Understandably, the countdown to Saturday’s Michigan-Ohio State game includes the discussion of what might have been for the 11-0 but bowl-banned Buckeyes and several what-if scenarios.
The Buckeyes have earned the right to be highly-regarded and highly-ranked, and to think about what might have been if not for the one-year postseason ban levied by the NCAA.
This week, though, the Buckeyes seniors say one thing matters.
The Michigan game.
“We can call it a bowl game if you want to, but it’s The Game,” safety Orhian Johnson said. “You focus on just that.”
The thought is that talk of the Buckeyes potentially being the only unbeaten in FBS football, finishing atop the Associated Press poll or what might have been if a bowl ban had been self-imposed by Ohio State last year is for outside the building.
The goal inside? To keep all that talk from disrupting focus. Ohio State fullback-turned-linebacker Zach Boren said the players haven’t even broached the topic of finishing atop the AP Poll — they’re currently No. 4 — or where they might land if they were allowed to play next week in the Big Ten Championship Game, then in a bowl game.
“Not one bit,” Boren said. “We are going to take each week one at a time like we have, and we’ve been successful doing it. We’re not going to change our view. After this (Michigan) week, if we come out and get a win I’m sure we’ll have a lot of opinions about that. We’re sticking to what we’ve done all year and that’s take them one week at a time.
“Even though this is the last week, we’re sticking all of our attention on Michigan.”
Suddenly, there are just three days left in Ohio State’s season, just one game remaining. A senior class that was recruited in the heart of then-coach Jim Tressel’s long run of dominance in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry has a chance to go out as the group that went undefeated but didn’t get to play past Michigan.
It wants to go out as the group that finished by beating the Wolverines.
“Obviously we’d like to play as long as we can,” center Jack Mewhort said. “Being a senior I’d like to play as long as I can and go out on the best note possible. But it is what it is, and at the end of the day, you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got — and that’s beating Michigan the last week.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer grew up in Northeast Ohio and said the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry “was all you knew.” He was a Buckeyes graduate assistant in 1987, when then-coach Earle Bruce beat the Wolverines and was carried off the field.
When he took the job exactly 51 weeks ago, Meyer didn’t know these players. And he didn’t know a bowl ban was coming.
Meyer said his first thought after finding out last December about the 2012 bowl ban was that Ohio State upperclassmen would be allowed to transfer and play immediately at a new school. He called an impromptu team meeting, and “within 15 minutes” he was addressing his players, reminding them of the opportunities the 2012 would have and why playing at Ohio State — bowl or no bowl — was so special
“I kept the seniors after the meeting,” Meyer said. “I had no idea who they were, and they didn’t know me, so it was a leap of faith. I think it was also the love for their school. When you look at these kids, now that I know them, I know exactly why they stayed — for the love of Ohio State.
“It’s really cool in this day and age to witness that. We’re forever indebted to them because they didn’t have to do what they did. I should say that because they certainly didn’t know Urban Meyer or this coaching staff a thing. Their love of this university was very apparent that day.”
It’s been a dream season for the Buckeyes, even if next week it could feel incomplete. This year’s seniors are driven by the thought of not just finishing with a win, but with a win over Michigan. Twelve months ago, a Michigan win dropped Ohio State to 6-6. This time around, the Buckeyes are just trying to be 1-0 on Saturday.
“It’s unique because we’ve been on both sides of the spectrum,” linebacker Etienne Sabino said. “We had three years where we beat those guys and then we had last year. We know what it feels like to be on both ends. The last thing you want to do is leave here with that pit in your stomach, knowing you didn’t beat those guys. That’s what we set out to do and what we need to do.”