Despite holding down the top spot in the BCS standings and therefore entering the national championship game as the nation's top team, a host of factors have led the Buckeyes to take on the title of the underdog in the contest against No. 2 LSU on Monday night. With the game taking place in New Orleans, senior captain Kirk Barton has likened the situation to Rocky IV when the title character goes to Russia to compete in a boxing match.
But it appears that underdog sentiment could apply to either squad for the title game. The Tigers enter the game as the odds-on favorite despite being ranked behind OSU and after suffering two regular-season losses.
As a result, the Tigers said on Friday that they do not really feel like the favorite.
"I think that the media is going around creating this so-called underdog with Ohio State, which is totally not true at all," LSU junior center Brett Helms said. "They're No. 1. They have a great football team. I think that maybe we get more respect, but I don't think we should. I think they're a very good football team, and I think this underdog stuff, I think that's just for the media to create buzz about."
That much appears to be the case concerning the nation as a whole, but the Tigers do enter the game as the favorites according to the casinos. A check at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon saw the Tigers as anywhere from a 3.5- to a 4.5-point favorite.
OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said the coaching staff is not doing anything drastically differently to underscore the feeling of being an underdog. Still, the players did receive a 10-minute DVD put together by the coaching staff full of clips of national media members writing off the Buckeyes as being outmatched by the Tigers.
"I think there's probably a natural instinct when someone says you're not really good to react to it and when somebody says you're really really good to react, but I still think it's going to come down to who executes," he said. "Whether they are favored or we're favored, all those things are things to talk about but it's still going to come down to who executes on the field."
The Buckeyes enter the game seeking to avenge their 41-14 loss to Florida in last season's BCS National Championship Game against a team from the same conference. Since the final pairings were released, it has been hard to watch a sports show or read an article about the Buckeyes without a mentioning of the fact that OSU is 0-8 lifetime against SEC teams in bowl games.
Those numbers, combined with the perception that the Buckeyes have not played a particularly difficult schedule this season, have helped to create a sentiment that OSU should not be playing in the title game.
Don't tell LSU that, however. The Tigers are entering the game with respect for the Buckeyes, particularly for their defense. Helms said he feels the game will pit them against their toughest challenge of the season while tailback Jacob Hester said he isn't sure how LSU will find ways to run the ball against them.
"They're definitely No. 1 in the country and we're definitely No. 2," Hester said. "We're just trying to be where they're at. They definitely deserve to be the No. 1 team in the country. They're definitely doing something special. We're just trying to give them a good game and hopefully we can be No. 1 in the end."
It helps that the Buckeyes were in a similar position one season ago. After a perfect 12-0 regular season capped by a 42-39 victory against Michigan, OSU entered the title game as the unquestioned No. 1 team in the country and expected to simply roll over the Gators en route to the title.
This time, OSU returns as the No. 1 team but wiser for the experience – and relishing the chance to play the role of the underdog.
"It's good to come under the radar and not expect too much from us, because that drives us," sophomore defensive end Doug Worthington said. "It's good not to have all the spotlight on you. I think being able to play the underdog role in this game does nothing but good things for this team."
Assuming that they are, in fact, the underdogs in the game.
"Coaches always say you can't listen to stuff like that," LSU sophomore left tackle Ciron Black said. "If they hear someone talking like that about them, that's just going to give them more reason to come out there and give us their hardest game."
Does that mean he feels most people think OSU is the underdog?
"I have no idea what people think," he said. "I can only speak for myself and I know we're going to have to come prepared."