When we think of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, we’re likely to recall the sweater vests, the two losses in the early years of the BCS Championship games, and the tattoo scandal that cost him his job.
But, we should never forget the great underdog win over Miami to win the 2002 national championship. Nor, in fact, should we overlook his overall achievement directing the OSU program.
Tressel coached the Buckeyes for 10 years, from 2001-2010. His first squad went only 7-5, and his 2004 team finished 8-4. But the other eight?
- 2002: 14-0
- 2003: 11-2
- 2005: 10-2
- 2006: 12-1
- 2007: 11-2
- 2008: 10-3
- 2009: 11-2
- 2010: 12-1 (yes, I’m restoring the games from 2010 that the NCAA vacated).
That’s a cumulative record of 106-22 (82.8%). And his teams, with the exception of the first one in 2001, were all ranked in the final AP polls. This is a career on a par with Urban Meyer and Ryan Day.
Yet, those two lost championship games haunt Tressel’s legacy, and his style of play, “Tressel Ball,” is not looked back upon fondly. Let’s take a look at how Tressel Ball and the losses to the two SEC teams were linked, and how those losses ultimately changed the course of Ohio State football.
The 2006 season
Tressel built his Buckeye teams around a stout defense and an offense that featured the running attack. He expected to win the turnover battle and the time of possession. That 2006 defense was led by members of the current Notre Dame coaching staff – Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis. Troy Smith quarterbacked the Bucks. And, while he was probably more of a runner than a passer, he did win the Heisman Trophy that year. The running backs were Antonio Pittman and Chris (Beanie) Wells. And there was a bit of speed, as wideout Ted Ginn, Jr. posed a deep threat.
These Buckeyes were really loaded, and went into the BCS Championship game undefeated and ranked No. 1. Previously, during the regular season, they had beaten two No. 2-ranked teams — Texas early in the season and Michigan more recently. They expected to beat another No. 2 in Florida.
Things looked mighty good early on. The fleet footed Ginn returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a Buckeye touchdown, and I was starting to count my wager winnings. I should have heard Lee Corso whispering in my ear, “not so fast, my friend.” Ginn sprained his ankle during the touchdown celebration and didn’t play again. Florida scored the next 21 points. Each team then added a touchdown, and the halftime score was Florida 34, Ohio State 14.
The teams played another 30 minutes, but the game was over at the half. In the final quarter, Tim Tebow took the ball in from the one to make the final 41-14. What happened?
During Tressel’s tenure at OSU, the Buckeyes almost never played teams from the SEC. They played big, non-conference games against USC and Texas. They battled TTUN, Penn State, and Wisconsin in Big Ten play. But they hadn’t experienced what had been going on down south, where it was all about team speed. On both sides of the ball.
Urban Meyer coached the 2006 Gator team, and he ran Percy Harvin over the middle out of the slot. OSU’s splendid linebackers couldn’t handle his speed, and he would make the catch and run loose in the secondary. The Florida defense was all over the place, too fast for Buckeye blockers. They sacked Smith five times. They gave up only eight first downs, 82 total yards. They forced two OSU turnovers. The vaunted Buckeye running game picked up 47 yards on 23 carries. Smith was four for 14 passing, for 35 yards and an interception.
Meanwhile, the Gators ran for 156 yards and Chris Leak passed for 213 more. They didn’t turn the ball over. The teams were ranked 1 and 2, but they looked as though they didn’t belong on the same field.
The 2007 season
Folks remember the 2007 season and the BCS Championship game that followed it as a repeat performance. But it really wasn’t. This time, it was LSU handling the Buckeyes. And it wasn’t Urban Meyer coaching them. It was Les Miles.
The Buckeye team had lost Smith, but the rest of the stars were still in place. Freeman and Laurinaitis were at linebacker. Beanie Wells was the running back. Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie were receivers for Todd Boeckman. A good team that had been ranked No. 1 for much of year. A freakish loss to Illinois late in the season dropped them back to No. 7, but a 14-3 win in Ann Arbor and some losses by other contenders put the 11-1 Buckeyes in the BCS game for the second straight season.
Again, Ohio State took an early lead on a big play, as Wells ran for a 65-yard TD. Ryan Pretorius’s field goal gave the Bucks a 10-0 lead at the 9:12 mark of the first quarter. Now, we can use the words: déjà vu. The Tigers reeled off 31 unanswered points, mainly from a short passing game, and control of the contest was theirs.
The final stats weren’t as lopsided as in the Florida game the year before, but the 38-24 final score was still devastating. Ohio State, and by extension the Big Ten, wasn’t really on a par with the top teams in the SEC.
Why they were important
Tressel tried to adapt his game. Recruit more speed, especially on defense. Get QBs who were better passers. Try for a more balanced offense. For Ohio State, however, the transition to an SEC-style game didn’t occur until Tressel was forced out. After the Luke Fickell-led Buckeyes went 6-7 in 2011, Ohio State essentially became an SEC team, when they hired an SEC coach, Urban Meyer, and adopted an SEC style of play.
Meyer’s style of football revolved around speed. When the Buckeyes beat No. 1 Alabama in the playoffs after the 2014 season, a friend of mine, who was a Bama alum and an avid Tide supporter, said to me, “I didn’t think that there was a team in American that could come close to matching team speed with Alabama. Ohio State is faster.”
We still see clips of Zeke Elliott going 85 yards with Bama’s defensive backs chasing him and losing ground on every step. And those same DBs relive Devin Smith’s blowing by them.
It was those losses to SEC teams in games that really mattered that changed the character of the team. Oh, I know that the college game generally has changed, but OSU has been at the forefront of that change. Since hiring Meyer, Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten and has had wonderful recruiting success. Fast players want to go and play for teams that will use their speed. I admit that I would rather have beaten Florida and LSU, but there’s nothing wrong with pointing out the silver lining in any cloud.