I started thinking about that recently, and I'll start by saying this – obviously you never want to lose a game. A lot of Ohio State fans will be heading to South Florida – and there's tens of thousands of Buckeyes already here – and none of them will want to see that trip go for naught. There are seniors who will be playing in their final game, and they never want to go out with a bad taste in their mouth.
Obviously, the Buckeyes want to win the game. There's no doubt about that.
But does it really, truly matter if they do?
Well, yes and no.
I'll go with the easy part first – the part about it not mattering.
Simply put, any bowl game that's not the national championship game, the way college football is structured, is nothing but an exhibition contest, a reward for a season well done – but not quite good enough. With a win in the Big Ten title game in early December against Michigan State, the Buckeyes would have played for all the marbles. Now, they play for a trophy filled with fake oranges and, in the harsh light of reality, not much more.
This isn't the 1970s, when only one team in each league went to a postseason contest and a trip to Pasadena was the Holy Grail for any team in the Big Ten. In the current climate, when there are more than 30 bowl games spread out over a three-week span, a bowl game is nice and a BCS contest is better, but it's a T-shirt, a trophy and a spot in a media guide at the end of the day.
Even the thought that a win could propel the team to bigger and better things in 2014 doesn't really hold water. Sure, it could happen that way – I think of the 2006 team ran the table during the regular season after a hyped Fiesta Bowl victory vs. Notre Dame validated an impressive run to close the '05 season – but it doesn't have to. The 2002 team lost the Outback Bowl the year before, and it ended up all right. On the other side of things, two years ago, Clemson was drubbed by West Virginia in this very bowl game; to say the two have gone opposite directions since would be an understatement.
So how is it, in some ways, that a win on Friday night in steamy Miami is a near essential piece of the puzzle for the program Urban Meyer is building in Columbus?
One word: vindication.
Before losing to Michigan State, the Buckeye program had won 24 games in a row under Meyer and still wasn't guaranteed a spot in the BCS National Championship Game (thanks to hard-charging Auburn, a team that some were advocating for the title contest over OSU in the hours after its SEC championship) if it had captured a 25th.
This despite the fact the winning streak was the longest in the nation when it came to a close and the longest in the Big Ten in more than a half century.
"We hear it," sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry said. "My favorite thing to say when people say that is, ‘It's really hard to win.' You do that 24 times in a row – a lot of teams don't do it. It doesn't happen a lot when you look at history. So we probably lost at a really bad time, but I think that we're a really good team."
Even the most ardent doubters of the Buckeyes across the nation would say that, but there are definitely those who do not believe the team has made it back to the national elite. Imagine how much worse it will be – especially in SEC country – if the Buckeyes don't capture the Orange Bowl.
The way a team is viewed nationally might not really matter on the field, and it might not matter next year when a four-team playoff takes effect. But let's be honest – in this sport, perception can be reality. The Buckeyes are squarely on the wrong side of the perception battle, and the only thing that can change that reality is winning games like Friday night's.
"I think that the games teams that we've beaten, people for whatever reason don't want to give them credit, and the one game we lost, people want to say it's because the team was good and we can't beat a good team," defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. "It just gives us a little bit of a chip, but this is a good team. It'll be important to beat them so that people see that we are legit."
Would beating Clemson do the trick? It's hard to say. The Tigers were in the race for the national championship, even being ranked second ahead of the Buckeyes at one point, until a blowout loss to Florida State and a rivalry loss to SEC foe South Carolina at the end of the year. They are ranked 12th in the nation – solid but not necessarily spectacular.
But one thing is for sure – losing to Clemson would be a PR disaster. "They can't even beat the second-best team in the ACC!" will come up time and again over the next year in certain parts of the country if the Buckeyes fail to win the game.
"I feel like we would get a lot of our respect back (if we win)," OSU cornerback Doran Grant said. "You see (the criticism). We can hear it."
The goal, then, is to stop hearing it.
And that is why the Orange Bowl is important.