugar Bowl appearance.  And truthfully, I know they aren't there yet, but an undefeated Big Ten Champion (there won’t be one this year) would be bound for Pasadena, barring chaos.  Of course, even chaos won’t stop the Buckeyes season from ending after the clock goes to 0 in the game with that school up north this year.

Fickell Muschamp, Gator BowlAll for the sake of letting Luke Fickell coach a 6-6 team in a bowl, “undefeated” means so little in 2012.  For DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, Dan Herron, and Solomon Thomas to be rewarded with a fourth Bowl Game, this sensational season Braxton Miller (dare I say Heisman-worthy?) is having ends with nothing more than a Leaders Division Championship.  Was it really worth having the extra practices with a lame duck Head Coach?  Ohio State couldn't have really benefited from losing the 2012 Gator Bowl, the $2.5 million payout notwithstanding.  I know hindsight is 20/20, and high hopes that they would weather the storm were still in play, but I first-guessed the decision to keep the post-season in 2011, knowing that they were mortgaging the future for the sake of the short-term.

Instead, six more wins will put them right next to the 1993 Auburn Tigers in the history books.  The Tigers probation included a two year post-season ban, but also a television ban in 1993 (though two games aired on ESPN), a sanction that would be nearly impossible to enforce on any team from a big conference these days.  Like the situation with Jim Tressel, the scandal cost Pat Dye his job, and Terry Bowden came in to carry the Tigers through rough times.  Bowden, who retained much of Dye’s defensive coaching staff kept the team focused, and they kept winning, even though they didn’t have a plethora of NFL talent.  The roster was highlighted with the likes of James Bostic and Frank Sanders.

They stayed conservative to beat Mississippi in their opener, and rolled right on through the SEC schedule, which wasn't what it is today.  They would go on to take down Danny Wuerffel and the #4 Florida Gators on a game winning field goal.  They were 10-0 headed into their match-up with 8-1-1 (back when you could tie in college football) Alabama.  People in the south will tell you that the Michigan-Ohio State game is nothing compared to the Iron Bowl because of the presence of pro sports in Michigan and Ohio, but whatever you take from that, you can put this game in the same ballpark with what Ohio State faces in late November.  They trailed Alabama 14-5 at halftime, but bounced back in the second half with their backup quarterback Patrick Nix to win 22-14.

BowdenThey finished the season 11-0, and even though they had no claim to the SEC Conference Championship, or even a West Division title, they did defeat both of the Championship Game’s participants (Florida and Alabama).  They finished #4 in the AP poll, ahead of the Gators, who were the official SEC Champs.  Should Ohio State mirror their perfect first half, and run the table in the second half, a Top 5 finish is in the cards.  With victories over every team in the Leaders Division, which we know isn't a done deal, and the top contenders in the Legends Division (Nebraska, Michigan State, Michigan), an undefeated season would likely mean that Ohio State took down both participants in the second Big Ten Championship game.

You look back at that Auburn team, coined “the best radio team of all-time”, and think that maybe it was the probation that motivated them.  In their second year of probation in 1994, they won their first nine games, including a win over #1 Florida in the swamp, before tying Georgia and losing to #4 Alabama to end the season.  They actually regressed under Bowden, once free of probation in 1995, finishing 8-4 and losing the 1996 Outback Bowl to Penn State.  It was their first post-season appearance since beating Indiana in the 1990 Peach Bowl.

I might see some of that motivation in Ohio State.  Really, they are in a single elimination tournament against air to go undefeated.  They can take on that Lou Holtz mentality to be the best team on the field each week, without worrying about being the best team in the country or even the conference.  They aren't aiming for a Bowl Game; Michigan is their Bowl Game.  Of course, they exorcised the ghosts of John Cooper’s perfect seasons going to ruin by the hands of that school up north in 2006, but surviving that game, and staying perfect would be the perfect end to a bowl-banned season.

After that, the only Auburn we’ll need to compare these Buckeyes to would be the one who was perfect in 2010, with a National Championship to boot.  Of course, this Heisman quarterback wouldn't come with an alleged finder’s fee of any sort.





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