INDIANAPOLIS – If a championship is what Urban Meyer and the Ohio State football team were chasing in 2013, those who return to OSU for the 2014 football season will have to remain in pursuit.
Even though the Buckeyes started Urban Meyer’s coaching tenure by winning 24 consecutive games dating back to last season, some critics still said OSU did not deserve a selection to the BCS National Championship Game. That criticism was based on the perception that OSU would not be able to contend with Florida State, Auburn or another one of college football’s elite teams.
The Buckeyes finally had a chance to validate their success Saturday when they played Michigan State, the first top-10 opponent OSU played since its school-record win streak began.
They validated the criticism instead.
OSU’s offense managed to put up 273 rushing yards against the nation’s No. 1-ranked rushing defense, but its lack of success on crucial downs (1-of-10 on third-down conversion attempts, 0-of-2 on fourth-down attempts) proved costly. The OSU defense gave up 438 yards, including five plays of 20 yards or more, and four touchdowns.
The units’ struggles resulted in a 34-24 loss, OSU’s first defeat since finishing a 6-7 season with a loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 2, 2012.
After being ineligible to play in a bowl game at the end of their 12-0 season last year, it appeared that even after the Buckeyes extended their streak with a victory against Michigan Nov. 30, an undefeated OSU could be deprived of the opportunity to play for a national championship again, in part due to that criticism. But when then-No. 1 ranked Alabama lost to Auburn later that night, Saturday’s conference title game turned into a chance for the Buckeyes to punch their ticket to the BCS National Championship.
Albeit the criticism its strength of schedule received along the way, OSU had earned the chance to play its way into a national championship by completing a second consecutive regular season without a loss. As the No. 2 team in the BCS standings with a .027-point advantage over No. 3 Auburn, a win against a top-10 team Saturday was likely to be enough for OSU to hold its position in the standings, even with Auburn’s win earlier in the day against No. 5-ranked Missouri.
But while the Buckeyes’ winning streak put them in that position, they still needed a win Saturday to prove their standing as one of college football’s best teams.
OSU’s only win this season against a team currently ranked in the top 25 is their Sept. 28 victory against Wisconsin, who entered Saturday as the No. 21 team in the BCS standings. Last season, only two of OSU’s wins came against teams who finished the season ranked in the AP Top 25; those two teams, Nebraska and Michigan, were No. 24 and No. 25 teams in the final poll.
The Buckeyes finally had to play a top-10 team Saturday, a Michigan State team that might have ended up in a BCS bowl even with a loss to OSU. While the game’s outcome does not necessarily prove Michigan State is a better team than OSU, Michigan State was the better team Saturday night, all but proving right the critics who had said all along the Buckeyes were not one of the nation’s two best teams.
“That probably is the best team that we’ve faced in the past two years,” said junior linebacker Ryan Shazier of Michigan State following Saturday’s loss. “They beat us.”
Saturday’s loss does not eliminate OSU’s win streak or regular-season success from the record books. The Buckeyes still deserve a great deal of credit for winning 12 consecutive games, a challenging feat regardless of who a team’s competition is, to start its seasons two years in a row. But for a team whose facility has been emblazoned all season by banners trumpeting “The Chase,” the expectations were higher.
OSU will not be playing for a national championship after its longest winning streak in school history, but it’s not because they didn’t have a fair shot.