Today is the final day of SB Nation’s “Underdog Week,” and the theme has made me think a lot about the emotions that fans experience while rooting for teams considered to be underdogs, and how sometimes those emotions can lead to the most exciting and satisfying experiences that a fan can ever have. However, as a fandom, we really haven’t had that many opportunities to be underdogs in recent decades, and you know what? I kind of miss it.
Earlier this week the great and the good Brett Ludwiczak wrote about what might be the last time that the Ohio State Buckeyes took to the field as a decided, overwhelming underdog; the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes. As I said in my Buckeye Bits column on Thursday, I was at that game, and from the opening bell, the Buckeyes felt like Little Mac in “Mike Tyson’s Punchout!” trying to bob and weave around the haymakers and uppercuts thrown by a formidable favorite.
But, as has been unanimously agreed upon by all college football fans and experts in every corner of the globe, there was absolutely no controversy surrounding that game and Jim Tressel’s squad was clearly and objectively the better team that day in Sun Devil Stadium nearly 17-and-a-half years ago.
Looking back now, that day is not only significant for the crystal football that the Buckeyes were able to collectively raise above their heads as confetti fell to the desert floor. That day, January 3, 2003, is also a line of demarcation for the OSU football program. Since the double-overtime, upset victory over The U in the BCS National Championship Game, the Buckeyes have never been an underdog, at least not in the sense that they were that day, except for one other occasion in 2015.
Sure, there have been a handful of other times when OSU has entered a game as the betting dog, but that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone other than broadcasters and bettors. Being a true underdog is not about a point spread, but a state of mind. It is about going into a game knowing that not only is a win not guaranteed, but it is also unlikely; that for things to go your team’s way on that day, there will need to be some sort of magical confluence of events that all somehow fall perfectly into place and that even the slightest variance from the plan will result in the unmitigated collapse of all of your hopes and dreams; and yet you still have faith anyway.
Save for perhaps at times in the lost 2011 season, there has been only one time since the 2003 Fiesta Bowl that the Buckeyes have entered a game as decidedly not the favorites in the hearts and minds of the collective sports world; there has been only one instance in which we as fans were forced to be more hopeful than confident. That game was the Sugar Bowl against Alabama on January 1, 2015. The entire world had decided that Ohio State was dramatically overmatched and that it would take a miracle for them to even have a puncher’s chance against Nick Saban’s behemoth.
Remember how special winning that game felt? It was more than a victory in the first College Football Playoff. It was more than a step closer to a national championship. It was a win against all expectations. It was validation of an entire team, program, and fanbase. The anticipation for that game, when we felt like we knew a secret that the rest of the sporting world hadn’t caught on to yet, coupled with the pure rush of elation and pride that the win created in all of us has rarely been experienced in Buckeye Nation since 2003, and again I say, I miss it.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have loved how dominant the Buckeyes have been since derailing the Miami dynasty nearly two decades ago. That should never be in question, but we all know that we live with a much different vibe when we expect our team to win as opposed to when we hope that our team will win.
For reasons real and imagined, many OSU fans have taken to using the phrase “Ohio Against the World” as a rallying cry, and I get it. Whether there are real, powerful, Illuminati-level forces at work conspiring to keep the Buckeyes down, or it is just a tin-foil hat conspiracy run amok, the sense that not only are Ohio State’s opponents against them, but so are TV networks, committees, and referees, gives fans the feeling of being an underdog that has long eluded us, and again, I get it.
Since the dawn of the Tressel era and through much of Urban Meyer’s tenure, winning was expected from the Buckeyes, but because of conservative, ball-control philosophies, the games themselves were not as fun as they should have been. Sure, the end results, double-digit win seasons, and humiliating That Team Up North were all fun, but the games themselves often felt like slogs. The scores were closer than necessary, and it often felt like the Bucks were on the verge of being upset; where a potential loss would hurt far more (and for far longer) than the joy a win would produce. That can wear you down as a fan. It’s similar to why it is so difficult for a team in any sport to repeat as champions.
My grandfather used to say, “Expect the worst, hope for the best.” To me, that is the perfect expression of an underdog’s mentality, and it suited my Cleveland-sports loving grandfather perfectly. But when you root for a team that begins every season as the prohibitive favorite to win its conference and to contend for a national championship, you are naturally conditioned to expect the best, and hope against the worst.
So, when your team wins, sure it’s fun and momentarily enjoyable, but it is never as satisfying and soul-fulfilling as when your team defies the odds and expert predictions to pull off the most unexpected of heavyweight knock outs.