January 3rd, 2003. This day needs no introduction to Buckeye fans and holds special places in the hearts and minds of all followers of the Scarlet and Grey. Think back to where you were on that day, that night and into the wee hours of January 4th. I was in Columbus, pacing in a buddy's basement, watching with immense trepidation about a result I wouldn't believe until I saw it with my own eyes. The game was fodder for a Nexium ad (if, you know, they had Nexium in 2003): incredible highs, unfathomable lows, twists and turns in 40 different directions. It wasn't until Cie Grant planted Ken Dorsey in the ground in the second overtime that the game ended and elation erupted, on the sidelines, in the stands, and in a basement in Columbus, Ohio. I took an elated deep breath when it was all said and done.
And it was the last such deep breath I've taken as a Buckeye fan in nine and a half years.
The moment Ken Dorsey's fluttering pass hit turf that night in Tempe was the same second that the honeymoon for Jim Tressel began and ended. Those cardiac kids of 2002 made football fun in Columbus again, and winning the national championship was an incredibly high bar to set in only his second year as head coach. Sure, from that impossible height, the only way to go could be down. Every season, unless it included a national championship, would be considered lower than 2002. Such was the case:
- 2003: losses to Wisconsin and Michigan.
- 2004: lost three straight in conference, including to Northfreakingwestern.
- 2005: Hamby in the fourth quarter...
- 2006: This season was fine, and nothing happened after the Michigan game, we swear.
- 2007: This season was fine, and nothing happened after the Michigan game, we swear.
- 2008: USC, Penn State, McCoy to Cosby in the Fiesta Bowl.
- 2009: USC again, and Purdue. PUR. DUE.
- 2010: [season redacted by NCAA because tattoos!]
- 2011: First sub-500 season since the 80s.
All of these years had particular bright spots, including several consecutive wins over Michigan, a Heisman Trophy, and some very special games, like the Rose Bowl win over Oregon. But given the impossibly high bar, in the skewed eye of the beholder, the bad far overshadowed the good, and there's no argument about that.
So why is this season different?
A friend of mine asked me how long the honeymoon for Coach Meyer would last in Columbus. He speculated that all the good will, all the elation, all the #buckeyenationproblems would be gone as soon as one of his teams was on the losing end of a football game. For some fans, he's probably right. For me? Not so much.
Meyer and the Buckeyes have a unique season ahead of them. They have the chance to go through a year with but a tiny amount of pressure on them. They will be under the microscope, sure, because of Meyer and Braxton Miller and John Simon and because they're Ohio State, and Ohio State pays the bills on TV and in print. But in the grand scheme of things, whatever this season turns out to be really won't matter. This season is about watching a pitiful 6-7 football squad evolve. This season is, for lack of a better word, practice. This season is the Urban Meyer honeymoon.
David talked on Tuesday about how Meyer must motivate a team playing for literally nothing except the ability to get the team, the program, and the school back on the track that is expected on a year-to-year basis. This is no easy task; the team is young, the skill players are inexperienced, and the majority of the coaching staff is new to the ways of Scarlet and Gray. As important as the hiring of Coach Meyer was back in November, there are still countless question marks for the upcoming season, and we may not get answers to all of them for years. But, like most things in life, practice makes perfect, and the Buckeyes will get 12 chances to get it right.
From the fan's perspective, we're in a similar boat. After the Michigan game, our season of Saturdays devoted to watching our team closes one game too soon. That moment will be bittersweet, and will be horribly tough to swallow at the time. But it will also be welcomed, because that moment will also mark when Urban Meyer's honeymoon phase officially ends. That's when it will all starts counting again and the rest of the college football world has to go back to worrying about Ohio State. Let USC, LSU, Alabama, and Florida State (I'm kidding about one of those teams) and the rest of the nation battle for 2012. For Ohio State, 2012 is simply practice for what we can only hope and expect will be a long, successful tenure for the Urban Meyer-lead Buckeyes.
Take a deep breath, Buckeye fans. The honeymoon is just beginning.