Motivation is a funny thing in sports.
While it can fuel incredible victories in appropriate amounts, a deficit or excess can create astounding losses.
Yet there’s no way to quantify it. Its levels can be speculated, analyzed and discussed until the narratives around “trap games,” “playing for a purpose” and “having a chip on their shoulder” are chewed up and spit out a thousand times over.
But given the results, Ohio State has shown it has the United States’ most motivated team in the country’s two most popular collegiate sports. For similar reasons, too — both the football and men’s basketball teams are playing with something to prove.
“Every time we play, we want to make a statement,” sophomore quarterback Justin Fields said after the football team’s win against then-No. 13 Wisconsin Oct. 26. “Of course the teams hear that we’re tough. They hear that we’re good, but we want to prove it and go out on the field and prove it to them.”
Ohio State’s No. 1 football team stands 12-0 with a Big Ten title game looming, and its No. 6 men’s basketball team is sure to move into the top 5 after a 74-49 dismantling of No. 7 North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ home arena, pending a win against Penn State Saturday.
Both teams took wildly different paths to get to a point of proving national relevance.
Six years have passed since the Buckeyes last finished outside the Associated Press Poll’s top 10 for football. However, since capturing a national title in 2014, three College Football Playoff-caliber Ohio State squads have fallen victim to an upset that prevented their shots at a national title.
In 2015, No. 9 Michigan State knocked off the defending national champions in Columbus 17-14. Two unranked schools, Iowa and Purdue, pulled out upsets against the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Now, being led by first-year head coach Ryan Day and a first-year starter at quarterback in Fields, the Buckeyes came into this season trying to prove that former head coach Urban Meyer’s retirement doesn’t mean they will disappear from playoff contention.
By avoiding those scarring upsets like a gold-and-black death and turning around its worst-in-program-history total defense to be No. 1 in the country, it seems Ohio State has obtained that proof.
“We don’t want to be that team that just slips up one week and ends up costing us our whole season,” sophomore tight end Jeremy Ruckert said following the football team’s victory against Maryland Nov. 9. “We really have that in the back of our minds every week. It’s like March Madness.”
Meanwhile, in the same six-year timeframe, Ohio State men’s basketball had spent just one week ranked inside the AP top 10 entering the 2019-20 season.
In fact, for former head coach Thad Matta’s final two years leading the program, the team wasn’t ranked at all.
When Chris Holtmann took over the reins for Matta before the 2017-18 campaign, it was clear a lot of work was needed to return the team to its Final Four glories of 2007 or 2012, the latter of which came during a run of four consecutive Sweet 16 appearances.
With two top 10 wins by at least 25 points in eight games to open this season, Ohio State is out to prove that work is nearing success. No other team in college basketball history has beaten two top 10 teams by 25 points prior to conference tournament play.
“We’re very hungry,” freshman guard D.J. Carton said after a win against then-No. 10 Villanova Nov. 13. “We’ve been very hungry all season long, and I think we have things to prove. We’ve got a lot of things to learn, a lot of things to build upon, but I feel like we’re playing pretty good basketball right now, and we’re playing together as a unit.”
Both teams now stare down the barrel of potential program-defining seasons. Football is three wins from a national title, while basketball’s hot start gives it legitimate Final Four hype for the first time in seven years.
Accomplishing such tasks would demonstrate to the sporting world that Ohio State’s football program is flourishing more than ever under new management, and its basketball program is back to national relevance.
Those achievements aren’t possible, however, without the fuel provided by the need to prove something.