There are some objectively excellent college football games. Last year’s national championship game, for starters. The USC-Texas Rose Bowl. The 2006 Ohio State-Michigan game. Sometimes, elite teams actually live up to the dang hype against one another, and we celebrate those games. They become our favorites.
But our favorites don’t have to be the very best games. In fact, one of my favorite Ohio State games was, by every objective measure, a garbage football game.
It was on Sept. 5, 2010. I was running a campaign field office for a congressional race in Indiana, which meant that I spent 14 hours a day on the phone, sitting in a lonely office begging for old people to come keep me company by also spending 14 hours a day on the phone. I also occasionally broke up those phone calls by knocking on stranger’s doors, asking to talk about Hoosier values, and praying nobody was home so I wouldn’t have to risk getting cussed out again. I slept in a stranger’s house on an air mattress that sprung a leak by my third week on the job. My bank account did not have a comma in it. Everything was awesome, basically.
On fall Saturdays, I broke up that schedule to watch a little college football. I would rationalize this by saying that canvassing or phone banking was stupid during these hours since everybody else was watching college football and did not want to talk about the economy (which was true). But honestly, it was more of a sanity break than anything else.
If I was sure that nobody would come down from our main office in South Bend, I would grab a Little Caesars Pizza (because I was clearly making bank from this campaign job), head up to my room, watch a college football game, and try to forget I was sleeping on an inflatable mattress in a town where I had no friends, did nothing but work, and would probably get called a racial slur in the next 48 hours.
That day, Ohio State played Eastern Michigan.
Under Jim Tressel, Ohio State was notorious for playing down to inferior teams. In 2002, the year they won the national title, they were fortunate to beat Cincinnati (23-19). They struggled with San Diego State and Bowling Green the next year. They needed a last minute field goal to beat Marshall. I once paid fifty American dollars to watch Ohio State lead Akron 3-2 at halftime. That all sucked.
Ohio State won a ton of football games under Jim Tressel. He owned Michigan, won a national title and multiple Big Ten titles, and consistently had Ohio State in national contention. But his coaching style also turned tune-up games against directional also-rans into occasional white-knuckle affairs. These were not always easy or fun games, and I know I wasn’t the only Buckeye fan to longingly look at national box scores and wish that maybe, we too could obliterate a crappy team every once in a while.
I was prepared to sit down in that tiny room on that tiny TV, eat my greasy pizza, and cuss at Ohio State for three hours, as they beat one of the worst teams in college football by like, 16 points or something, then head back to my office, wondering why I didn’t just play PS2 or something to relax instead. I did not have high hopes.
Instead, Ohio State proceeded to do something unusual. Under one of the more conservative Ohio State coaches in recent memory, Ohio State proceeded to absolutely kick the shit out of Eastern Michigan. When the dust settled, the Buckeyes were victorious, 73-20. It could have been worse.
I loved that game. Was it because it was the most technically masterful Ohio State game I ever saw, or the most ascetically beautiful one? But looking back on it, this was all pretty cool.
Nah, I loved it because it was the perfect match of expectations and moment. I was depressed, overworked, lonely, worried, and often wondering what the hell I was doing in rural Indiana. But for those few hours, I got a blissful reprieve, and got to watch Terrelle Pryor mercilessly dunk on overmatched MAC players. Sometimes, in life, you really need a win, and there’s no shame in turning the difficulty down to ‘Rookie’ every once in a while to get it.
I don’t know if there’s going to that kind of game for Ohio State this season. The expectations are different in many ways from last season. After all, last year’s squad was anointed before the year began, and was expected to hang 60-ish on a slew of bad teams en route to another playoff bid. That didn’t happen, and hell, that disparity made last year not-much-fun to watch a lot of the time.
But this is still Ohio State, reloading year or no, and they’re still expected to be good. Will not having the burden of needing to not only win, but electrify the nation, free us to enjoy those growing pains a little bit more? Maybe. I’d like to think it will help for me.
But an Eastern Michigan moment isn’t just about covering a point spread. We don’t watch football games in a vacuum, after all, just like they aren’t played in one. They’re in the context of our lives, and how we remember them isn’t just a function of who caught the pass, but where we were when it was caught, and who we were with, and what happened the day before.
I hope Ohio State wins a lot of football games this year. I hope many of them are in ways that are easy to love on football merits alone. I hope there aren’t nail-biters when they shouldn’t be. I’m already starting to go gray, and I’m only 29. I’m fine with not expediting that process.
But I also hope that we get to enjoy an Eastern Michigan type game this year. Maybe you’ll go to a party to watch a blowout over Rutgers, and meet your future husband. Maybe a dump-trucking of Maryland will help, if only for moment, help take the sting away from a breakup or job loss. Maybe you’ll find your new favorite neighborhood bar for the Tulsa game. Maybe it’ll help with something even bigger. It’s happened to me before, after all.
Another football season kicks off in earnest on Saturday. Not every game will be great. Some might even be bad. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t also be good, at least to somebody.
They might even be the best ones.