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To make a playoff run, Ohio State will need to exorcise their Happy Valley demons

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The toughest test of the season for Ohio State is on the horizon

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images/Edit by Patrick Mayhorn

In college football, there’s no such thing as a perfect team, nor a perfect season. It’s simply the nature of the sport. Football is an extremely difficult sport to dominate, because there are so many moving pieces, so many variables and things that can change from week to week. In the NFL, the highest possible form of football, players and teams make mistakes, get upset by lesser foes, and have let down games.

Now a sport that is already makes it nearly impossible to piece together a perfect season, and then try to do it with rosters filled entirely of 18 to 23-year-olds. It’s easy to see why every college football season ends up being so entertainingly chaotic, and why so many unexpectedly weird things happen every week when you think about it that way.

While the craziness of college football is why we love college football, it’s the variables in the sport that cause the craziness that prevents anything even resembling a perfect team from becoming a reality . Every single college football team in the history of the sport has been beatable, and every single one— even if they did survive all of the obstacles and managed to go undefeated— has faced massive challenges and gone through adversity.

More often than not, the thing that separates good teams from great teams— and great teams from elite teams— is how they handle those obstacles, and how they perform when all eyes are on them.

The best teams in recent history— from 2004 USC to 2008 Florida; 2009 Alabama to 2010 Auburn; 2013 Florida State to 2014 Ohio State— all had to go through trials and face adversity before they could become champions.

Most notable in that group, 2008 Florida got smacked in the mouth by Ole Miss before becoming one of the most dominant teams in recent memory. The 2010 Auburn squad— led by perhaps the best college football player of all time— had to squeak out a win at Kentucky. The 2014 Ohio State team was completely dominated by Virginia Tech, and proceeded to tear the rest of the college football world to shreds en route to the first College Football Playoff Championship.

Now, obviously not every national championship team falters in those tests. It’s certainly possible, as plenty of teams have shown, to go undefeated in college football. However, the importance of those mid-season tests— often on the road in an unfriendly environment— centers around the maturity that grows in a team having gone through them.

Playing at a top-25, or even a top-ten opponent, win or lose, will show every player on a championship contending team exactly what the road ahead entails for them. Those games will test every single player’s determination, they’ll test the chemistry of a team. Winning them is great, but even losing them can be reconciled as crucial, because above all else, great teams become great, only after they’ve been pushed to the edge.

The 2018 edition of Ohio State has one of those tests coming up this Saturday, when they travel to Happy Valley to face off with Penn State. Through four games, Ohio State has looked the part of a national title contender, crushing three weaker opponents, and outlasting what seems to be a pretty good TCU team.

None of those games come anywhere near the challenge that a road trip to Happy Valley will present. There are very few venues in college football that can hold a candle to Beaver Stadium at night. We know the game will be a whiteout, we know the crowd will be rocking, and we know the entire college football world will be watching extremely intently.

If we as fans are well aware of the dangers of playing in Happy Valley, you’d better believe that Ohio State’s players and coaches are aware, and are preparing furiously for something that frankly, can’t be prepared for. No amount of piped in crowd noise can prepare a team for that environment. I’d venture as far as to say that a primetime game at Penn State is the most daunting environment of any in college football. It’s a terrifying place to play, and we know that because you can feel it through a television.

“That’s one of the tops in the country, very loud and their fans are into it, just like our Horseshoe.” - Urban Meyer on Beaver Stadium

We also know that because this isn’t the first great Buckeye team to travel there. Because the teams share a division, they play every year, which— much to the dismay of everyone in Columbus— means that the Buckeyes have to make this trek every other year. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, they’ve played Ohio State every single year; 25 games, to be exact.

Ohio State has lost six of the 14 trips that they’ve taken to Happy Valley in that time. In the entire school history, against teams that they played more than 20 games, Ohio State only has a worse record against two teams than they do against Penn State: USC, and Michigan.

No matter how much Buckeye fans like to deny it, Penn State is a rival, and more often than not, they’re the number one test of a Buckeye team being good, great, or championship worthy.

In 1995, Ohio State toppled Penn State in Happy Valley, and came up one game short of a national title. Two years later, the seventh ranked Buckeyes fell to a great Nittany Lions team, and went on to falter down the stretch, finishing 10-3. The same was true in 2005, when Ohio State lost to Penn State, and finished with a good-not-great 10-2 record. Then in 2016, another good-not-great Buckeye team failed the Penn State test, which should have warned us of the fate that they’d eventually meet two months later at the hands of Clemson.

The best Buckeye teams this millennium are almost exclusively teams that went to Penn State and passed the Happy Valley test. The 2007 team won by 20 and went to a title game. The 2009 team won by 17 and won a Rose Bowl. The 2012 team won by 12, and finished undefeated. The 2014 team won by seven and Joey Bosa’s walk-off sack may have been the turning point of that championship season. That win might have propelled Ohio State from a great team to a championship team.

There’s just something about this game, in that stadium, that makes both teams the best versions— or sometimes the worst versions— of themselves. It reveals every weakness each team has, and if a team has no real weaknesses, there’s no better way to learn that than through a dominating victory.

Ohio State-Penn State isn’t “The Game;” it will never have the history, or the year-to-year significance of Ohio State-Michigan. What it will have, every year, no matter what, is intrigue, hype, and, more likely than not, a damn good game on the field.

Saquon Barkley or not, Joe Moorhead or not, Penn State will be a serious test for Ohio State this Saturday. I don’t care how young their defense is, or how bad their offensive line is. Penn State... at home... at night... surrounded by 100,000 white t-shirts, is terrifying.

To be considered elite, or to be considered a title contender, Ohio State has to pass this test. No matter how scary it is, no matter how worried we all get about this game as it approaches, we know how crucial it is for the growth of a young Buckeye team with an impossibly high ceiling, and even higher expectations.

If Dwayne Haskins is truly the superstar that many of us think that he can be, then this is his week to prove it. If these receivers are truly improved, this is their week to show it. If this defense wants the Silver Bullet distinction that almost every Buckeye defense earned in recent memory, then they have to earn it.

If Ohio State wants to win the Big Ten, if Ohio State wants to be in the playoff, if Ohio State wants to challenge Alabama for their throne, this is the week to prove that they’re ready. This is the week that champions are made, deep in the heart of Pennsylvania, surrounded by nothing but loud, angry, white t-shirts. Welcome to Penn State week.