Ohio State has been here before. “Here” is the Fiesta Bowl following a season in which the Buckeyes played well enough to get a bid of this magnitude, but didn’t really achieve their goals. And therefore coming into the game needing a victory to achieve some sort of validation for the season.
It seems hard to believe that when the season began that Ohio State was not only the preseason #1, but they were a unanimous choice and there was serious talk about whether this whole season was just a foregone conclusion. Ohio State’s 42-24 win over Virginia Tech on Labor Day Night to start the year only fed the media flames.
But in that victory, the warning signs were there. The quarterback play was inconsistent. If Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer hadn’t gotten knocked out, the Buckeyes might have gotten a stiffer challenge from a team that proved to be mediocre.
Other teams not supposed to be in Ohio State’s class did give the Buckeyes real challenges. Most notably, Indiana took mighty OSU to the final play of the game. Ohio State kept surviving, but the quarterback inconsistency was never solved. Cardale Jones lost his job to J.T. Barrett. Then Barrett got hit with a DUI and was suspended for a game. No rhythm developed.
Finally, it came to a head in the season’s biggest game against Michigan State. In spite of playing at home with Spartan quarterback Conner Cook injured, and getting a gift touchdown on a Michigan State special teams blunder, Ohio State lost 17-14. The aftermath of the game saw running back Ezekiel Elliot question the playcalling and announce he was going pro.
It was almost easy to forget at that point that Ohio State was still an awfully good football team—not simply a talented one, but one that was genuinely good in what they were producing on the field. They might not have been what everyone thought they would be, but the Buckeyes had only lost one game, and that on a last-second field goal.
In case anyone had forgotten, Ohio State put it all together and absolutely dismantled Michigan 42-13 in the season finale. That was the Buckeye team everyone had expected from Day One.
Now they play their final game of the season in Glendale this afternoon against Notre Dame. It would be easy to say this game is meaningless, because it’s not a bowl game that’s a part of the College Football Playoff.
I think differently—while this year’s Ohio State team will always feel a sense of loss for not winning the national championship, this game is going to go a long way toward defining the legacy of the 2015 Ohio State football team. Lose the game, and you’re underachievers. Win the game—especially if you win it impressively and you’re a team that just had one big game and others where you might not have played well, but still won.
Or to put it more simply, Ohio State needs to validate itself today in a way that Notre Dame does not.
Maybe it’s something about the Fiesta Bowl, but since this bowl game became a part of college football’s marquee stage in 1981, Ohio State has been here several other teams in similar situations and mostly had success…
*In 1983, Ohio State missed out on the Big Ten title to Illinois and then lost to Michigan. They salvaged something from the year in the Fiesta Bowl when running back Keith Byars led the way past Pitt. It set up a 1984 year where the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and Byars finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting.
*In 2003, a season-ending loss to Michigan denied Ohio State a shot at top-ranked USC in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes came to the desert and blew out Kansas State to end the season on a good note.
*In 2005, the game most historically relevant to today took place. Ohio State’s offense completely took apart Notre Dame in a 34-20 win. It capped a year when the Buckeyes had lost only to Penn State, and set up a 2006 where Ohio State went undefeated in the regular season and quarterback Troy Smith won the Heisman.
*In 2008, Ohio State was getting a bad reputation for getting blown out in big games. They’d been manhandled in national championship games with Florida and LSU, and gotten crushed by USC in the regular season. The Buckeyes didn’t win the Fiesta Bowl this year, but they took Colt McCoy’s Texas team to the wire and regained a modicum of respect.
And there is one other Fiesta Bowl appearance that doesn’t fit the theme of this article, but might be remembered fondly by Ohio State fans—when they upset Miami in double overtime to win the national championship in 2002. Today’s game doesn’t have those stakes. But it’s still pretty important for Ohio State to win.