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Are we nearing the end of Ohio State football invincibility?

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Okay, it’s entirely possible that I’m being ridiculous. Let me just get out in front about that.

Even after a massive, 5-star decommitment last night, Ohio State’s 2017 recruiting class is still ranked #1 in the country. They still have more four and five-star commits than any other school.

The Buckeyes are still led by Urban Meyer, objectively one of the best football coaches in the country. It looks like they’ll have assistant coach stability for the first time in a while, and have former head coaches manning both coordinator spots.

They’re headed to yet another major bowl, something they’ve done every year they’ve been eligible but one (the Luke Fickell season) since the 2004 Alamo Bowl. They’ve made the playoff two out of the last four years, and missed it by a whisker the other two years. And on a per-play basis, they were the best dang team in the country.

And yet. And yet. I still can’t get this column from Toledo Blade columnist David Briggs out of my head. Y’all should read it.

Written right after the Iowa loss, Briggs argued that the Ohio State football “machine,” where the Buckeyes deserved the benefit of the doubt and could clobber all comers, was over. Specifically:

The veneer of invincibility that suggested them exempt from the natural rhythms and whims that disrupt every college football program but Alabama? That’s gone.

Ohio State is about to learn how the other 98 percent lives.

That doesn’t mean that Ohio State is going to fall off a cliff because they got dunked on by Iowa. The Buckeyes arguably have the highest floor of any program in all of college football, and even at their lowest points of the last fifty years, were still arguably at least an average college football program. “Falling off” for the Buckeyes means, perhaps at worst, going to bowl games in Tampa or Orlando or San Diego more than once every fifteen years.

After 2014 and 2015, when Ohio State’s Death Star was at it’s peak operational capacity, it was easy to see how that could have gone on forever. Ohio State’s Big Ten rivals lagged significantly behind in recruiting talent and coaching creativity.

But if you squint, you could see a few cracks. And after the Iowa game, they were at their most dramatic.

Hiring assistant coaches is very hard, especially when you have to do it every year, because your coaches are in demand from the NFL or other programs. You’re not going to nail every single one, even if you’re a hall of fame coach. It’s clear that not every single one of those assistant hires has worked out exactly like Ohio State wanted, and for mortal programs, those misses have consequences. The same is true for recruiting, even if you fill the depth chart with plenty of high four-stars.

We’ve now seen two years of data where Ohio State’s offense has bogged down in many of their big games against high quality opponents. Part of that is a product of exceptionally, perhaps unrealistic, expectations, but this program has not shied away from those.

And, and I recognize that maybe this is silly, one of Ohio State’s biggest advantages, their recruiting turf, is eroding. The 2018 recruiting class has just three players from Ohio in it, and it’s entirely possible that’s all they get. Having more than five would be a pretty big surprise. And that includes Tyreke Smith, a high four-star defensive end that Ohio State not only wants, but needs, and Jackson Carman, a five-star offensive tackle who has made it very clear he is interested in other programs. And that’s not including the slew of other four-star kids who are probably good enough to play at Ohio State, but are off to Michigan State, or Kentucky, or Penn State, or other programs.

The Buckeyes had seven Ohio recruits in their elite 2017 class, including five of the top six players in the state.

Historically, Ohio has been a bit of a firewall for the Buckeyes. You have tons of players who grew up rooting for Ohio State, who understood Buckeye traditions, who had a connection to the program beyond it’s ability to be a conduit to the NFL. As the only power program in the state, it provided a large recruiting ground where the Buckeyes were usually, parochial schools in Cincinnati for Notre Dame notwithstanding, the team to beat.

As the Buckeyes pursue more national talent, it is possible that that firewall could be cracking a bit. Kentucky has made Ohio recruiting a massive priority. After ignoring it for a bit, Michigan has put more of an effort in the state, and already hold a commitment from the third ranked player in the state for 2019. And players the Buckeyes miss could hurt them in Big Ten play, from Wisconsin to Michigan State to Penn State.

I write this not because I think Ohio State is in a bad position. Clearly, that’s not true. I wrote a book that largely looked at the circumstances that helped some programs succeed while others fail, and the Buckeyes have most of the important ingredients in spades. Ohio State has great administrative support, great coaching, great access to high level high school recruits, and great schedules. It’s entirely possible they make some schematic changes, make the playoff in three of the next four seasons, and force some Big Ten schools to fire their coaches, just like Alabama has in the SEC.

But there are other programs that have those advantages too, and even they have bad seasons every once in a while. Your Florida States. Your Georgias. Your USCs. Yes, your Michigans. Fates that Ohio State has largely avoided in my lifetime, and beyond.

Maybe they’ll continue to do that. If they can keep all of their assistants (which, it’s early, but it looks like they will if they want to), if they can have another great national signing day (they will), and if they can address depth issues at a few positions (defensive end, offensive line), everything may be just fine. They’re still ahead, structurally, of everybody else in the Big Ten.

But nothing lasts forever. Maintaining excellence, rather than building it from scratch, is a tall order for even the best coaches in college football. And the dip comes for almost everybody.

Ohio State has missed it so far. Maybe they won’t forever.