Buckeyes dealing with big jump in stakes

Michael Bennett and the Buckeyes are getting used to being the underdogs in big games in the national spotlight.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS — Two years ago, Ohio State was stuck at home in December. Last year, the Buckeyes spent their New Year’s holiday in Miami preparing for a consolation exhibition game. And now? 

"I think it’s the biggest game in college football history, the prime-time game, more so than Florida State-Oregon," Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant said as preparations continued for the Sugar Bowl, a matchup of the fourth-ranked Buckeyes and No. 1 Alabama scheduled for Jan. 1. "Look at the coaching staffs, look at the coaching staffs. It speaks for itself." 

That is quite a jump in stakes, and it raises an obvious question: How will the Buckeyes react to being back on the game’s biggest stage? 

For all the ink that was spilled declaring the Buckeyes too slow to keep up with Florida and LSU in back-to-back BCS National Championship Game losses at the end of the 2006 and ’07 seasons, their issues were at least as much mental as they were physical. Both debacles were marked with personal fouls and unforced errors that greased the skids for the Gators and Tigers to claim national titles. No one will ever know if Ohio State could have won either of those contests if they had played cleaner games, but there is no doubt they fell far short of putting their best foot forward each time. 

Now an entirely new group of players and nearly all new coaches are back in the Big Easy –€” site of the 38-24 loss to LSU in January 2008 — with a chance to leave an everlasting mark on the program and college football. Earlier this season, they answered questions about being ready for prime time by soundly defeating Michigan State on the road then humiliating Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Alabama provides a new level of competition and the College Football Playoff a different platform on which to perform, but are the Buckeyes playing with house money? After all, their own coach admitted earlier in December they have reached this point a year ahead of schedule. 

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"No matter what game you’re playing, there’s always going to be pressure," senior Ohio State defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. "You can always find something in that well. That’s what makes this game different, what makes it significant. Like you said before, the Big Ten championship (game), we had never won one. This is the first ever College Football Playoff, it’s a pretty big deal, and it’s against Alabama." 

The Crimson Tide — like the Spartans and the Badgers before them — are favorites heading into the contest, but none of the Buckeyes who have met with the press have sounded like they are lacking for confidence even if the majority of outsiders do not expect them to win. 

"There are so many reasons why this game is significant and it’s gonna be fun because we’re playing our best as a team right now and I assume they’re doing the same thing so it’s going to be two really good teams going against each other," Bennett said.