There have been few 24-game win streaks like it. No national championship, no conference championship, zero wins over top-15 opponents.
Two years of wins piled up and came tumbling down in a heap of fraud claims and ‘I told you so’s.’” Ohio State couldn’t avoid the questions of legitimacy that have plagued the program since Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators humiliated the Buckeyes in January 2007.
It’s been more than three years – 40 games to be exact – since Ohio State defeated an opponent ranked in the top 10. It was Jim Tressel’s final game as head coach, and even it has been erased from the record books. The Buckeyes can blame themselves and put guilt on the Big Ten.
When Meyer was hired in 2011, he said Ohio State wasn’t broken. He quickly proved that by going 12-0 with a group of players that lost a school-record seven games the previous season. Meyer’s also tweaked the Big Ten, urging coaches to up their recruiting prowess and win marquee games. He’s lived up to his reputation as a stout recruiter, but hasn’t gotten over the national perception hump.
A new season presents new opportunities, though the outlook isn’t as sunny as last year’s forecast. In a national championship or bust year, the Buckeyes went kaboom. But Ohio State still figures to be involved in the inaugural College Football Playoff. To do so, it will need to shore up a new offensive line, hope Ezekiel Elliott and Co. replenish a backfield that’s lost Carlos Hyde’s production and trust in a top-five recruiting class. And don’t forget about that pesky secondary.
But the true indicator will come the second Saturday in November. Ohio State travels to Michigan that weekend. In 2014, though, East Lansing is enemy territory, not Ann Arbor. If the Buckeyes win in a hostile environment over a top-10 team, it will up their national standing and boost their resume for the playoff.
Many questions linger around Ohio State. There are personnel issues and schedules being pondered. How about two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year Braxton Miller? Will his shoulder be OK? Will he take more punishing hits? The new defensive coaches must mesh together, with Chris Ash correcting a muddied secondary.
The true barometer remains marquee wins. A non-conference slate of Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati is improved from last year’s bakery. But the Big Ten schedule is brimming with cupcakes, cream puffs and marshmallows. No Wisconsin, no Nebraska, no Iowa. There is, however, Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Indiana. Michigan is at home, leaving Michigan State as the only real opportunity to impress a legion of non-believers.
Any amount of losses, be it one or three, will strengthen the narrative surrounding Ohio State and the Big Ten. Overrated, slow and plodding would be of the most popular adjectives. The debate about whether they’re correct could go on for days. But there’s evidence of a gap on the offensive and defensive lines. It’s seen when Big Ten and SEC teams play and by glancing at NFL rosters. The Big Ten’s NFL Draft low moment came last April when it was almost shut out of the first round.
In the past decade, you’d think pundits were discussing the Mountain West or Sun Belt when hurling insults in the direction of Jim Delany’s empire. It’s due in part to Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska’s struggles – three traditional powers that may as well be named Oregon State, Virginia and Iowa State.
Two-thirds of the conference ranked outside the top 50 in the Sagarin Ratings last season, while leagues such as the SEC and Pac-12 were featured prominently.
Through it all, the conference’s superior brand hasn’t taken a hit. The Big Ten is still rich in money and power. But the on-field results haven’t yielded positive returns.
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately generation, irrelevance is creeping into the Midwest.