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Jim Tressel brought a lot of things to the Ohio State football program, including that wonderful 2002 National Championship and several asterisks further down the road. But during his 10 years in Columbus, Tress also brought with him the uncanny ability to take a step backward after taking a step or two forward. Will the future err on the side of the new coaching regime, or will it default to the historical norms of the Buckeyes?
I enjoyed a great deal of my time watching Ohio State football from 2001-2011. That is an easy statement to make when you consider that one of those years included a national championship, and the majority of the others included wins over Michigan. Jim Tressel's program was, as we have all had drilled into our craniums, not one beyond reproach, but it was certainly successful, always interesting, and thoroughly rewarding to watch as a fan. Vacated games and all.
Yet there was almost always one game every year where Tressel's theory of football (defense, special teams, enough offense to win, never beat Youngstown State by more than 30) left a lot of Buckeye fans wondering what could have been. I'm talking about the letdown. And other than the 2002 championship, the 8 (but really 9*) wins over Michigan and the team of NFL draft picks Tressel guided through the program, this was one of the more memorable characteristics of his tenure in Columbus.
Last week's throttling of Nebraska seems like one of those wins where, as Buckeye fans, maybe the time has come to start talking more seriously about the offense finding its stride, or the defense clamping down when it has to, and the team being set for the rest of the season. This weekend's tilt in Bloomington seems like the kind of game that you would just glaze over, thinking more about revenge with Purdue, poking a stick at Bielema or beating that team up North.
Each year, from 2001 through 2011*, there was one game that would begin with thoughts of "okay, this team has it together, let's just get past [Big Ten team that is 3-6] and we'll be set" and ended with crying into tumblers of ice and whiskey. Brett mentioned this yesterday, and while I agree that Urban Meyer doesn't seem like the type of coach that would allow such a letdown, history is a tough habit to break. Let's look back at the last decade of Ohio State football to see why.
*2002 is not included since CHAMPIONSHIP! and 2010 is included because I WATCHED THOSE GAMES THEY HAPPENED WE BEAT AN SEC TEAM I PROMISE!
The best example of a letdown in Tressel's first year in Columbus would be the Outback Bowl, where the Buckeyes, fresh off of a promise-fulfilling win at Michigan drew the South Carolina Gamecocks for the second consecutive year. Lou Holtz's Cocks (sounds so awful) opened the game with three scores, and the Buckeyes, despite the best efforts of Steve Bellisari and company, couldn't mount enough of a comeback to grab the win.
This squad, winners of five games over ranked opposition (with a loss at Wisconsin) went into the Michigan game coming off of wins over #14 Sparty and #10 Purdue, the latter in overtime. But Michigan was a buzzsaw, crushing the Buckeyes 35-21 in the Big House.
After beating NC State and King Derp at home the previous year, the Buckeyes made a return trip to Raleigh, winning by a score and moving up to #7 in the country with a trip to
Chicago Evanston the following week. Northwestern would somehow win that game in overtime, setting off a run of 3 straight Big Ten losses, a streak the likes of which Buckeyes fans wouldn't be seen for another 7 years.
Despite an early week two loss to eventual national champion Texas, Ohio State had rebounded nicely against San Diego State and Iowa, setting up a clash of the titans in State College. They're still picking up Troy Smith's teeth from the turf in Beaver Stadium.
In what was probably the weirdest season in the BCS's history, Ohio State was a force to be reckoned with for the first 10 games of the season, ascending to #1 in the country and holding their competition to under 17 points. But somehow Isiah "Juice" Williams decided to throw for four scores, and control a game-ending, Buckeye-suffocating drive to win. That Illinois loss somehow still allowed the Buckeyes...to lose to LSU in the national championship game.
There were no particular build ups that led to letdowns in 2008. The Buckeyes were throttled at USC, lost a heartbreaker to Penn State and derp'd their way to to a Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas. 2008 on the whole was a letdown.
I'm not usually worried about any home opener for Ohio State. That may change soon, as Gene Smith has decided to upgrade scheduling, but it hasn't been a worry throughout most of my life. in 2009, Ken Niumatalolo put the fear of God and the triple option into the hearts and minds of the faithful, taking the Buckeyes to the brink. Ohio State would win, breathe a sigh of relief, and lose the next week to USC.
This was supposed to be the team that finally overcame all the past letdowns and gave Tress his second title. Ascending to #1 in the country and heading into Madison against a decent but not great Badgers team was supposed to be easy. But the special teams failed and the Badgers reeled off one of the most impressive wins in school history, shocking the good guys 31-18.
Before last week, I would have said that the Wisconsin game in 2011 was the most purely fun football game I had ever watched. The peaks and valleys, the underdog playing at home, at night, on homecoming. And Braxton Miller showing us a glimpse of what is to come. This team didn't lose the next week against Indiana, but lost the four games after, three in conference, the fourth to Florida in the Gator Bowl.
There's precedent for a bit of a letdown this week. We've all seen it and spent the following Sunday trying to recover from it. In his first six games as coach, we've learned a lot about what Urban Meyer brings to the table. Against Indiana this weekend, we should learn even more.