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Column: A special game will kick off Ohio State’s football schedule this fall

Why it’s great to open with Fighting Irish

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Even though the NCAA basketball tournament is now in full swing — games on nearly all day — true Ohio State fans are always thinking about football. And it’s very easy to be thinking ahead to the 2022 football season because the Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be in Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 3 for both teams’ season opener. The game is important for many reasons. In terms of practicality, the rivalry between the two has recently become increasingly heated on the recruiting trail, and this game will certainly have at least some impact on that.

But from a storyline standpoint, it’s special simply because of the almost-royal pedigrees that the Buckeyes and Irish possess.

Why it’s important

In the era of the four-team college playoff system, a team can’t afford many losses. In fact, no team with more than one loss has made it to the playoffs. For that simple reason, every game is important, and it’s that fact that makes college football so much fun to watch (as opposed to the NFL, where a .500 record can sometimes “earn” a team a wild-card spot). More significantly, both teams will be highly ranked. Unsurprisingly, the NCAA’s “way too early” 2022 rankings look like this: 1. Alabama, 2. Ohio State, 3. Georgia, 4. Texas A&M, 5. Notre Dame. See what I mean? There’s a lot at stake. The winner gets a high-quality win and solidifies a top ranking.

Recruiting is also at stake. The Buckeyes and Irish are both national powers, and both recruit nationally. But they’re also Midwest powers and compete head-to-head in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania. Win this big game, and you’ve got a recruiting edge over your rival.

All of these facts, however, would be the same if Ohio State were playing some other power early in the season. Rankings and recruiting and playoff possibilities would be affected similarly in games against Oregon, or Texas, or Oklahoma. But Notre Dame is different, unique even.

The pedigrees

If we disregard, for the moment, TTUN, the next five winningest collegiate football programs are bunched pretty closely together, even after 120 years of playing the game. Alabama, after their run to the national title game last year, is second in wins. Ohio State is third, and Notre Dame is fourth. In terms of Heisman Trophy recipients, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma lead all schools with seven each. Southern Cal has six, Alabama four. Year in and year out, these are the top programs. These are the national brands. The true blue bloods.

The aura of the Irish

Let me provide a few examples of the Irish mystique.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in Columbus, in Grandview, actually. My dad worked the radio broadcast booth at OSU games. I was a Buckeye fan from as far back as I can remember. But... Ralph Guglielmi lived in my neighborhood. And I idolized him. You’ve got to be pretty old to remember the Grandview High grad, of course. Suffice it to say that he played quarterback at Notre Dame, making consensus All American after the 1954 season. He went on to play eight seasons, or so, in the NFL, mostly with the Washington Redskins. But he still lived in Grandview, and my friends and I would see him from time to time. Point him out and gawk at him. He wasn’t just a great football player. He was a Notre Dame quarterback. Like Paul Hornung. Like Joe Montana. Golden.

When I moved to Chicago as a teenager, I quickly became acquainted with the high school football of the Chicago Catholic League. The Catholic League teams scouted public school teams and offered athletic scholarships to players that they wanted, sometimes jobs for their folks. And Notre Dame? The Irish treated the Catholic League like a farm system. I knew several guys who scouted the Chicago high school scene for the Irish, and we all knew that every Catholic kid’s dream was to suit up for Notre Dame. Every one of them was a potential Rudy.

Notre Dame didn’t need a conference. Everybody wanted to play them. The Irish practically had their own TV network, had their games televised long before the top conferences had their own networks. Notre Dame would lose money by joining a conference. And who watches those Irish games against Boston College on NBC? Guys like my father-in-law. Living in Charleston, SC, he didn’t care at all about Clemson or South Carolina. He was Catholic. He followed Notre Dame religiously, watching them every week. They were his team. The Catholic team. He also liked the New York Yankees. He liked winners. Except Ohio State. Rivals to the Irish, he didn’t care much for the Buckeyes.

There’s just something about those blue and gold uniforms, the golden helmets to match the golden dome of the campus’s iconic building. They’re unique. And the fight song. I remember hearing Pete Carroll say in an interview that he knew that his USC Trojans were in trouble when he caught himself humming the ND fight song as he headed to the locker room for halftime.

The series

Despite their pedigrees, their rivalries, Ohio State and Notre Dame don’t play very often. Only six times previously, in fact. And the Bucks are riding a four-game winning streak. The two Irish wins were a long time back: ND 18, OSU 13 in Columbus in 1935 and ND 7, OSU 2 in South Bend the following year. The two teams played another two-game home-and-home series in 1995 and 1996, the Buckeyes taking both contests, 45-26 and 29-16, respectively. Then, the two met in Fiesta Bowls after the 2005 season and after the 2015 season.

The Bucks took the first game 34-20. You might remember the human-interest story of A.J. Hawk and Brady Quinn. And Laura Quinn (Hawk’s fiancée at the time, Quinn’s sister) wearing her half-and-half jersey in the stands. The Fiesta Bowl game on Jan. 1, 2016 was a consolation prize for what should have been a back-to-back national championship year. Alas. But the Buckeyes were all over the Irish in this game. The thing that I remember from this one is Joey Bosa ending his OSU career when he was ejected for targeting.

So, going into the 2022 matchup, there’s a short, but storied history. With ex-Buckeye Marcus Freeman taking over as Irish head coach, his debut provides another storyline. As does his hiring another ex-Buckeye, James Laurinaitus, as his linebacker coach. Wow!

Enjoy your basketball, but don’t let this fall’s Ohio State-Notre Dame matchup get too far out of your mind.