The Buckeyes started the year No. 11 in the Associated Press poll and No. 10 in the USA Today coaches' poll but No. 1 in many of their brains.
However, a team that the year prior had had the top ranking gifted to it at the start of the season – and which did nothing to dissuade that opinion until the national title game – knew that getting to the national title game would require more than just talent.
The Buckeyes have done what they might not have been favored to do but believed they could at the start of the season: reach the No. 1 ranking at the end of the season and qualify for the BCS National Championship Game for the second year in a row.
"I think coming in you see the people you've got," senior fullback Tyler Whaley said. "Ohio State is definitely never a rebuilding team; it's always a reloading team. So you know coming in that you have the talent to do it. It's basically if your guys have the cohesiveness and you get together and you make it happen."
After all, not many would say that there is much of a talent difference between teams like the Trojans and Sooners and, on the other hand, Ohio State. In fact, some might say the former two squads have more talent on hand, but they each fell twice during the regular season and thus did not get to Ohio State's perch at the top.
So many other factors often play into which teams are able to play for a championship, and talent isn't always the determining factor.
Luck always plays a huge role, and lady luck didn't appear to be a Sooner when quarterback Sam Bradford fell injured during a critical late-season clash with Texas Tech. Then there's the mental side, which appeared to do in USC during its loss to 40-point underdog Stanford.
A look at the many factors that go into a championship run shows how a team cannot plan on one going into a season.
"At the beginning of the year, you look at this team and say, ‘Man, we have a lot of talent,' but you don't know how good you're going to be," linebacker Marcus Freeman said.
And unlike 2002, when Ohio State dropped highly rated teams Texas Tech and Washington State during the preconference slate, and last year, when the Buckeyes were No. 1 from the beginning, there really was no moment the Buckeyes could point to that truly showed them they were a championship-caliber team.
The team's opener against lower-division Youngstown State was an easy 38-6 win, but the Buckeyes didn't exactly pile up style points. None were given a week later when in-state Mid-American Conference foe Akron forced five Buckeye turnovers during an ugly 20-2 OSU victory. Even the squad's first road win, a 33-14 triumph at eventual last-place Pacific-10 squad Washington during the third week, came after a slow start that showed plenty of flaws.
However, the Buckeyes themselves knew to escape 3-0 was a victory itself.
"Even when we started off a little rough on the early season – everybody was like ‘Well, they're playing MAC teams and they're not getting it done the way they should be' – we still knew what we had," captain Dionte Johnson said.
As the conference season started a week later with a dominating win over Northwestern, the Buckeyes seemed to take off. A routine win over Minnesota led into a second straight road night game, this one at Purdue, and the Buckeyes totally stifled a potent Boilermaker offense on the way to a 23-7 win.
At that point, Ohio State had a 6-0 record and was at the halfway pole.
"You could see us getting better every week and getting better suited with our identity that we developed," Whaley said. "I think halfway through the season you were pretty good in the idea that if we stay and keep doing it and playing our game, we can make it back."
Two home wins – one against nonconference opponent Kent State and another against a mid-level Big Ten team in Michigan State – led into yet another big test, this one at Penn State against the 24th-ranked Nittany Lions in an electric night atmosphere. All Ohio State did was demolish the home-standing Nittany Lions, winning 38-17 against a team that could not stop the Buckeye offense all night.
"We beat a good Purdue team, and by the time we got to Penn State and we had it rolling, we said, ‘Hey, we can get to the national championship game if we continue to play the way we've been playing,'" Freeman said.
Ohio State's end-of-season gauntlet included games against teams in New Year's Day bowls in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. Of course, a 28-21 loss to the Fighting Illini dented the Buckeyes' title hopes, but a season-ending 14-3 win at No. 23 Michigan and college football's crazy year took care of the rest.
For the Buckeyes, the realization of their goals and an appearance in the national title game were the result of the belief that started even before the season began and was strengthened throughout the season.
"If we didn't think that, then we wouldn't be here," Johnson said. "It all started and ended when Coach (Jim) Tressel asked the upperclassmen, ‘What are some of the key things for this year?' I said, 'Believe.' A lot of the people said 'Believe.' "