The rankings

     It seems as though despite the great season Ohio State is enjoying, Buckeye fans are increasingly upset.  The source of their frustrations is not losses (as Ohio State currently has none), coaching decisions (the job this group is doing is excellent overall), off the field issues (though the Buckeyes have been embarrassed with by a number of arrests in recent months).  No, the irritant is none of those.  It is not even an issue with the way the schedule has worked out (Ohio State will have played 12 straight games by the time we face Michigan).

     The bane of the Ohio State fans existence is the blasted polls that come out every week.  Each Sunday, fans have eagerly anticipated the rise of Ohio State after yet another win.  With the exception of a few jumps early in the year, they have been bitterly disappointed.  The past few weeks have been particularly galling for some to watch with Ohio State actually dropping several spots (or being jumped – however you wish to describe it) following victories.  Every Monday is not accompanied by a feeling of joy but one of dread because it is patently obvious that the computers love Notre Dame, Miami, Oklahoma, and basically everyone but the Sisters of the Poor more than they love the Bucks.

     So what should be done?  What is the answer?  Is Ohio State being cheated?

     I have a few thoughts on this subject (which should come as no surprise).  You may agree, you may disagree, but here are my thoughts nonetheless.

     First off, the real problem for Ohio State is one of perception.  The perception among the coaches and the media is that Ohio State will falter late.  This influences voters.  Why put Ohio State at #3 or #2 if they are just going to lose down the stretch and make a fool out of the voter?  Why stick your neck out for a team that has historically fallen in November and January?  Ohio State has nobody to blame but itself for this issue.  Ohio State has not won a national title (AP) since 1968, and the reason is not the schedule, injuries, the incredibly good opponents, pollster bias, the BCS cheating us, etc., etc., etc.  The reason for this is because Ohio State has not won out in November and January since 1968.

Some painful statistics

-         OSU has exactly 2 Rose Bowl victories since January 1, 1969 (1973 and 1996) and 5 losses (1970, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979, and 1984).

-         OSU has won their final two games (UM and their bowl) only 3 times since 1968 (1980, 1981, and 1998).

-         OSU has lost their final two games (UM and Bowl) a staggering 9 times since 1968 (1977, 1978, 1980, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2000).

-         Ohio State has entered November undefeated and untied 11 times since 1968, but not once has it emerged with a perfect mark.

-         Ohio State was in position to play for a national title in 1969, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1993, 1995, 1996, and 1998.  Each time, the deciding factor was not the polls but the players and the coaches.  Three Rose Bowl losses, one tie in the Michigan game, on loss to Michigan State, one tie to Wisconsin, and 4 Michigan losses later, and the dreams for national titles were dashed.

-         Since 1968, Ohio State managed a record of 197-44-3 in August, September, and October.  This is an 81% winning ratio.

-         The numbers for November during from 1968 onward are less impressive with Ohio State managing a 79-31-2 mark and winning percentage of 71%.

-         In her bowls, OSU is a dismal 10-18.  This is a winning percentage of 41.67%.

     Granted, this is a bitter pill to swallow.  Granted, this team is not the squads of the past.  Granted, this coach is not the coaches of the past.  Still, if this were say… Nebraska – would the reaction of the Buckeye fans be any different than that of the pollsters?  Would we not say, "Yeah.  Just wait until they get to tough teams in November, and they will wilt like a summer flower in Antarctica!  Their resolve and their ranking will melt like a snowball in the Sahara."

     If Ohio State can win out or even win all but one of her remaining games, this will do much to alter perceptions.  This will allow the 2003 Buckeyes to walk out onto the field with the respect of the media and pollsters already granted because it was earned by the 2002 team.  Respect must be earned and not just awarded.  Otherwise, it is not worth anything.

     Second, the way the Buckeyes have won this year is not incredibly impressive unless one takes more than a surface glance.  With stories to write, deadlines to meet, headlines to make, and their own bias – the media does not have the time (or the inclination) to sit and watch every Ohio State game.  Most simply look at the score, and unless something points to the need to look deeper – they will base their score upon the simple margin of victory and whether or not Ohio State covered the Vegas line on the game.  When you consider the voting of the pollsters with this in mind, it is easy to see why Ohio State has been jumped several times this season.  The teams that hopped OSU scored more points in both occasions and had a wider margin of victory. 

     Ohio State is going to have to consistently win close ball games to force the media and coaches to consider the driving factor behind the Buckeyes' success is not offense but defense and special teams.  Once they do arrive at this conclusion (as they have with Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech), expect the Buckeyes to get more love.  LOTS more love.  The media is a bit of a slowcoach at times, but hey – give them enough time to figure it out and they just might… I hope.  For what it is worth, they eventually figured it out when it came to the teams of Gene Stallings at Alabama.  It took a full season, but in the end the Tide had all kinds of respect and reporters slobbering on about the defense of Alabama.

     Third, the emergence of Maurice Clarett has been both a positive and a negative for Ohio State.  On the positive side of the coin is the incredible amount of unsolicited publicity for the university and the football program.  It seems like you could not turn on the television set or pass a rack of magazines that did not have some headline about Maurice the first 3 months of the season.  With his injuries over the past few weeks and absence in the Penn State and Cincinnati games, the talk about the Heisman has significantly dropped off.  However, Maurice is still considered synonymous with the Buckeye team right now in the eyes of the media and perhaps even the coaches.  On the negative side of the coin is the perception that Ohio State is a one-man show.  With Clarett's identification as the real reason for the rise of this team from 7-5 to a current 9-0, the pollsters see the Buckeyes as an incomplete team.  They view Ohio State as one great player and a bunch of scrubs who happen to wear a uniform with the same colors.  Really.  The fact that Ohio State has won the two games without Maurice's services by a grand total of 10 points also hurts.  This merely reinforces the notion that without Maurice the Bucks are a mediocre group playing in a mediocre conference. 

     The only way to correct these perceptions are for the Big Ten to play better in her bowl games this year and for Ohio State to blow someone out with Maurice Clarett not having a very good day (or out with an injury).  The media will then be forced to focus on another reason why Ohio State could possibly have won by this particular margin in order to write their story.  This will lead to headlines and comments about the rest of the offensive and the defense and special teams play and will culminate in reporters (and most importantly pollsters) viewing Ohio State as a complete team.

     Fourth, allow me to counsel all the Buckeye fans everywhere to step back from the ledge.  This will work itself out.  This weekend alone, OU has to play a vastly improved Colorado team.  Boston College faces Notre Dame (don't laugh – BC cost the Domers a national title in 1993 when folks basically assumed that Notre Dame would win out after defeating Florida State in South Bend).  Georgia plays Florida in their traditional rivalry game, and the Dawgs are every bit as beat up physically as Ohio State (maybe more).  Ohio State plays a Minnesota team that will be gunning for them every season so long as Mason remains the coach.  It will be his one shot each year to send a message that HE should have been hired over Jim "Division I-AA" Tressel (of course, this also works the other way around).  Virginia Tech faces Pittsburgh; the Panthers are not a great team, but they could give the Hokies all they want and more.  Frankly, I would be shocked if all of the unbeatens emerge unscathed from this weekend's slate of contests.  I will not say it cannot happen, but I will say I expect someone to go down.  Maybe it will be the Buckeyes.  Who knows.  What I do know is that only twice since 1990 have 2 major conference teams ended their season unbeaten and untied – 1994 and 1997.  With 12 games and a bowl for everyone and 13 games and a bowl for teams like Ohio State, Georgia and Oklahoma, with the meeting of Miami and Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, with November just starting, with rivalry games and conference championships still to play?  We need to just sit back and let the wins, losses, and polls work themselves out. 

     Fifth, if all the teams win out and the BCS is forced to choose between OU, Notre Dame, Miami/Va. Tech, Ohio State, and Georgia to play in a national title game?  We can at least enjoy watching the demise of the BCS.  Why?  Undoubtedly the human polls and the BCS polls will disagree.  This will lead to chaos.  An Oklahoma team that is 36-2 since 2000 will scream and dance a jig on the head of ABC, the Bowls, and anyone else if they are passed over for Notre Dame or Ohio State teams with an arguably lesser schedule and mediocre record over the same period.  If Georgia wins and the SEC team is not put in the final game to play for a title, the entire Southeast will once again threaten to secede from the Union and begin seizing Federal buildings like they did Fort Sumter.  The Big Ten, who is all too familiar with poll bias costing their teams chances at titles (1994, 1996, and 1998) will pull out its saber and brandish it behind closed doors to the BCS and the networks if Ohio State goes undefeated and is relegated to the status of an also-ran like 3 other deserving teams over the past decade.  If the Domers are excluded, expect the media to show great sympathy considering Willingham and the Irish have become the feel good story of the year.  Domer fans will cry and blubber and say that they played the toughest schedule in the country (which I disagree with), and they should be the ones playing in that Fiesta Bowl. 

     Sure, ABC and ESPN will try to reassure all of their viewers that the best two teams really did get into the BCS championship game, but the other major networks will not.  In fact, if I were them, I would go out of my way to stir the proverbial pot.  Why not take the opportunity to really rub your competitor's nose in it?  Why not hurt their billion dollar investment?  Yep, if the season ends with 3-5 unbeaten major conference teams (including Notre Dame), then fans can visit the local grocery store, purchase some marshmallows, and roast them over the embers of what was the BCS.

     So what do I expect will happen?  I expect that all but one of the teams will go down in defeat between now and the time of the bowl selection.  At the outside, there will be two teams that manage to survive.  I honestly do not expect Ohio State to be one of them at this point.  The depth is just not there yet for this edition of the Buckeyes.  I would love to be wrong here, but I just believe that we will be bitten by an underdog somewhere in November.  The Bucks have played 8 straight games and must go another 4 without a bye, and to be frank – they are tired.  They look a little worn down, and when you are nicked up – it is easier to be more seriously injured.  How many more injuries can this team afford before it reaches a critical mass and costs the Buckeyes a game?  Grant's ankle is not better and probably will not be the rest of the season.  The offensive line had to rely on a true freshman last week against Penn State.  Ross is nicked up and Hall is playing with an injured hand.  Gamble's use at cornerback, while brilliant, was forced because nobody else could do the job, and McNutt has been forced to quit football because of a chronic ankle condition.  Heaven help the Bucks if Gamble were to be injured.  Clarett is nursing another stinger and according to at least one article I read on this condition – stingers can become habitual.  If they do, then permanent nerve damage and weakness in the affected area could be the result.  Read: there is no guarantee Clarett plays this week, and in fact I would sit him unless the Bucks absolutely have to have him.  Craig just keeps on getting popped by defensive linemen, linebackers, and even charging safeties, but what if he were to go down?  Let's face it folks, this team is just one or two more injuries from disaster.

     I expect the Buckeyes will end the year with an 11-2 or 12-1 mark and play in a major Bowl (possibly even the Rose). 

     Will I be disappointed with 2002 if my prediction comes true? 

     No.  Neither should you.

     This team has played with more heart than any I have seen in my lifetime.  Not since the days of Woody has a Buckeye team shown this much grit and determination.  Throw in the sensational freshman class from 2001 and hopefully another banner year in recruiting to add some much needed depth.  Add the leadership and character of the current coaching staff.  Top it off with the return of 16 starters next season (including 9 on offense, 6 on defense, and Mike Nugent).  Stir it all up in a big pot called the offseason, and you will not be able to resist subscribing to the thought, "The future is so bright – I gotta wear shades."

     Enjoy this season Buckeye fans.  Expect this to become the norm rather than the exception.  If we do not play for a national title this year, understand that we are busy shattering perceptions and setting up 2003 and the years to follow as banner seasons. 

     This glass is more than half full – it is brimming over. 

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