It was 5 a.m. on a dark, cold winter morning and the Buckeyes were at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for a workout. After a few offensive linemen had missed the first team meeting under head coach Urban Meyer a few days earlier Jan. 3, the whole team was charged with reporting for conditioning in the darkness.
It was not to be a fun workout.
"We were outside at 5 o'clock in the morning in 10 degrees, frozen tundra, rain and all that kind of stuff," senior safety C.J. Barnett said. "I think that was a moment when things started to change."
On the backside of that morning meeting was one of the worst spans of 13 months in Ohio State football history. In December 2010, five players were found to have exchanged memorabilia for tattoos and cash; five months later, legendary head coach Jim Tressel was gone, and to add insult to injury, the Buckeyes posted a 6-7 season to finish with the program's first sub-.500 record in more than two decades.
The Gator Bowl loss to Florida was the Buckeyes' fourth in a row to end the season, and the team flew home to Columbus from Jacksonville set to enter a new world the likes of which it could not imagine.
It was tough, certainly, but the reward was on full display Saturday afternoon in Ohio Stadium. The work the team put in that offseason helped set the stage for the history that was made in the Horseshoe – a 23-game, program-record-setting win streak that has the Buckeyes on the precipice of the national championship game.
A lot has happened over the past few games – records have been shattered, a Leaders Division championship has been clinched – but the one thing that stands out to the Buckeye team is going down in the record books, especially after what happened a few seasons ago.
"To be honest, I feel like the most special thing right now is to go 23-0 to get this victory because it was Senior Day, a very important day to a lot of guys," junior Ryan Shazier said. "We've been through so much together, everybody on this team. All those guys were here when we were 6-7 then last year undefeated and this year we're having a great year right now. We're getting a lot closer week in and week out. It's tremendous for all of us to set a record like this. Nobody else has ever been able to do this."
In many ways, that 2011 season was just as much a defining point in the careers of Ohio State's veterans. The Buckeyes weren't a bad team that season – it lost its final four games of the year by a combined 22 points – but were worn down by a season of controversy and off-field issues. In the end, with a rookie head coach trying to hold the team together and a freshman quarterback at the controls, the Buckeyes were unable to do the little things necessary to win games.
In the meantime, the program has undergone a major overhaul. Discipline and excellence in all facets – academics, in the weight room, in the film room and on the field – was stressed. Teamwork and camaraderie, things that simply couldn't come together in the midst of the whirlwind 2011 campaign, have become buzzwords.
"I was just thinking about that," junior Devin Smith said. "My first year and up til now, it's unbelievable, the road that not only myself but this whole football team has taken. We've taken a big, giant step in improving our game and just improving the camaraderie in the team and how close we are. I feel just the reason why we are winning ballgames is because of how close we are and how much we love each other."
Behind it all is Meyer, the only architect in college football history of at least three winning streaks of 20 or more. Nearly 1,000 miles to the south, Meyer's old program, Florida, lost to FCS foe Georgia Southern on Saturday, somewhat indirectly proving a point Meyer brought up in the postgame press conference.
"I think it's consistency," Meyer said when asked what goes into a winning streak like the one the Buckeyes have. "You see it – every once in a while you take a peek at the scoreboard, you see scores. You go, ‘What happened there?' And for this team to do it 23 times in a row, that's an incredible testimony, first of all, to the players. I mean, Tuesday's practices are not a bunch of chocolates around here. Every week you better show up or you stick out like a sore thumb. So, first of all, the players are incredible, consistently performed over this two-year period.
"And I really want to mention my staff. I mean, we haven't had any turnover. The alignment is without question, they're perfectly aligned. There's no – we turned the ball over at the end and I've been around some defensive coaches that would have acted like, ‘We have to go back out there and play?' Our defensive coaches do, they go coach because that's what we expect them to do. What do our offensive coaches do when they give up some points? They coach. That's probably why those things happen where you get a nice, long winning streak."
The longest, in fact, with maybe some more to go.