This was the year.
Or so it felt for much of the Ohio State football season.
Sure, the Buckeyes are always elite in the relative college football landscape, falling out of the top 10 in the final Associated Press Poll just twice this decade, and placing top 5 seven times –– if you count this year. But many of those teams had glaring flaws.
The defense doomed the 2013 team, giving up nearly 40 points a game to its final three opponents, dropping the final two games of the year after riding a nation-high 24-game winning streak.
With one of the most talented rosters in program history, the 2015 defending national champion Buckeyes couldn’t get it together on offense, trapped under a season-long quarterback and play-calling conundrum that cost them another chance at the College Football Playoff.
Offensive issues befell the 2016 iteration too, as a lack of top-level offensive weapons and imagination spelled doom for the Buckeyes when they laid a 31-0 egg in a beatdown loss to Clemson in the playoff.
Matched up with Clemson in the semifinal once again this year, it was supposed to be different. And it was, in all but the resulting outcome.
Decades from now, historians, fans and spectators alike may look back on the 2018 and ’19 seasons of Buckeye football, see the identical 13-1 records, and move on with the assumption that in both years, Ohio State just wasn’t good enough to hang with the big boys in college football.
And that’s what makes Saturday’s 29-23 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl so frustrating for Ohio State fans –– because they were good enough. Or should have been.
Head coach Ryan Day and the Buckeyes didn’t struggle to run the ball this season, as in 2018. In fact, it was largely the strength of the offense behind a record-setting season from junior running back J.K. Dobbins, who nearly doubled his sophomore season output.
They didn’t struggle to throw it either, as first-year starting quarterback Justin Fields was a Heisman finalist, tossing 40 touchdowns to just one interception entering college football’s Final Four.
Despite occasional slow starts against the likes of Indiana, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Ohio State’s most well-balanced offensive attack in years was top 5 in both scoring and yards.
The biggest fix was on defense, where Ohio State gave up the most yards on average in school history in 2018. With a defensive staff overhaul that brought in four new coaches courtesy of Day, the Buckeye defense was nearly as dominant as the offense this year.
Behind potential top 5 NFL Draft picks in junior defensive end Chase Young and junior cornerback Jeff Okudah, Ohio State had a top 2 total and scoring defense ahead of its matchup with Clemson.
But in stretches against Michigan, and a first half against Wisconsin in which Ohio State gave up 21 points in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Buckeyes showed just enough vulnerability to slip from No. 1 to No. 2 in the CFP selection, drawing an opponent that no team wanted to see in the first round.
Defending national champion Clemson entered with a 28-game unbeaten head of steam, and despite a lower seed, was the slight favorite against the Buckeyes.
Through most sets of eyes, though, it was a wash — a coin flip on which team would come out on top, with many expecting a classic in a potential de facto National Championship Game.
That’s exactly what Clemson and Ohio State delivered in a back-and-forth, knock-down, drag-out battle Saturday, with key players going down on either side, lead changes and late-game heroics.
It was such a good game, in fact, that Buckeye fans could almost concede defeat to their respected opponent, if it weren’t for the snafus and controversial calls that will have everyone wearing scarlet and gray that day racking their head with “What if?” scenarios for years to come.
The self-inflicted wounds will sting: two Dobbins receiving touchdowns erased from the scoreboard due to drops and a fourth-down roughing-the-punter penalty that led to a Clemson go-ahead touchdown.
Still having a chance to win in the final moments, sophomore wide receiver Chris Olave made an admitted mistake –– breaking left when Fields threw right –– to end the game with a Clemson interception in the end zone.
Had Ohio State executed correctly in any of these moments, the Buckeyes may very well be on their way to the national championship.
But much like the end to the New Orleans Saints’ 2018 season, marred by an NFC Championship loss in which an uncalled pass interference likely cost them a shot at the Super Bowl, Buckeye fans may most remember Saturday’s game for the officiating.
Respected ex-officials have taken to social media to dispute the targeting call on Ohio State redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade, a play that turned a third-down sack into an ejection for one of Ohio State’s best defensive backs, and a 21-unanswered-point springboard for Clemson to turn a 16-0 Buckeye deficit into yet another win.
Equally questioned was the overturned touchdown by senior safety Jordan Fuller on a scoop-and-score, eventually ruled an incomplete pass rather than a fumble, on a play that would have given the Buckeyes the lead back.
Walking back through the tunnel following his post-game press conference, Day repeated one phrase.
“I’m so mad.”
The first-year head coach isn’t without reason to be after his first-ever loss and neither are the scores of Buckeye faithful around the country.
Despite his resounding success this year, Day was operating a team built by former head coach Urban Meyer. The bigger challenges are yet to come: building his own rosters from the ground up in hopes of continuing the championship standards established by his predecessor.
Whether it’s the squandered potential of a national championship run, the questionable officiating or simply not knowing when the program will have a team quite that good in quite that position again, a season of mostly smooth-sailing, historical dominance for Ohio State will now be characterized by a different word: