"If you look for perfection, you'll never be content."
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Ohio State is good enough to beat every team on its schedule this year. It's good enough to be favored each week and good enough to cause genuine shock should it lose. It's good enough to warrant all the (vast) preseason accolades it's received.
But winning 25 straight games is a different task entirely, something only special units can do. It's the type of feat that adds a team to college football lore; and good as they might be, despite a "weak" schedule, these Buckeyes are not part of that discussion.
Still, if Ohio State runs the table this year, it would likely enter the BCS National Championship on a 25-game winning streak. Since 1994 (almost 20 years ago!), only three FBS programs have enjoyed a run that long. They are:
- Miami (2000-2002) – 34
- USC (2003-2005) – 34
- Nebraska (1994-1996) – 26
Those are teams that transcended their eras—the type that will be talked about for decades to come. Their success prompts books to be written and documentaries to be cut. They're remembered for pounding opponents into submission, making them beg for mercy, then refusing to acquiesce.
Ohio State needed overtime to beat Purdue.
Here's a closer look at those three programs, specifically how they fared in the first 12 games of their winning streaks:
Which of those things is not like the others?
Ohio State scores like the teams on that list, but it doesn't defend like them. It doesn't even come close—and that was before losing seven starters. If a defense with Jon Hankins and John Simon and Travis Howard surrendered 49 points to Indiana, how successful can this one really be?
Which isn't to say it can't be good. The talent is there in bunches. Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby will be first-round picks in April; sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington might follow soon after. But for the defense, as a whole, to coalesce and become great this quickly? It's hard to expect that much.
And yes, technically, last year's defense was also shaky but "good enough" to go undefeated. That can't be disputed, but it actually makes the chances of repeating much slimmer. Not every team that's capable of running the table actually does. The odds of a fringe-capable team doing it twice in a row are not good.
In simpler terms: Last year's team, though 12-0, really had the profile of a nine- or 10-win squad. It finished 14th in Football Outsiders' F/+ Rankings, one spot ahead of 7-6 Michigan State (whom it beat by just one point) and two spots behind 8-5 Oklahoma State.
It also went 2-0 in overtime and 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, metrics that regress to the mean over time.
There's a difference between "good enough" to run the table and "going" to run the table. Ohio State is stuck somewhere between the two. 2012 was a splendid and magical year, but that luck repeating itself—at such an extraordinary magnitude—is more than just unlikely.
It's without precedent.
Ignore the paradox and try, if you will, to accept this theory: Though any game the Buckeyes lose would be an upset, so too would be a year in which they don't lose any game.
It's hard to project when and where they might go down. Ohio State should probably not be wagered against this season, especially on the money line. But the whole—the feat of another perfect year—is different than the sum of its parts.
Many Ohio State fans, whether they realize it or not, use a two-part syllogism to justify impending perfection. It looks something like this:
Premise No. 1: Any team that goes 12-0 is good enough to go undefeated.
Premise No. 2: OSU went 12-0 last season.
Conclusion No. 1: OSU was good enough to go undefeated last season.
Premise No. 3: OSU is better (or at least as good) this season than it was last season.
Premise No. 4: If a team is better than (or at least as good as) a team that was good enough to go undefeated, that team is also good enough to go undefeated.
Conclusion No. 2: OSU is good enough to go undefeated this season.
That argument is valid—if all the premises are true, so are the conclusions—but everything after Conclusion No. 1 isn't sound. Premise No. 3 is subjective and needs to be proven, and Premise No. 4 is simply flawed.
Whether or not Ohio State is better in 2013 than it was in 2012 remains to be seen. Arguments could be made in both directions, and both sides could make very interesting points. Because it's not yet fact, it's logically futile; but it could turn into fact soon enough.
The bigger problems lie with Premise No. 4, the major premise, the biggest flight of fancy most Buckeye fans make. Football—and really any sport—is a context-driven endeavor. You can't sort teams by final record and assume it ranks them in order of skill.
Everything depends on when and where and what and whom.
The question isn't how good the Buckeyes are relative to last year's team; the question is how good they are relative to this year's opponents.
According to Phil Steele's College Football Preview, Ohio State was one of two power-conference teams (AAC/Big East excluded) that never played a top-19 opponent last season. It played teams that finished 2012 in the top 19, but none of them were ranked that high when they battled OSU.
No matter how Charmin-soft its schedule looks in August, Ohio State will not repeat that luck. In 2011, it played four top-19 opponents; in 2010, it played two; the two years before that each included three.
The Big Ten has six of the top 26 teams in the preseason AP poll. Michigan and Northwestern could be ranked in the Top 15 when the Buckeyes play them on the road. Who knows how good Wisconsin and California will be with new (and highly successful) coaches? What about the Purdue rematch in West Lafayette?
Someone on the Buckeyes' schedule will catch them at the right time, play them on a C-plus afternoon and finally make them pay.
Which all harks back to Premise No. 4, the faulty premise from above. Even if OSU is as good (or slightly better) than it was last season, that doesn't mean it's running the table. Last year's team went 12-0, but it wasn't really an "undefeated squad." Its record, by almost every statistical measure, was an outlier that can't in good order repeat.
Ohio State can be great this year, and it almost certainly will be. Most teams would be thrilled with a one- or two-loss record; but if the Buckeyes seek perfection, they'll never be content. There's a good chance their season still ends in Pasadena.
It just won't be in the game they're hoping for.
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