Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: How Kind Will History Be This Time?
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
Ohio State’s sports information staff marched out senior football players one by one Monday to discuss the upcoming season finale – an annual occurrence the week of the Michigan game.
But something felt altogether different as head coach Urban Meyer and his most experienced players tackled the subject of preparing for ‘The Game.’ In fact, it felt almost surreal.
As I walked around from table to table, gathering thoughts from the likes of Zach Boren, Reid Fragel and Etienne Sabino – and even lesser-known players such as Stewart Smith and Zach Domicone – I found my eyes drifting over to the large murals inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. They simply are adorned with different years on them such as 1954 and 2002 and proclaim in big, bold letters just two words: “National Champions.”
This struck me because the Buckeyes currently are a perfect 11-0, including 7-0 in the Big Ten, and the season comes to an abrupt halt the moment the final ticks come off the Ohio Stadium clock on Saturday.
I’ve known about the possibility of this since well before the season and the Buckeyes have known about it for just as long. But it’s still utterly amazing, not just that Ohio State is ranked No. 4 in the country and undefeated, but what a win on Saturday would do in terms of putting this team in very elite company.
The seven teams honored inside the WHAC and on the façade inside the Horseshoe are as follows: 1942, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970 and 2002. That’s basically one a decade since the program has reached an elite status. That’s reason to be the envy of nearly every other program in the country.
Ohio State ranks fifth in all-time wins in NCAA history and is No. 1 all-time in terms of number of weeks it has appeared in The Associated Press national rankings. College football is king in Columbus, and we don’t need to be facing a Michigan week to realize that.
Still, these kinds of campaigns don’t happen all that often – and the 2012 version may become the most unusual yet.
Three of the championship seasons (’54, ’68 and ’02) ended with the Buckeyes posting an unbeaten and untied record but only the 1968 and 2002 seasons that are remembered so fondly produced undisputed titles.
Only five seasons in Ohio State football history have resulted with a completely unblemished record. The remaining two occurred in 1916 (7-0) under John Wilce and 1944 (9-0) under Carroll Widdoes. (Meyer, by the way, can tie Widdoes’ mark of most consecutive wins at the onset of an Ohio State coaching tenure, 12, by leading the Buckeyes to victory on Saturday.)
America was nearing involvement in World War I in the fall of 1916 and was immersed in World War II in 1944. The Buckeyes didn’t win national championships for their efforts those years, but the national priority was a long way away from college football.
Ohio State also had four seasons with no losses and just one tie – 1899 (9-0-1), 1917 (8-0-1), the aforementioned 1961 (8-0-1) and 1973 (10-0-1), the latter the only undefeated of the famed Archie Griffin era.
An OSU win on Saturday over the Maize and Blue also would vault the current team above those four.
And while a rational person would argue this year’s team simply can’t be compared to undefeated and champion teams of the past, remember there are plenty of examples of celebrated seasons that were without a postseason appearance or were recognized before bowl games.
For example, the 1970 team that many believe was OSU’s most talented top to bottom still lost convincingly in the 1971 Rose Bowl to Stanford, 27-17. It gets to be included with the school’s six other title teams because the National Football Foundation tabbed it No. 1 prior to the postseason.
Hey, that’s a wrap, everybody. No need to wait around and interrupt the holidays. Our poll is done.
OSU was one of three undefeated teams in 1954 along with UCLA and Oklahoma. The Sooners went 10-0 and finished third in both major polls while the 10-0 Buckeyes were rewarded with the AP national title after dumping USC.
But the Bruins (9-0) were rewarded, too. They won the UPI coaches poll after beating USC but were held out of the Rose Bowl – and a matchup with Ohio State everyone wanted to see – because of the no-repeat rule that existed back then. (Can we just say now for the record that the no-repeat rule was … ill-conceived?)
Then there’s the very weird example of the 1961 Buckeyes. That team tied TCU, 7-7, in the season opener, knocked off UCLA and proceeded to roll through the Big Ten, including a very eye-opening 50-20 win at Michigan.
The Buckeyes were invited to play in the Rose Bowl, which was between formal agreements with the Big Ten and the Pac-8 at the time, but the OSU faculty voted against placing the Buckeyes in the game by reported vote of 28-25 on Nov. 28, 1961. The council felt Ohio State was becoming too well known as a “football school” and the decision was supposed to reflect a priority on academics.
The public bitterness, the disgust felt by combustible head coach Woody Hayes, and the indirect effect on recruiting that day was immeasurable and well-documented. The Buckeyes finished second in the AP and UPI polls to Alabama and All-American Bob Ferguson also was a bridesmaid, finishing second to Ernie Davis in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
However, the Football Writers Association of America decided to be noble and picked Ohio State as its 1961 national champion, hence the inclusion with the other OSU title teams.
The system always has been convoluted.
The 1998 team was the best in the country in my mind and the minds of many but wasn’t part of the title game basically because of the lateness of its one loss that season. And there are other woulda-coulda-shoulda years.
Since the NCAA sanctions left OSU followers wondering how to feel and many in apparent denial, I assumed the next stage of grief would set in eventually: anger. As the season wore on closer to an empty postseason, as wins began to pile up, and as the Buckeyes inched up into the top five of the AP poll, I was sure rage would set in during November.
I was wrong, and I underestimated the fans, especially the ones who have been calling in to our radio programs on 610 WTVN here in Columbus.
Many Buckeye fans are so happy with the Urban Meyer transition and so thrilled to see the Buckeyes back in the top-line discussion that they are already to the final stage: acceptance.
Or as Thad Matta would say, it is what it is.
So the Buckeyes are about to face Michigan but there doesn’t seem to any anger. There’s no talk of revenge.
There’s not even a hint of jealousy of other contenders or titlists of the past such as the 2002 team, which, coincidentally, will be honored at the end of the first quarter Saturday.
Sure, it will be Senior Day, OSU will be staring down its most hated rival, ABC will broadcast the contest nationally, and some fans are still holding out hope of the Buckeyes somehow winning the AP title and throwing yet another wrench into the system.
But this game doesn’t even seem to have much to do with the polls, even though OSU is at No. 4 and Michigan No. 19.
Instead it is clearly one final test, one last installment of Can You Win ’Em All?
Could the Buckeyes – fresh off a 6-7 disaster, a prolonged NCAA probe, multiple punishments and a coaching overhaul – actually end up 12-0? That’s the question. That’s the quest.
And if it comes to fruition, where will that leave this particular team in the annals of the program? Will grief be revisited? Will fans somehow just go back to their lives with the entitlement of a postseason and weeks of bowl buildup stripped away?
It’s clearly uncharted territory. And it’s all the stranger considering it’s difficult to brand this band of Buckeyes as a great team.
Ohio State leads the Big Ten in just three of the many statistical team categories – scoring offense (38.2 points per game), interceptions (13), and fourth-down conversions (77.8 percent). OSU ranks 100th among FBS schools in passing offense (180.8 yards per game) and is 84th in defense (250.1) while Michigan leads the nation in the latter (152.1).
But what does any of that matter at this point given how difficult it is just to arrive to this week undefeated?
The most glorious era of Ohio State football – the 1970s, which includes the Woody-Archie years – came at a time when the Big Ten was referred to as the “Big Two and Little Eight” and yet the Buckeyes never went unblemished in a 10- or 11-game season in that decade.
Can we really say with absolute certainty that those teams were way better than the 2012 squad when Braxton Miller is breaking Corny Green’s records and there are just as many future pros on defense this year as there were then?
And if the answer is still “yes,” then shouldn’t we be celebrating the accomplishments of this year’s team in some special way? A designation with an asterisk, a separate mural, a downtown parade, something?
Playing the Odds
I know, I know. I’m getting ahead. The Buckeyes have not defeated Michigan yet. And that is never a given.
However, they are favored to do so and the odds are with them historically as well.
Since Ohio State and Michigan started playing in the regular-season finale, the Buckeyes are 8-3-1 when entering The Game unbeaten. We know the exceptions – the painful games of 1969, 1995 and 1996, and the tie of ’73.
Only one of those was at home – the ’96 debacle in which head coach John Cooper flopped his quarterback rotation, the Buckeyes dominated the first half but couldn’t get into the end zone, and a slip by its best defender leading directly to the longest UM scoring play of the season. In other words, bad luck and bad karma.
Let’s assume that cruelty won’t return and the Buckeyes will find a way to prevail yet again in a season of occasional mediocrity, constant resiliency and uplifting triumph. That way we can debate into the night about the worth of the 2012 Ohio State football team – whatever the hell it is.
*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.