Like all of the seniors on Ohio State's roster, Alex Stepanovich has seen a lot of ups and downs during his career. He was not around for the "bargain basement" year of 1999 – as Ben Hartsock puts it – but he's still seen a little bit of everything.
But don't expect Stepanovich to be sentimental about the Fiesta Bowl, his last game in the Scarlet and Gray. He just wants to win; he'll leave all the emotions for afterwards.
"I think after the Michigan game, after the regular season ended, you get a little nostalgic knowing that you'll never play in the Horseshoe again," he said. "But realizing we're in a big-time game again, we have to prepare ourselves to win and we have to wait until after the game to deal with our feelings and realize this is the end of our career."
Stepanovich hopes his football career is just getting started.
"Yeah, once that clock counts down here, the other one (NFL) starts counting back up," he said. "There's another mountain to climb after this is over. So, you just kind of take everything in stride and do what you can do and right now, we're just trying to go out and do well in the Fiesta Bowl."
If the players are disappointed about playing in the Fiesta Bowl, they are doing a very good job of hiding it.
"Oh, I think it's great we get a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl again," Stepanovich said. "We have a habit the past four years of repeating bowl games (actually six years when you consider the 1998 and '99 Sugar Bowls) and I think as a team we're thrilled to be back at the Fiesta Bowl. Not that the Outback Bowl was bad, but this is much better. This is a big game for us and it's going to be a better game than most people expect. We've been in this situation before when people counted us out and we surprised people, the whole country, by winning football games."
But with everyone telling the Buckeyes that this is nothing more than a consolation game, how do they insulate themselves from that line of thinking?
"We just stick together and prepare," Stepanovich said. "We can't really worry about what a lot of people are thinking. I know a lot of people aren't always happy with the way our games end up. They don't think we score enough points and this and that. But we prepare every week to win and we really don't worry if it's anti-climatic for anybody, or whatever, we're trilled to be going back to the Fiesta Bowl and thrilled to play Kansas State."
Stepanovich likes being treated like a king for a week. The people at the Fiesta Bowl rolled out the red carpet for the team upon their arrival Friday and there's plenty more to come.
"They're just a first-class unit out there. It's a great trip," he said. "We have a lot of fun with the guys out there; there's a lot to do. It's one of those trips you'll never forget. No matter what kind of game we play. They treat you well out there. They feed you well. The resort is nice, so it's pretty nice to be out there."
After everything that the seniors have accomplished, they obviously don't want to go out with two straight losses. A win over the Wildcats will allow them to go out on a high note.
"This is real important," Stepanovich said. "For us seniors to go out with a win… I just think it would be great to come out with a Fiesta Bowl win over Kansas State, who just beat Oklahoma and realistically Oklahoma could be national champs this year and that will look good for us. And realizing, especially for some of the young guys, that there's bumps in the road, but you've got to prepare for the next game and show what you've got.
"The things we've been able to do here, it's pretty special," Stepanovich added. "My first couple years here, we were 8-4 and 7-5. People don't realize sometimes how rough it is to play football when you're not playing as well as you'd like to at times and being able to finish out with two BCS bowls and come out with a national championship and hopefully another win in the Fiesta Bowl, it's pretty special. And that's what we try and instill in the guys going into this year. I think they learned a little bit. Even though we're going to a BCS bowl, it's tough to win at this level. Not every year you can go 14-0 and win the national title.
"But it's pretty special to leave our little mark and realize that we kind of turned things around."
The Buckeyes are ranked higher than K-State, but are 7-point underdogs. Although they'll put their poker faces on and pretend as though it doesn't bother them, the players are tired of the national disrespect for Ohio State.
"Nothing new," Stepanovich said. "Another day with the Buckeyes. We just prepare and let everybody else worry about where we're ranked and how big of underdogs we're supposed to be."
But it does fire the players up a little bit, right?
"Oh, not too much," Stepanovich said with a wry grin. "Last year, we weren't even supposed to be in the game and things turned out our way. So, we'll just take our label and go play our game. What were we? Fourteen-point underdogs last year? Yeah, nothing new. We just have to go out there and prove them wrong again."
Stepanovich likes the match up with the Wildcats. Kansas State has the speed advantage, but OSU is the more physical team.
"I think we match up real well," he said. "Probably a lot better than most people think we do. Two great defenses and I just think this is one of those games that is going to go 60 minutes."
Stepanovich has been impressed with the resiliency of K-State.
"I think they do a good job of improving as the game goes on," he said. "I think Oklahoma was hitting them early with a lot of things and they're smart players and they adjust well on the run. As games have gone on in their season, they've gotten a lot better in the second half and shut a lot of teams down."
Finally, we asked Stepanovich his take on the future of the O-line at OSU.
"Oh, I think it's in really good shape for the next two years. You've got Nick (Mangold) and Robbie (Sims) who have been starters this year and played a lot last year, you've got Mike (Kne) who's solid and keeps getting better, and you've got a lot of hungry young guys that are going to push each other. I think there is a solid corps of about eight guys and they'll all have a chance to play together for a couple years, except Mike."