Part of what makes college football the greatest sport in the world is the passion of those who watch it—even as that passion devolves into its regrettable (and inevitable) offspring, cruelty and hate.
The spirit of the hometown crowd. The bitterness of the rivalries. The sadistic sense of schadenfreude every time a division opponent falls. All of it injects the game with a unique blend of energy, and all of it—well, most of it—is good for the sport.
But for fans of the Big Ten, this season is the exception that proves the rule. With the conference teetering on the edge of mediocrity and only one team in the top 20 of the current BCS standings, it's time for league fans to swallow their pride and rep the only horse left in the derby.
Rooting for Ohio State is sacrilege, and it might feel dirty or unnatural.
But so is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
I'm aware that this argument might be unpopular. I expect it to be. And in the interest of semi-full disclosure, I am a lifelong fan of a Big Ten team that isn't Ohio State.
The notion of rooting for the Buckeyes—something that goes against every fiber of my gut—took some time to grapple and cope with. But at the end of the day, my interest is my own program. I follow my head instead of my heart.
As a utilitarian football fan, my hope, over time, is to create the maximum amount of happiness relative to suffering. Whichever outcome produces the best pleasure-pain quotient is the one I am inclined to root for.
Ohio State finishing the year undefeated and enjoying success on a national stage, in the short term, would skew that ratio toward suffering. It would be painful to watch in every respect. But looking down the line, it would actually benefit my team—and by extension, my experience as a fan—in the not-too-distant future.
High school prospects want to play for the best teams in the nation, but if they can't, their closest alternative is to play against the best teams in the nation. Nobody wants to join a conference that finishes the year with no Top 10 teams. How is that league supposed to help them grow and, eventually, propel them to the NFL?
Ohio State has already struggled with teams like Iowa and Northwestern this year. Even if last week's blowout of Penn State was a turning point, those results cannot be expunged from the record.
Think about the transitive-property recruiting implications!
If Ohio State wins the BCS National Championship, and you're a fan of Northwestern or Iowa, that means your team is capable of playing with anyone in the country. That means your program is capable of playing with anyone in the country.
If you could give the Buckeyes all they could handle, and the Buckeyes can hang with Alabama or Oregon in the national title game, that means the line between your program and national relevance is a fine one.
The transitive property—as it relates to sports—is a very inexact science, but high school prospects don't know that. So long as the Big Ten conference has a national contender, this year does not need to be a step in the wrong direction.
Which is important. In terms of recruiting, more so than any other facet, the Big Ten cannot afford another step in the wrong direction this year.
Ohio State will always dominate the state of Ohio and Michigan will always dominate the state of Michigan, if for no other reasons than budget and resources. But beyond that, the Big Ten's two most fertile recruiting states are Illinois and Indiana. Those are areas ripe with 4- and 5-star prospects that should theoretically be suiting up for Big Ten schools.
According to the 247Sports' composite rankings, here is where the top three players from each of those states committed last season:
|Top Three Recruits From Indiana and Illinois in 2013|
|Jaylon Smith||OLB||2||IN||Notre Dame|
|Laquon Treadwell||WR||14||IL||Ole Miss|
|Source: 247Sports Composite|
This isn't a fluke, either. It's a trend.
Of the three top players from Indiana and Illinois in the 2014 recruiting class, one has committed to Ohio State, one has committed to Notre Dame, one has committed to UCLA, one has committed to Tennessee and two are essential locks to choose SEC schools, according to the 247Sports "crystal ball."
If those commitments and projections hold true to form, it would mean that 11 of the last 12 top-three players from Indiana and Illinois fled the Big Ten. High school players are buying into the conference's diminished stock, opting to leave their hometowns and travel across the country for a chance to play against superior competition.
Ohio State is the Big Ten's only chance of dethroning the SEC, which has won seven consecutive national titles. And being the conference that dethrones the SEC is the Big Ten's best chance of feigning (or actually restoring) that superiority.
It's blasphemous to think about, but the better Ohio State does, the better your roster might look in two or three years. And the better your roster looks in two or three years, the better your chance of maximizing pleasure as a fan.
At the end of the day, isn't that what fandom is all about?
There are obvious caveats to this theory. Don't root for Ohio State to beat your own team. That goes without saying. If your school is the one that doles out the Buckeyes' first loss, it would work unspeakable wonders for your program—much more than coming close and eventually seeing Ohio State play in Pasadena.
But when OSU suits up against another conference opponent—say, at Michigan in the season's final week—you might want to think twice about seeing red and feeling conditioned to root against it.
I understand your inclination to do so. The thought of profound sadness on Urban Meyer's face gets me excited to the point of tears. It's tough to fight an instinct that's embedded in your DNA, especially after it's been reinforced through years of unapologetic homerism.
But it's also foolish to let spite trump logic. Ohio State has a chance to restore this conference's name—and the better our name, the better our collective future. Perception is reality in the mind of high school recruits, and the perception surrounding our conference right now is a bleak one.
There's a quote from Les Miserables, the epic by Victor Hugo, that perfectly sums up the Big Ten going forward: "Be it true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence upon their lives, and especially upon their destinies, as what they do."
Ohio State has a chance to flip the Big Ten narrative—to change what is said about the conference, be it true or false—and in turn improve our destinies. If the BCS era ends with a Big Ten school on top, so too does the CFP era begin.
Some chains are only as strong as their weakest link. But the Big Ten is only as weak as its strongest. If Ohio State can carry the conference flag to new heights, reports of its demise will be nipped in the bud. For the good of my team and the conference at large, that is what I'm forced to root for.
Now excuse me while I go gargle soap.