Orange Bowl feels like necessary evil for Buckeyes

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer answers a question during a news conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014. Ohio State will face Clemson in the NCAA college football Orange Bowl classic, Friday, Jan. 3, in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Alan Diaz/AP

Ohio State has a game Friday night, one plenty of people will watch, in the Orange Bowl vs. Clemson.

Win or lose, the Ohio State program is in very good shape going forward — even if injuries and a flu bug and a lingering feeling of disappointment hang over this Orange Bowl. As for a really big game to get excited about, let’s go to the calendar.

Nov. 8, 2014.

Buckeyes burdened with injuries, illness and suspension before Orange Bowl

Ohio State at Michigan State.

Now THAT is a big game.

Urban Meyer’s honeymoon period ended last month at an amazing 24-1. Ohio State lost for the first time under Meyer in the Big Ten Championship Game, leaving this trip to Miami and chance to play Clemson as very much a consolation prize.

There’s no shame in that 24-1; if anything, Ohio State is ahead of schedule. But the game has changed under Meyer — the standards have, too — and all that was going so well, so ahead of schedule and seemingly straight to Pasadena can not be recovered in one game in Miami, even a BCS game with a bunch of people watching.

Meyer loves to say that college football is momentum. Until the 2013 slate gets wiped cleaned, his program doesn’t have enough of it.

Michigan State — now the Rose Bowl champion in addition to being the Big Ten champion — does.

November 8. Now that’s a big game.

Under Meyer, Ohio State has had many of the Big Ten’s best players, the best player, the best recruiting classes, the highest national profile and, seemingly, the best chance to put all the pieces together and make a run at the really big prizes that lie ahead in the playoff era of college football.

Getting there will start with turning all these recruits into big-time players, fulfilling promise and expectations, and hoisting a banner — a championship banner, not one for what Ohio State internally called The Chase — in the indoor practice facility back in Columbus. The Orange Bowl might come with a banner and be a step in that Chase, but any chase now goes directly through East Lansing.

February and April and August and the two months that follow will be all about November 8. There are games that count before then, too — the beauty of college football is that they all count — and there’s much to be discovered, cultivated and answered in the months before then. Unlike 2013, the 2014 non-conference schedule provides opposition that can at least challenge Ohio State for a couple of quarters. Meyer and his staff are very good at what they do and will keep the Buckeyes pointed in the right direction. It’s just possible that more may have been accomplished in bowl practices than what can be accomplished in the Orange Bowl Friday night.

Ohio State might go ahead and beat Clemson. Even with a depleted, struggling defense, the Buckeyes have a senior-laden offensive line and a power running game and two really gifted players keying it in Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde. It is probably going to take a bunch of points to win the Orange Bowl, and Ohio State can score a bunch. The numbers say Clemson’s run defense is as bad as Ohio State’s pass defense.

Either way, the game is a footnote; almost a preseason game played at the end of the season. The Buckeyes being in South Florida for a week could help with recruiting, but Meyer still doesn’t lose many recruiting battles. There’s still a very good thing being built back at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and not much can happen on the field Friday night that can change that, even if the Buckeyes join Alabama in the ranks of team dealing with actual losing streaks.

Why do teams have letdowns in bowl season? Because they lay it on the line every week during the regular season chasing the biggest bowl games. Because guys with NFL decisions pending spend time thinking about them, even if they tell the media they don’t. Because during the regular season, players get one day off and coaches get a few hours off and every other hour is dedicated to winning that next Saturday’s game. During bowl season, players take final exams and younger players get reps in practice and coaches go out recruiting and entertain other jobs.

That’s not to say Ohio State will turn in a total stinker Friday night; it’s just that it smells possible. And it wouldn’t be catastrophic.

Miller going to the NFL before he’s ready would be borderline catastrophic. That’s a different challenge and different issue for a different day. Meyer’s real work is going to be done over the next 30 or so days in completing the process of shaping the roster for the next several seasons, then over the month of spring practice. He worries about everything, and the last 30 days have given him more to worry about.

In Michigan State, Meyer has a worthy challenger in almost every regard. Meyer almost always wins in recruiting, in seizing the moment, in sustaining momentum. Friday night’s game feels like a necessary evil in getting back to the real work, the chase and The Chase, setting the tone for the future. The Big Ten re-aligns for next season, and Ohio State in its own division will have to deal not just with the rival Meyer won’t name but one that just ended the Buckeyes streak and won the Rose Bowl.

Nov. 8 is a long way away.