Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Perfection within reach for Ohio State
By Adam Rittenberg
At Ohio State, historic seasons are recorded in three ways.
1. Big Ten championships: the Buckeyes have won or shared 34
2. Rose Bowl championships: the Buckeyes have 7
3. National championships: the Buckeyes have 13 (including all selections), most recently the BCS national title in 2002
At a traditional power like Ohio State, if no championship is won, the season is pretty much forgotten.
Ohio State's seniors entered their final season with the sobering knowledge that they couldn't achieve any of these goals. A postseason ban for NCAA violations deprived them of competing in the Big Ten title game or any bowl game. The only championship they could win was the Leaders Division.
Their only chance to truly make history was to do something that often has proven harder than winning the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl or even the national title. They had to be perfect. Only 10 previous Ohio State teams have recorded undefeated, untied regular seasons. Only five previous Ohio State teams -- 1916, 1944, 1954, 1968 and 2002 -- finished the postseason without a loss or a tie. Only two previous Buckeye squads, the 2002 and 2006 versions, started a season 12-0.
Add in the fact Ohio State had a new coach (Urban Meyer), a partially new staff and a mostly young team coming off of the program's first 7-loss season since 1897, and the idea of perfection seemed more fantasy than reality.
It's real now.
Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes could accomplish a rare 12-0 season at Ohio State, despite being on probation.
"It's right in front of us," Buckeyes senior tight end Jake Stoneburner told ESPN.com. "Not that we didn't have anything to play for, but the two things we had to play for were win every game and beat Michigan. So both goals are hopefully going to be able to happen at the same time. We can win our side of the conference, but there's no Big Ten championship or anything like that, so all you can play for is win every game and go undefeated.
"So far, we've done a pretty good job of that."
Ohio State sits at 10-0 for the first time since 2007. The Buckeyes are one of just four undefeated teams in the FBS (No. 1 Kansas State, No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Notre Dame are the others). They have quite possibly their two toughest games left, a trip Saturday to Wisconsin followed by The Game against archrival Michigan on Nov. 24 at Ohio Stadium.
The focus inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center this week is Wisconsin, just like it had been Illinois, Penn State and Purdue in previous weeks. But Ohio State's quest for perfection is in the home stretch.
"It'll be one of those things where, after the Michigan game, if we are 12-0, we'll look back and be like, 'Wow, we really did it. We really went 12-0,'" Buckeyes linebacker (formerly fullback) Zach Boren told ESPN.com. "But we still have two huge weeks ahead of us."
Let's attempt to put into context what a 12-0 season would mean for Ohio State and Meyer, with help from the fine crew at ESPN Stats & Info:
Ohio State would be the fourth team on postseason probation to record an undefeated season. Auburn was most recent to do it in 1993 (11-0). Oklahoma also recorded back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1973 (10-0-1) and 1974 (11-0), winning the AP national title in 1974.
Few undefeated teams from major conferences suffered as many losses the previous season as Ohio State's seven in 2011. You have to go back quite a few years for some of the better comparisons. Purdue went from 1-8 in 1942 to 9-0 in 1943. Stanford went from 1-7-1 in 1939 to 10-0 in 1940. Ohio State went from 3-5 in 1943 to 9-0 the following year.
Meyer would tie Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema for the most wins in his first season in the Big Ten. He's already the third Ohio State coach to start his career at 10-0 -- Earle Bruce (1979) and Carroll Widdoes (1944) are the others.
Widdoes (12-0) and former Michigan coach Fielding Yost (29-0) are the only Big Ten coaches to start their careers with 12 or more wins.
Meyer would become just the second coach to go 12-0 or better in his first season at a school. Larry Coker went 12-0 at Miami in 2001, winning a national title, and Chris Petersen went 13-0 at Boise State in 2006. Terry Bowden might be the best comparison to Meyer, as he went 11-0 with probation-laden Auburn in 1993.
The potential historical significance isn't lost on the Buckeyes, especially the seniors.
"That's how I want to go out," Stoneburner said. "It'd be nice to go 12-0 and get an opportunity to play for a national championship or play for a Rose Bowl, but we were able to play for a Rose Bowl [three seasons ago], we were able to play for a Sugar Bowl [two seasons ago, later vacated] and a Fiesta Bowl [four seasons ago]. The one thing we can't say is that we went undefeated throughout a season.
"For this class and what we've gone through, for us to be able to go 12-0, that'd be probably my biggest accomplishment since I've been in school. We're going to make sure we do everything to make that happen."
Boren credits Meyer and the staff for keeping the focus on the immediate. The team doesn't shout "12-0!" at the end of practice or have any signs about going undefeated. Instead, the signs around the complex point to the next win total. There were a lot of 10s displayed before the last game against Illinois, and there are a lot of 11s displayed this week.
Meyer said Tuesday he considered selling the Wisconsin game as Ohio State's Big Ten championship and the Michigan game as the Buckeyes' bowl. But the team doesn't need that.
"I don't think we’re going to have to make any special T-shirts or talk about bowl games or championships," he said. "... There's no issue with us getting ready for this game."
The Buckeye seniors also understand that this season is a starting point.
"We wanted to make sure we had a good first year under Coach Meyer and a good last year for us," Boren said. "This program's just going to take off, and we wanted to help any way possible. We knew if we could set the tone this year and have a good season, even when nothing really counted, that the younger guys will learn how to win."
The three championships will be back on the table in 2013. Ohio State likely will be favored to win the Big Ten and possibly the Rose Bowl, and the Buckeyes will be mentioned as a potential national title contender. They'll attempt to record a season to remember.
Just like they're doing now.
"Any time you can go undefeated and finish strong, especially with this senior class, you'll definitely leave a legacy," Boren said. "Even in a season where we can't go to the Big Ten championship game or a bowl game, you can still have a season that you will always remember."