Let's take a trip in the way-back machine to September 5, 2009, shall we? And let's head down Arlington, Texas way, to the Jerry Dome, home of the Dallas Cowboys and, since 2009, one of the opening games of the college football season. Dubbed the "Cowboys Classic", this kickoff game was meant to pair two top contenders against one another and launch a BCS campaign for the winner, and snooker the loser behind the eight ball after just one game.
The first iteration of the game paired the BYU Cougars, then ranked 20th in the country, against the then #3 Oklahoma Sooners. BYU won the game, propelling them to an 11-2 season. Oklahoma wound up unranked and 8-5. Springboard and snooker.
Meanwhile, about 800 miles away, The Alabama Crimson Tide, then ranked #5 in the country, were getting set to face the then ranked #7 Virginia Tech Hokies in another of the season's first games, this the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, which was won in the 2009 by Alabama. That Crimson Tide team finished the 2009 season undefeated with a national championship. The 2009 Hokies finished a respectable 10-3, but out of the conversation for a BCS bowl game. Springboard and snooker.
In Columbus Ohio on September 5 2009, then #6 Ohio State played an uninspiring game against Navy, a game it almost lost, and a game that no one cared about outside of the I-270 loop.
Fast forward a year. In Arlington, it was #6 TCU against #24 Oregon State. In Atlanta, #21 LSU and #18 North Carolina. Both big games, both receiving big national attention, and one game featuring a team, TCU, that would use the appearance to launch their BCS campaign and go undefeated.
In Columbus a few days before that, Ohio State beat* the tar out of Marshall in Ohio Stadium.
*Note: I feel like, at this point, we don't have to mention that the 2010 season was vacated, and that any and all good that came of that season didn't count. I was at the Marshall game that year, and I know for a fact that it did happen, so while the college football record books reflect that the game never was, you, me and the other 105,000 in attendance know better.
This pattern continues as we get closer to present day:
- Arlington: #3 LSU defeats #4 Oregon
- Atlanta: #5 Boise State defeats #19 Georgia
- Columbus: #18 Ohio State defeats Akron
- Arlington: #2 Alabama defeats #8 Michigan
- Atlanta: Tennessee defeats NC State; #14 Clemson defeats Auburn
- Columbus: #18 Ohio State defeats Miami University
2013 (featuring another kickoff game in Houston)
- Arlington: #12 LSU defeats #20 TCU
- Atlanta: #1 Alabama defeats Virginia Tech
- Houston: #13 Oklahoma State defeats Mississippi State
- Columbus: #2 Ohio State defeats Buffalo
For the most part, the winning teams in these games set up reasonably successful seasons (qualified because of the 2011 Ohio State Tire Fire). But the biggest difference between Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State, TCU et.al. and Ohio State is that all of those teams started their seasons far from their home stadiums, while Ohio State got their victories in the friendly confines of the Horseshoe. And in the BCS Era, that made a difference.
Unless you were in the SEC (and therefore given the benefit of the doubt because of how good your conference was perceived to be), getting to a BCS game meant either going undefeated and, for the most part, unchallenged in what many would consider a "normal" slate of games, or putting your team out there in front of a huge national audience. This is exactly what the likes of TCU, Boise State, Oregon and others had to do to be relevant.
For the most part, that worked wonders for those programs, not only on the field, but in terms of exposure to the national audience, particularly high school juniors and seniors looking for a place to matriculate in the coming falls. Playing in a national kickoff game on a neutral field and winning was, in the BCS Era, one of the best ways to ensure a better chance at playing in a better game down the line.
But that was then, and this is now. It is no longer 100+ teams fighting for two spots; now the college football world does battle each week for four spots in the new College Football Playoff. This makes the burden of leaving your home field to begin the year a little less so, but, with four big-time kickoff games scheduled in Arlington, Houston, and Atlanta, it will still be an important part of a team's resume when Condoleezza Rice and her friends pick the best four teams at the end of the year.
So where does this leave the Buckeyes? In a bit of a precarious position, actually. While it does open the 2014 season in a neutral site (in M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore) Ohio State faces a Navy team that went 9-4 in 2013, and previously gave the them fits a few years back. And, despite the storied tradition of both schools, and the storylines a-plenty (Navy's crazy offense vs Ohio State's revamped defense, etc), this is likely far from a top tier matchup, especially considering the other match ups in other cities (see: sidebar).
Given the national popularity and reputation of the Buckeyes, not to mention the same of Urban Meyer, it is likely fair to think that if Ohio State takes care of its own business, there will be a top-four spot with their name on it. The chances of this are all but certain if the Buckeyes run through their schedule undefeated with a Big Ten Championship Game victory in their back pockets.
But wouldn't it be nice to pad the schedule early on with a marquee victory over and LSU, or Oklahoma State? Or with a win in a nationally broadcast slug-fest against the likes of Florida or Florida State? Even with a close loss, the likelihood might be that just playing in a game like that could be enough to be the springboard that puts the Buckeyes in a position to be two straight wins away from a national championship.
Unfortunately, baring some poorly-timed emails by Gene Smith (à la Vanderbilt), the Ohio State schedule for the upcoming years is getting close to capacity for the foreseeable future. And it could be that scheduling games like this won't matter in the new era of college football. Indeed, it is likely prudent for the Buckeyes to stand pat and see what the process of getting into the top-four actually looks like. But if the BCS Era is any indication, neutral site games may not just be the desire of a fan base; they may be a necessity for the program.