On Nov. 4, Ohio State seemed to have been eliminated from College Football Playoff contention. No two-loss team had ever made the playoff and the Buckeyes didn’t just lose their second game of the year — they were demolished 55-24 by Iowa.
But chaos reigned. Notre Dame, Alabama, TCU, Miami (Fla.), Washington and Georgia lost in the following weeks. In a wild twist of fate, Ohio State re-entered the discussion for a playoff spot. Last week, playoff committee chair Kirby Hocutt said there was “very little separation” between then-No. 5 Alabama and then-No. 8 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes made their final statement Saturday by handing No. 4 Wisconsin its only loss of the season, defeating the Badgers 27-21 in the Big Ten championship game. But less than 24 hours after the team celebrated amid confetti and thousands of scarlet-and-gray-clad fans, the joy turned to despair.
After a painfully long lead-up to the reveal on the playoff selection show, the Crimson Tide logo popped up in the No. 4 spot, leaving Ohio State on the outside looking in.
“You’re definitely devastated,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said. “Whenever you have so many guys, internally, as a man, that you know, that you put so much work in, you’re so invested. If you’re not devastated then you probably didn’t put the work in.”
The selection will sting, redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett said, especially since he believes his team is one of the best four in the country. But he said the Buckeyes did what they could down the stretch; it just turned out it did not impress the committee enough to pick them instead of Alabama.
Ohio State’s dreams of a playoff never would have existed without other teams’ help. They were resuscitated due to team after team playing themselves out of the playoff. But that allowed players, coaches and fans to regain hope, only to have it crushed again despite finishing the season with wins against Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Head coach Urban Meyer was far from pleased at a press conference less than three hours after the announcement that his team would not be competing in the playoff in back-to-back seasons. He said he sunk into his chair while watching on TV because he thought his team would make the cut.
But Meyer also was not devastated, as Worley said he felt. The weight of uncertainty seemed to have been lifted off him. Meyer said the younger version of himself would struggle to eat and sleep, but he has learned to move on from such disappointments.
For Ohio State, moving on means redirecting its focus winning the Big Ten — a goal which it completed on Saturday — to a game against USC in the Cotton Bowl, a consolation prize for a team that expects to be in the playoff each and every year.
The Trojans present an intriguing matchup, one that will include quarterback Sam Darnold, who is a projected early first-round NFL draft pick; running back Ronald Jones, who has 1,486 yards on a 6.1-yards-per-carry average, and four defenders who each has at least six sacks. The Buckeyes have not beaten the Trojans in the past seven matchups, dating back to 1974 when Meyer was just 9 years old.
“That’s a traditionally rich program right there. Just like Ohio State,” Worley said. “They’ve had some crazy guys come through there. And I actually remember the battles when I was younger and just watching them play, watching some of the guys that I know playing in those games and things like that. It’s going to be fun.”
The playoff was always an attainable goal and, given how veteran this group of players is, not reaching it could be viewed as a failure. The Buckeyes obviously had bigger plans, which Meyer understands.
“You have to understand they’re not kind of disappointed,” Meyer said. “They’re probably devastated.”
He thought his team was in the playoff. But he said he stared at the TV and stopped thinking about what could have been, and turned his attention to the bowl game.
“There’s a group of players now that really deserve that opportunity,” Meyer said. “And that’s what I thought about.”
They won’t get the ultimate prize of a national championship, but Meyer wants Ohio State’s 19 seniors to be sent off with a win and trophies. That began with winning a Big Ten championship Saturday night and will continue with a chance to end the streak and defeat Darnold and the Trojans in Dallas on Dec. 29.