Ohio State's Urban Meyer Will Play Underdog Card vs. Alabama

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterDecember 26, 2014

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — He hasn't had to play it often—at least not in the past eight years—but when he has, Urban Meyer has thrived in the role of underdog.

It's an interesting paradox, with one of the most successful coaches in college football history's best work having come when he's been able to instill a "nobody believes in us" mentality in his teams. And as No. 4 Ohio State enters the first College Football Playoff as a nine-point underdog (per Odds Shark) to No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it's exactly the type of approach that Meyer will hope to make the most of as his team prepares to face the Crimson Tide on New Year's Day.

"Big," Meyer said with a smile to match when it was mentioned to him that the Buckeyes aren't favored against Alabama.

"We're not there yet, we'll see what kind of team we've got," he continued, before adding another, "big, big" for good measure.

If history is any indication, Meyer will do his best to convince his team that its collective back is against the wall. After all, that was the approach that first established him as one of college football's top coaches and helped him capture the first of his two national championships.

That was eight years ago, and rather than coaching the Buckeyes, Meyer was preparing to take on Ohio State as the head coach of Florida. Entering the 2007 BCS National Championship Game with one loss compared to the undefeated Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the Gators were a one-touchdown underdog, seemingly lucky to just be taking part in the title game.

That was just fine with Meyer, who on multiple occasions has described his 2006 Florida squad as the "angriest" team that he's ever coached. Only adding to the Gators' rage was literally 10 feet worth of bulletin board material that was prominently placed in the Florida team hotel—or as Meyer later admitted, "10 feet of nonsense."

"Half of it was real and half of it was made up. And the half that was made up, I signed 'Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN,'" Meyer said in the 2009 book, Urban's Way. "I wanted it where they were so disgusted with the team they were playing."

Urban Meyer used the underdog card to help lead Florida to his first BCS championship.
Urban Meyer used the underdog card to help lead Florida to his first BCS championship.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Meyer's message apparently struck a chord with the Gators, who went on to blow out the Buckeyes in a shocking 41-14 routing. Afterward, Meyer didn't downplay the importance of his team's mindset heading into the game.

"That made them angry, extremely angry," he recalled in 2012. "You tell a prideful group of men that have worked real hard that they don’t belong somewhere. Any time you’re dealing with people and say, ‘By the way, you’re not good enough to be here,’ especially if they’ve got a little pride, which that team had a lot of pride—yeah, we used that quite a bit.”

Since capturing his second national championship in three seasons with Florida in 2008, Meyer has typically received the benefit of the doubt from oddsmakers, limiting his number of opportunities to play the underdog card. But when he has, he certainly hasn't shied away from it, especially since taking over Ohio State in 2012.

Just five times in the past three seasons have the Buckeyes not been favored in a game, the first three of which came in 2012 as uncertainty still surrounded Meyer's first season in Columbus. Ohio State would go on to beat Michigan State as a three-point underdog and Wisconsin as a one-point underdog, while also defeating Penn State on the road in a pick 'em game, en route to a perfect 12-0 season.

In 2013, the Buckeyes were favored in each of their 14 games, losing their last two, with Meyer admitting that the program's 24-game winning streak caught up to them.

"I probably wouldn't have admitted it, but I felt it," Meyer said last summer. "I love hungry teams. Complacent is a bad word. Satisfied is a bad word. Angry is a great word. Chip on your shoulder is what I want to see. Do we have that? I don't know yet."

As it turned out, the 2014 Buckeyes did find that chip, with a season-ending injury to star quarterback Braxton Miller and an early-season loss to Virginia Tech turning Ohio State into a two-point underdog at Michigan State. The Buckeyes, however, would walk away from East Lansing with a 49-37 win. They headed to Indianapolis with Wisconsin listed as a three-point favorite in the Big Ten title game.

It was there that Meyer pulled off perhaps his most masterful work since his trip to Glendale eight years ago, as Ohio State performed the biggest point-spread cover of the season with a 59-0 beatdown of the Badgers. That helped the Buckeyes clinch their spot in the College Football Playoff, where they'll be listed as the biggest underdog that they've ever been in three seasons under Meyer.

Despite being a three-point underdog, Ohio State beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Despite being a three-point underdog, Ohio State beat Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game.USA TODAY Sports

And while he wouldn't fully admit it yet, Meyer already appears to be planting that seed in his team's head.

“The big thing is not what they’re saying about us being underdogs but the fact we are underdogs that he will use to motivate us," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "We don’t know a ton of what everybody is saying, we just know they are saying it. He uses that just to get guys excited. Nobody wants to be an underdog and get their butt kicked. You want to be an underdog and prove people wrong."

"We're going in there with a full head of steam with a chip on our shoulder," tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "When we do that, man, it's a scary thing."

Meyer's history as an underdog doesn't disagree.

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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