One of the great characteristics of the game of football is the fact that anything is possible in a single game. Unlike other sports that choose a best-of series format to declare a winner, football is decided in one game. A single, epic event that requires the favored team to prove itself and the underdog the opportunity to remind us that on any given day anything can happen.
Following the Ohio State loss to Florida in the BCS National Championship game in January of 2007, I wrote the loss off as a freak occurrence.
A night when Florida somehow robbed the heavens of thunder and lightning sending it directly to a defensive line that appeared to be shot out of a cannon every snap. A night where anything that could go wrong did, and the better team lost. A night where the heavily favored Buckeyes were caught so off guard by Florida, the failure to execute physically started to become mental.
It was like watching a prized fighter knocked down for the first time, not entirely sure how to shake it off. Nearly four years later, on the eve of a probable Sugar Bowl match-up with Arkansas, my concern is that what I witnessed that day has become a familiar trend.
Jim Tressel has spoiled Buckeye nation with expectations that soar higher than the C Deck at Ohio Stadium year in and year out. He has righted every John Cooper wrong in the Michigan series. He has conducted himself, his players and the program with a first class approach that has placed Ohio State football among the elite programs in the nation.
With these sky high expectations, however, it's no wonder that every loss is so heavily scrutinized. Ohio State fans are smart. Sure the losses sting, but they see the bigger picture. The Rich Rodriguez fiasco unfolding in Michigan reminds us that no program is too elite to fall on hard times. In the big picture of where Ohio State football has been and where it has gone under Tressel, I can easily forgive a loss here and there.
My concern, however, is not the losses. Sure they hurt, but it's bigger than that. I used to write it off as a specific group of players, but I can no longer do that.The players who took the field that night against Florida have long since graduated or moved on, but the pattern endures.
I write so vaguely about this affliction not to build suspense, but because I honestly cannot put my finger on what it is. I sometimes wonder if this ailment inflicting the team is contagious, because as a fan I feel it myself.
Ohio State had a lead in both BCS National Championship games that they lost. For some reason though, the opponent was never under it's influence. They were not shaken by the early deficits. They kept their heads up, and regrouped. They kept fighting. They found themselves in a hole but clawed their way back by believing in themselves. By adjusting. By executing.
Ohio State is a storied program, boasting one of best fan bases in all of college football. Many players don't become Buckeyes the first time they put on a scarlet and grey uniform, but rather they are born and raised Buckeyes.
Far too often in games on the biggest stage, it's almost as if they lose that sense of pride.
The mark of a champion rests as much in mental toughness as it does with physical ability. When faced with adversity on the biggest stage, Ohio State seems to lose it's focus so easily. Far too often players appear lost rather than composed after a turnover. Teammates angry at one another rather than gathering their rage and directing it at their opponent. Too often I see them standing alone on the sidelines with a look of defeat and time left on the clock.
As a fan, perhaps you can relate. It's an awful feeling that almost makes the game seem like a loss even before the outcome is decided.
I felt it during the Wisconsin game. Did you?
Where is the passion? Where does the focus go? Where is the fire? Where is the player who grabs his teammates by the face mask and forces them to snap out of a living nightmare, reminding them that they are Ohio State and everything that's on the line starts with the next series?
And if we see it yet again against Arkansas, who is to blame?
They say any organization inevitably takes on the personality of its leader. Is Tressel to blame? Is it his conservativeness? Perhaps his approach is too soft. Perhaps it respects the opponent to a fault, rather than developing the killer instinct needed to execute a victory. The mark of a great coach rests with his ability to make adjustments and corrections when problems arise. Why then does this keep happening, and is it greater than just X's and O's?
As proud as the Buckeye nation is, there are those who love to watch them fail.
There are critics who claim it's their lack of speed or that the program is overrated. To those who question Ohio State I ask you to go look at the 2007 rosters of Ohio State and Florida. Examine the names and try to convince anyone that Florida was the most talented team. Go study the rosters of every NFL team, or the history of the players drafted from Ohio State and try to convince anyone they are overrated.
The truth is that despite the losses against Florida, LSU or Texas, they deserved to be in those games, and on that stage. Despite a loss this year at Wisconsin, they deserved to be ranked number one.
The question that remains unanswered is what happens in those losses and who is to blame? Why do they keep happening in the deflating style where the team loses its swagger? And perhaps most importantly why has it become a trend?
If Ohio State is going to take the last leap from consistent contender to consistent champion, it must be corrected.
As Buckeye nation prepares for a post holiday showdown in another BCS bowl game on a huge stage, we pray that whatever it is, it will spare us. Because if it happens yet again, a painful realization may occur that this is the norm. This is to be expected. And even more painful, perhaps the National Championship game in 2002 was actually the real fluke occurrence.