2002 was a good year. I was just starting my freshman year at Granville High School, where my mental energy was spent on marching band and whenever Homestar Runner was updated. I didn't have to worry about a job, the Browns made the playoffs, and Ohio State won the national championship. Even the top song on the charts was good....oh wait, nevermind, it was Nickleback. So maybe 2002 wasn't that great of a year after all.
A lot has changed in the college football landscape since 2002. Back then, the Big Ten was really good, with three teams finishing in the AP Top 10 (Iowa at 8, Michigan at 9), and Penn State finished at 15. Your Conference USA co-champs? TCU and Cincinnati, now of the Big 12 and The American respectively. Marshall (CUSA) beat out UCF (The American) for the MAC East Title, and Colorado State won 10 games. Washington State won the Pac-12 and finished in the Top 10, while perennial current powers Oregon and Stanford went a combined 9-15. It was a long time ago.
Cal had an average year in that Pac-12, going 7-5 under new coach Jeff Tedford. The team struggled the year before, going 1-10, leading to the departure of Tom Holmoe, now the AD at BYU. Ohio State must have seen something in Tedford, because they decided to schedule the Golden Bears for a home and home series in 2012-2013.
That looked like a pretty good move for a while. From 2002-2011, the year before the first Cal game, the Golden Bears went 79-48. Cal won five bowl games, finished the season in the AP Top 25 three different times, and made four appearances in the AP top ten during the year (including as high as #2). During that part of the Tedford era, Cal only had one losing season, and while they may have had the misfortune of choking away a few prime opportunities, they were at the very least, a more than competent football team.
You know how this story ends. After losing the Holiday Bowl after the 2011 season, the Golden Bears totally fell apart, collapsing to a 3-9 record during the year they made the trip to Columbus. Tedford was canned, and Sonny Dykes replaced him in time for Ohio State's return tip. Now, Cal sits at 1-8, and could conceivably not win another football game this year. It's difficult to imagine this particular matchup going more poorly for Ohio State (well, scratch that. They could have, you know, LOST one of those games), but if you were looking at this matchup in 2006, you'd think the Buckeyes secured a solid opponent.
Scheduling football games is a tough logistical problem that typically needs to be done several years in advance. We got a look at the contract for the Virgina Tech game, (which won't be played until next season), and it showed that the agreement was also made all the way back in 2002. Buckeye fans would do well to be concerned about that game as well. From 2002-2012, Virginia Tech went 102-33, winning at least 10 games in every season but one, when they won 8. On paper, that looks like an absolutely elite matchup. However, Virginia Tech went only 7-6 last season, and sits at 6-3 now, fresh off of back-to-back losses to Duke (!!!) and Boston College. The centerpiece of Ohio State's non-conference schedule for the next two seasons stands a non-trivial chance of being a dud.
Is it fair to mock Ohio State for that? Many fans will tell you that it isn't like the Buckeyes have historically shied away from scheduling major schools. Prior to the Cal and Virginia Tech games getting added to the schedule in 2002, the Buckeyes had faced UCLA, Arizona, Miami (FL), and West Virginia. Since 2002, Ohio State had played USC, Texas, and NC State (back when NC State was actually good), along with Washington, which, like Cal, probably looked better when it was just a game on paper. The effort to schedule a strong program has always been there for over a decade. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don't.
Ohio State isn't the only team to get burned by this. Oregon probably wished they were getting a better Tennessee squad than the ones they faced this year and in 2010. Florida State was stuck with a bum Colorado team in 2008, even though the Buffs had recently won the Big 12 North twice. FSU is equally fortunate that Clemson has emerged from a series of "just above average" results at exactly the time when they need a powerful win, and equally unfortunate that Florida, normally a top-tier squad, might instead finish 6-6. We could find examples for nearly any major program that actually attempts to schedule strong sides.
You really just never know how these games are going to turn out. Ohio State is set to face TCU in 2018-2019. The Horned Frogs have struggled in their transition to the Big 12 so far; will they have ascended to a top tier program, worthy of anchoring a schedule? Who the hell knows? Oregon is on the schedule for 2020-2021. Sounds like an awesome game for now, but the Ducks could be two head coaches away from who will be manning the helm in 2021. Texas is the headliner for 2022-2023. For all we know, Todd Graham could become the new Longhorn head coach, leave after two years to run for President with Lane Kiffin, and leave the program in shambles.
You laugh, but go look up the the 2002 football season. Colorado won 9 games and a division title. Now, it's barely climbing out of one of the biggest craters of any BCS conference team. Baylor was 3-9, now they're the top 10 team everybody is talking about. Stanford sucked, now they're a Pac-12 contender. South Carolina sucked, now they're an SEC contender. Kansas sucked, and well, some things never change.
Championship teams need to be highly talented, but you need a little bit of luck too, with injuries, with turnovers, with calls, and everything in between. Scheduling and the performance of others is no exception, no matter how well you plan. Here's hoping the Buckeyes can find a little more luck before this season is over. Otherwise, don't blame Gene Smith. Blame Cal, and blame the Big Ten.