Ohio State is one of the healthiest programmes in college football by any realistic, objective standard. Since 2012, the Buckeyes have only lost 14 games, one fewer than Alabama in the same time period. They are one of only six programmes to have won a national championship in the last decade. And, with the exception of Alabama and Clemson, they will compete in the College Football Playoff for the fifth time on Saturday.
Surprisingly, narratives often matter more than results in this sport. And the narrative surrounding Ohio State hasn’t been kind, especially in the last month.
The Buckeyes are aware of this. They can’t help but know it because, for the second year in a row, they were blown out by Michigan on Nov. 26, a loss so crushing that they spent the next week convinced they were doomed to another listless month of preparation for a bowl they didn’t want to play in.
“We went to the Rose Bowl last year and won the Rose Bowl,” receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. said. “That was excellent, but it was a failure.”
If the standard for Ohio State is playoff-or-bust, then the opportunity to face No. 1 Georgia here means the season has been a success. As difficult as the task ahead may appear, there are 128 Bowl Subdivision programmes that would gladly take Ohio State’s place.
However, it is not quite that simple. Though the Buckeyes will be forever grateful for this opportunity, for a second chance that wasn’t guaranteed, what happens on New Year’s Eve feels like a watershed moment — both for the current iteration of Ohio State football and, more importantly, for the narrative and mood that surrounds it.
These are, of course, much more difficult to define than wins and losses. But you’ll recognise it when you see it. And at Ohio State, the dividing line isn’t necessarily whether you win a national championship, but whether you compete at a level where you can.
Anyone who follows college football closely would never have guessed that Ohio State is on the wrong side of that line until the Michigan loss in 2021. But, after a second consecutive Wolverine thrashing, it’s unclear whether the Buckeyes are built to compete at the highest level of the game, or whether they’ve devolved into a soft, finesse programme whose culture caves in when physically challenged by similarly talented teams.
“I think we’ve had a really good month overall,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I believe there has been an emphasis on extremely high levels of execution. At practise, I believe there has been an emphasis on overall physicality. As we finished our work in Columbus, you could feel the energy as (we) drove down here.”
Of course, Day will say that, but fans aren’t interested in empty promises anymore. Day was promoted in 2019 to carry on the work of Urban Meyer, who had mostly succeeded over the previous seven seasons.
Meyer had gotten the Buckeyes to the point where they weren’t just dominating the Big Ten, but transcending it, despite a few on-field hiccups and the controversy that eventually forced him out. Ohio State may have played a Big Ten schedule, but it had the aura of an SEC powerhouse capable of competing with the Alabamas and Clemsons every year.
But you can only fall short of that expectation so many times before everyone realises it’s no longer valid. That is why the stakes of this game are so high for Ohio State.
Nobody could be mad at Day for losing to Alabama in the national championship game, 52-24, at the end of a difficult season defined by COVID-19 in 2020. Last year, however, Ohio State was undeniably defeated by the two most physical teams on its schedule, Oregon and Michigan.
That’s why beating the Wolverines this time was critical for Ohio State. That’s why they restructured their defensive coaching staff, bringing in coordinator Jim Knowles after a successful season at Oklahoma State. It’s why they talked about physical toughness and proving they could run the ball all season.
So it’s understandable that there’s equal parts dread and celebration in Columbus as the Buckeyes prepare to face a Georgia team that is essentially a more talented version of the Wolverines.
“I’m expecting people to fold, twist, change, and turn on me. “It’s nothing new,” quarterback C.J. Stroud explained. “That’s what it is. You have to go out there and play the game for the sake of playing. If we start playing the way everyone else wants us to play and doing the things everyone else wants us to do, I think we’ll fall behind schedule, not be Buckeyes, and not be who we are to get here, so I’m not surprised.”
In some ways, it’s an unfortunate microcosm of what college football has become that, despite winning 45 of their last 50 games, Ohio State fans rarely get to enjoy much of anything these days, or that even their own players refer to a Rose Bowl-winning season as a failure because they didn’t make the College Football Playoff.
However, everything in the ecosystem of these elite programmes has been geared toward its impact on national championships. For example, Ohio State recently lost the commitment of five-star quarterback Dylan Raiola and failed to close the deal on five-star edge rusher Damon Wilson, who chose Georgia. The Buckeyes currently have the No. 6 recruiting class, and everything that has happened in the last month only adds to the sense that they have fallen behind.
“Pretty high expectations,” said running back Chip Trayanum. “But that’s why you’ve come here. “As long as we get this big one, I think all that noise will go away.”
If the Buckeyes defeat Georgia, it will not only validate everything Ohio State has worked for. It’ll be as if the angst never happened. Even if they come close, they may be able to regain some confidence.
However, if Ohio State once again appears to be competing in a lower weight class than the best programme in college football, there will be no way to reconcile the disparity between its fan base’s mood and Day’s winning percentage as head coach.
Day undoubtedly wishes to win a national championship with the Buckeyes one day. But, for the time being, changing the narrative even slightly is far more important to his long-term prospects.