What If...Maurice Clarett Had Stayed Eligible
A week-long re-imagining of five events that shaped the last 20 years of Ohio State football
By Tony Gerdeman
Along with roughly 24 other players, if not for Maurice Clarett, the 2002 Buckeyes never win a BCS National Championship. Clarett exploded in his career debut, rushing for 175 yards and three touchdowns against Mike Leach and the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
From there, a legend was born, even if it was short-lived.
Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards as a freshman. He was a national topic among talk shows, he was polarizing, he was a Heisman candidate until injuries did him in.
He was probably also athletic director Andy Geiger's biggest headache.
A season-long suspension in 2003 by Ohio State for receiving improper benefits did in Clarett's career. Geiger said that OSU was willing to have him back in 2004, provided Clarett showed "willingness to meet the conditions that we've laid out. If he is desirous of meeting those conditions, then we would welcome him back."
Well, that never happened, and Maurice Clarett's "30 for 30" life continued to spiral in directions that he couldn't control.
But what if hadn't? And what if Clarett had never taken those improper benefits, and never been suspended?
What if he had played in 2003?
If he had, the season would have turned out much differently for the Buckeyes, who were still just a win against Michigan away from a likely repeat appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.
Remember that devastating loss against Wisconsin? It never happened.
The rain that originally spelled doom for Ohio State's conservative offense and under-productive running game would have just been another game for an offense with Maurice Clarett running the ball.
The Buckeyes would have gone on to win that game easily enough, or at least as easily as any of the games were won over those two seasons.
The real question would have been the trip to Ann Arbor, but with Clarett carrying the ball, and Santonio Holmes and Michael Jenkins catching it, and a defense that had five members on the 2003 All-Big Ten First Team, including Defensive Player of the Year Will Smith, they would have been fine.
Clarett would have then gone on to win the Heisman Trophy in runaway fashion.
Ohio State would have played in their second-straight BCS title game, facing Big XII runner-up Oklahoma, which obviously would have been a win for the Buckeyes.
But then comes 2004. Thrilled with the offensive formula of a drop back passer that had worked for each of the past two seasons, Jim Tressel proclaims Justin Zwick his starter early in the spring, moving Troy Smith to wide receiver full time.
With receivers like Holmes, Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez, Roy Hall and Bam Childress, Smith knows he will never see the field. Still just a redshirt sophomore, Smith decides to transfer to a I-AA school so that he can continue playing quarterback.
Things go well enough for the Buckeyes in 2004, the "hand the ball to Maurice" offense continues to work its magic, but the young defense can't overcome its youth, and Jim Tressel's streak of national championships ends at two.
Speaking of streaks, Clarett continues his streak of Heisman trophies, winning his second following the 2004 season, becoming the second Buckeye to accomplish the unaccomplishable.
After the season, he declares for the NFL Draft with the full blessing of Tressel, as well as Geiger, who calls Clarett, "the son that I would have never dreamed I wanted."
The 2005 season is a stellar one for the Buckeyes. With no quarterback controversy splitting snaps in camp, Zwick leads the team to a win over Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns. However, everything comes crashing down when Tressel suffers his first career loss to Michigan to end the season.
The loss was especially devastating for the Buckeyes because Michigan running back Michael Hart guaranteed it in the days leading up to the game.
"I couldn't imagine a more sick feeling than the one I have right now," Tressel would say after the game when asked about Hart's prediction.
That soul-crushing loss, however, goes on to reinvigorate the 2006 Buckeyes, as they roll through opponents weekly, finding themselves once again in the BCS Championship Game, this time against the Florida Gators.
This time, however, things go much better for the Buckeyes, as they get a much-heralded victory over the Gators.
The Ohio State defense dominated Florida's offense, stifling their passing game most especially.
Florida fans cite the disappointing performance from their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith, who transferred to Florida a year earlier when the newly-hired Urban Meyer was searching for somebody who could run his offense.
One year later in Gainesville, Tim Tebow is named the starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman.
"He could be the next Troy Smith," Meyer says of the youngster, "provided he cleans up his act a bit."
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