Playing top-flight football when the regular season comes to a close is not always enough in Division I football, however. The 2005 Buckeyes come to mind as a team capable of beating anyone in the nation by the time the season came to a close. Unfortunately for them, two regular-season losses firmly removed them from the national championship hunt.
Such a scenario has not always been the case for Tressel, who spent 15 seasons manning the sidelines at I-AA Youngstown State. As long as the Penguins were one of the top 16 teams in the nation when the season came to a close, they made the playoffs and had a shot at winning a championship.
Tressel still espouses the "improvement each week" mantra to his teams, but the circumstances surrounding them have changed.
"In general, the system that we're in now versus the system where you have a 16-team playoff, it's maybe a little bit easier in the playoff scenario to really buy into the, ‘Hey, we've just got to get better every day,' " Tressel said. "That's what you hope you could buy into anyway but the system helps you buy into it."
When the 2005 Buckeyes defeated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, the performance put them in the forefront of the national championship picture the following season. As for the right to challenge themselves against the best of the nation, Tressel said the thought never crossed his mind.
"I'm sure that was a fun thing for a lot of our people to say at the end of '05: ‘Man, we could've beat anyone,' " he said. "That wasn't the system. The system was you were supposed to beat everyone from the beginning of the year."
That holds true this season. The Buckeyes dropped to No. 11 in the nation following the loss to Wisconsin, and the team's stated goal of winning a title this year has been put on life support.
Junior linebacker Andrew Sweat said the team entered the season knowing it had to be perfect to assure a berth in the title game.
"I just think that's something you go in knowing: You have to be spotless if you want to play in the national championship," he said, "but a lot can happen. You still have the same goals. There's a lot of games that we played, but you realize you have to be spotless going in. In previous years one-loss teams have gone to the national championship. We're just keeping that in mind and working hard."
Tressel said his 2003 squad felt accomplished following a 35-28 victory against Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl because it was playing at a high level. The fact that the team had dropped road contests to Wisconsin and Michigan that season did not temper those feelings, he said.
"To them what was most important was being at their best the last time they played even though 14 of them were going to get drafted and all that stuff," he said. "In their minds they just wanted to get better and that was a very satisfying thing. I don't know if at the end of that game I said, ‘Boy, if there was a playoff I'm sure we would've won it.' There wasn't a playoff. I never wish for what I can't have."
Still Dreaming: When Zach Boren was named the team's offensive lineman of the week following a win at Illinois, his older brother Justin Boren gave him some words of wisdom. The senior left guard told Zach, a fullback, that his dreams of ever earning a carry at OSU were dead and buried after being named the offensive lineman of the week.
Asked if he still has that dream of carrying the football, Zach smiled.
"I guess," he said. "I don't know. We'll wait and see on that one. Hopefully, but whatever happens, happens. I'm still young. I'm only halfway through my sophomore year."
Big Catch: When senior wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher hauled in an acrobatic 9-yard reception to pick up a third down against Wisconsin, he wound up flying through the air and landing facemask-first on the Camp Randall turf.
It apparently looked worse than it felt.
"It wasn't too bad, actually," he said. "I've had worse."
Watching the replay did not seem any different than taking part in the play, he added.
"I imagined it looked something like that," Sanzenbacher said. "I knew when I jumped up to get it that I was most likely going to get hit one way or the other but I didn't know exactly what would happen."
Herron has moved to the top of the team's rushing chart with 446 yards and has rushed for at least 90 yards in two of the last three games. Saine is the only back with a 100-yard rushing performance, although junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor has three.
Including an Illinois game in which Pryor suffered a quad injury, Herron has averaged 18 carries a game for 84.7 yards and moved to ninth in the Big Ten with an overall average of 63.7 yards per contest.
Zach Boren credited an improved sense of vision for Herron's improvement.
"He's getting into a zone now," the sophomore said. "Throughout practice and in games he's getting more carries. He feels like he can make any play possible. His vision has gotten a lot better. I'm not cutting on his vision one bit – he's a great running back – but I just think he's seeing the whole field a lot better now and he's running a lot tougher. He's lowering his shoulder and watching film and knowing what moves to pull here and there."