Lessons From Buckeyes '03 Attempt To Repeat

Ohio State's unlikely 2014 national championship has plenty of parallels to the Buckeyes 2002 title-winning team. This season the Buckeyes will look to learn from the pitfalls the 2003 team endured in trying to repeat.

Even before Braxton Miller went down with an injury last season, many thought Ohio State was a year away from contending for a national championship. The Buckeyes were thought to be primed for a big 2015 as the top-ranked 2013 recruiting class matured.

After Miller went down the Buckeyes odds at a 2014 title slipped to 40-1 in Las Vegas and Ohio State became an afterthought. What followed was one of the most unlikely championships in the sport’s history as the Buckeyes fought through long odds, overcoming multiple close calls to win the title.

While that title would appear unprecedented, it actually mirrors the Ohio State’s 2002 national championship in many ways.

To Roy Hall, who redshirted during the 2002 season and saw his first action at wide receiver in 2003, the parallels are everywhere.

“I think one thing that is common from the 2014 Buckeyes and the 2002 Buckeyes is those national championships were sort of unexpected,” he said. “You always set out to win a national title and you put that as your end goal, but those teams were kind of the dark horses to win the national title.

“I think what changed in 2003, and what will change for the Buckeyes in 2015, is you kind of go from being unexpected to being the team that everybody is looking to dominate. You’re like a cadaver all of the sudden, people are just breaking you down and tearing you apart.”

Hall’s comments underscore the fact that only seven teams have repeated as Associated Press national championships in the sport’s history. No Ohio State team has ever done it. In fact, in the seasons after the first seven national titles the university claims the team has gone 47-19-2, a .691 winning percentage.

Urban Meyer is aware of the challenges in trying to repeat, having come up short in that regard twice at Florida.

“How many national champions have a great year after a National Championship year? And it's tough because there are so many outside influences that can get in and saturate your program and cause damage,” the coach said.

While he has his own experiences to draw from, he can also look to Ohio State’s past champions.

The two most successful repeat attempts for the Buckeyes came in 1969, a year the team ran roughshod over the competition before a devastating upset at the hands of Michigan, and the 2003 team that Hall suited up for.

Hall’s redshirt freshman year the Buckeyes were favored to return to the national title game, bringing back 17 starters on offense, defense and special teams and returning their entire coaching staff. The 2003 Buckeyes succumbed to the pressure, however, dropping two games along the way and finishing the season as the fourth-ranked team in the Associated Press poll after a victory over Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Certainly an 11-2 season that included a major bowl win is not a failure, but considering the possibilities available to that team it seemed that the 2003 Buckeyes missed a shot at history. The 2015 squad will try to avoid making the same mistakes.

“We’ve talked about it, the transition from 2002 to 2003 with having a lot of guys coming back and maybe a more talented team coming back than you did the year before when the same kind of things happened, where you had obviously great success and a National Championship,” said defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, a special teams coordinator for Ohio State in 2003.

“Learning from those kinds of things, you know what it's really about. It's not about talent. Every single year there's going to be enough talent, as Coach always tells you. It's the ability for those guys to gel together, for those guys to come together, to find out how they're going to handle those adverse situations.”

The Buckeyes certainly have the talent this year and while they already have one title with them, the Buckeyes could start to feel pressure to maximize the talents of the likes of Joey Bosa, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller, Taylor Decker, Adolphus Washington and the other elite college football players who are likely entering their last season at Ohio State.

Again, that mirrors the pressure on the 2003 Buckeyes. It’s the cost –albeit a small one the staff would pay over and over again – of winning a championship a year ahead of schedule.

The 2002 title was won with a group largely consisting of sophomores and juniors. Although not without senior leaders like Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey, the champions did not have a player drafted in the first round in 2003, a trend repeated by the Buckeyes in the most recent NFL draft.

Even with all that talent, the 2003 team couldn’t recapture the ultimate prize, first stumbling against Wisconsin then dropping a game with Michigan in which a win would have clinched a return the BCS National Championship Game.

“Those two losses really burned me,” said Dustin Fox, a starting cornerback in 2003. “That Michigan game, I’ll never forget that game. That one really hurts. If we would have won it we go to the national championship game.

“You can’t afford to have mental lapse. You can’t be flat ever. You have to bring it every week.”

So are the Buckeyes ready to be picked apart with every move criticized? Hall said that will be the biggest lesson from the 2015 season.

“This season to me is not about winning a national title,” he said. “This is a character-revealing season for that team. We’re going to find out what these guys are made of on the inside.”

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