A team that plays with a collective psychological detachment that allows it to execute at peak levels without the fear of failure is one of the most terrifying anomalies in sports.
It's because playing with everything-at-stake is generally accompanied by at least a hint of that naturally occurring and consummately toxic cognitive partner, everything-to-lose. You know that awful vibe you feel every time an offensive drive goes needlessly three-and-out specifically on account of telegraphed, frightened play-calling? That failure results for two reasons, and the second one is the fear of losing.
Ohio State didn't play frightened football last season, which might have been a reflection of its coach. It also could have been because it didn't have to.
The Buckeyes operated all year with nothing to lose after being told for the balance of nine months that they had nothing to play for with a postseason ban canceling its true purpose. Whether or not you choose to believe that had an effect on how 2012 played out, its hard to deny that being helplessly unranked and ineligible for holiday prizes every single week soothes some tensions.
And, in part, it devalued a little bit of what they accomplished. Not the inexplicable perfect record thing; the collective psychological detachment to execute at peak levels without the fear of failure thing. It was manufactured in part by a couple of NCAA allegations letters that they inherited. It also might have been mitigated by Urban Meyer.
What Ohio State did on the field 12 straight times was earned, but there was some ancillary, disgusting benefit to having championship dreams snatched away before even getting the chance to go to sleep. The national media told you this. Hell, I did too, and I rarely agree with the #narrative, so it must true.
But that's all over. That unwanted Ohio State football talking point died ingloriously last November. RIP, Nothing-to-play-for: Everyone hated you. (2012-2012)
Now the Buckeyes get the highly-exclusive tasting menu that comes with having absolutely everything-at-stake: ANTIPASTO: The nation's longest winning streak! PRIMO: Being the prohibitive B1G favorite! SECONDO: National championship aspirations that began with hopes for the AP vote last season and, after all of that, DOLCE: Urban Meyer's Year Two track record for terrifying anomalies.
That's a pretty dramatic departure from 2012, when everyone was sent to bed without dessert.
This means that naturally occurring and consummately toxic cognitive partner should return at full strength for the first time since the vacated 2011 season. A forgotten season followed by a handcuffed season led to this. It should be worth the wait, but the pressure will be enormous.
Braxton Miller won't be allowed to covertly play his way into a Heisman invitation for half of a season with nobody scrutinizing his candidacy credentials, as was the case with Johnny Manziel in 2012. Even Buffalo on August 31 matters, as does every game that follows it.
In 2012 Miller was routinely knocked out of games with injuries that looked practically fatal. He was motionless on the turf. He was slammed into an equipment cart. He was taken away from the stadium in a goddamn ambulance. And each time, while there was prodigious concern for his health, there was also a very quiet, almost vulgar sense of consolation that whispered please be ready for next year.
Somehow he still hasn't missed a game since Jim Bollman benched him for Joe Bauserman against Toledo (because who needs reps, right?) The first time Miller gets up slowly, that prodigious concern for his health will return. The quiet, vulgar sense of consolation will not.
Every game this season will not only serve as the land mine that severs the Buckeyes and their already-dismissed schedule from title consideration; each Saturday could also be Urban Meyer's first loss as head coach. Perfection, double-digit winning streaks, Heisman campaigns and championship hopes all hanging for four hours at a time each Saturday. No biggie.
The question beyond how that new-ish defensive line comes together, ahead of Miller's durability, that night in Evanston or that afternoon in Ann Arbor is just how cruel that consummately toxic cognitive partner of everything-to-win is going to impact a roster that hasn't felt its true wrath in years.
So there will be considerably more pressure on the 2013 Buckeyes than on their departed sibling, which leads back to why Ohio State didn't play frightened football last season. It might have been a reflection of its coach, but it also could have been because it didn't have to.
Perfection, double-digit winning streaks, Heisman campaigns and championship hopes all hanging for four hours at a time each Saturday. No biggie.
If it's the former, then that's exceptional news for those of you who already have Los Angeles-area hotel rooms booked (twice; once for Rose Bowl week and another for the week after, only because you still don't understand or trust BCS math). If Meyer is the reason the Buckeyes played unafraid, that bodes well for 2013.
However, if it was because of the empty winner's circle, admittedly buttressed after-the-fact by the university with commemorative walls and rings, then you might feel more clenching in tight games than you would prefer.
In all likelihood, you're going to be pleasantly unsurprised by how 2013 progresses. The stress from outside of the WHAC on Ohio State football to perform at peak levels pales in comparison to what is being applied from within, and that tension arrived with Meyer's hiring. It even survived an abandoned postseason unscathed.
So Ohio State shouldn't be weakened by pressure. It should be even stronger. And that's exactly the kind of terrifying anomaly you're hoping to see.