2002. That was the year. It was the year of close escapes, miracle finishes, and great triumphs. It was a year for veterans to go out with a bang, and for newcomers to announce their presence on the college football scene. It was a year to hang on tight, and a year to jump for joy. That was 2002.
This is not that year. But then again it could be. The story is not yet written, but the plot is already fleshed out in the imaginations of Ohio State fans everywhere. Once again it is time to dream big dreams, to picture another 14-0 season like that last glorious one in 2002. 2013 could be that year.
It would mean more than just going undefeated and winning it all, because 2002 was more than that. It was a year that showed the previous season's victory at Michigan was no fluke by beating them for a second straight season, the first time OSU had done that in two decades. It was also a year to show the tenacity and grit of the players and their soft-spoken coach, and a year to shut down the cockiest team on the face of the planet.
If the 2013 season is to be as satisfying as the 2002 season was, it will require more than just a win in the BCS Championship Game. It will require the kind of storybook season that Krenzel and Company delivered with all of the accompanying drama, plus a thrilling victory at the end against desperate odds and perhaps even with a little luck on their side. A dominating march to glory is all fine and good, but a tough slog through treacherous terrain punctuated by a hard-fought triumph under difficult circumstances will thoroughly cleanse the collective souls of the Buckeye players and fans.
The greatness of the national championship season in 2002 was only partly due to the accomplishments; there was also a part that involved the vindication of a program. Too many times in the years leading up to that one great year, the team had looked unstoppable, only to stumble late in the season against some inferior foe. Not only that, but in the last couple years before the championship, the team had slipped to the point where they were no longer expected to win every game. At Ohio State, that's a bad place to be.
Winning it all in 2013 could be a vindication of a different sort. In the last few years of the Tressel era, the program had started to come under fire for the lack of imagination in offensive game-plans, and for accumulating tons of talent at skill positions only to waste them by calling the same old plays and sets repeatedly. The coaches' distrust of young quarterbacks had seemed to deepen in the last few years, leading to long "trial" periods where the playbook would be narrowed for the benefit of the inexperienced signal-caller and only expanded later after several games of Dave-heavy execution.
Not only was the play-calling uninspired, but the blocking up front had slipped dramatically from those first glory years to the point where even highly-touted linemen seemed to regress upon donning the scarlet and gray. All of that changed last season as the line and the offense in general improved in both aesthetics and execution. But doing it again under the glare of increased expectations and against the sure-to-be-an-SEC-champion opponent in the BCS title game would be a resounding statement that the program was now truly elite.
Another element brought to the fore during that glorious 2002 season was the image of Ohio State as an object of hatred. Prior to 2002, the Buckeyes were a marquee team but outsiders kind of felt sorry for them because of how often their bubble was burst by Michigan. When playing a team they were supposed to beat, Ohio State was generally dominant. But put them on the big stage against a team that was talented and well-prepared and OSU seemed to melt under the glare.
Most people remember OSU coach John Cooper's abysmal 2-10-1 record against Michigan, but it's worth noting that he was an almost equally abysmal 3-8 in bowl games. Included among those eight setbacks were ignominious losses to Air Force and South Carolina, the latter of which finally cost Cooper his job. Failure in the biggest games, and Cooper's "that's just the way it goes" responses to those failures afterward had made Ohio State seem like a paper tiger, not someone to be feared or taken seriously.
The magical run of 2002 changed everything, leading to the season-long antics of Trev Alberts and Mark May on ESPN and the dismissive articles in the run-up to the championship game. The nature of OSU's win over Miami, with all of the controversy and wails of protest, only intensified the hatred that the undefeated season had earned for them on the part of sportswriters and opposing fans. The Buckeyes were no longer loveable pooches who barked a lot but never bit; now they were being lumped in with the 2000 Yankees as one of the most hated teams in sports.
A victory on the biggest stage this season will produce a similar reaction, perhaps one that is even more intense. If Ohio State goes undefeated and wins the Big Ten Championship Game, they will undoubtedly find themselves in the BCS Championship Game. There will be many who will resent their presence there, thinking that a team with OSU's schedule has not really been tested. Many will predict a blowout loss to whatever SEC team they face, similar to the predictions prior to the game against Miami.
Should the Buckeyes then proceed to do the unthinkable and dethrone the mighty SEC from their accustomed position as rulers of the college football world, then there will be more hatred than ever seen before. Mark May will grind his teeth so much it will require multiple root canals to repair the damage. Mike Bianchi and the entire troll-verse of wannabe raconteurs looking for cheap hits will go on a high-octane binge, accusing Urban Meyer of all manner of vile offenses and calling incessantly for the NCAA to launch an investigation. It will be vicious, chaotic, ugly, and beautiful at the same time.
There will be a certain harmony in the chorus of Buckeye hatred that will erupt in the event that they win it all. It will remind you of that glorious season when it all came together for OSU and no one in the college football world could stop them. It will mark the dawn of a new age of Buckeye dominance, one founded on a more solid foundation than the one launched only 11 years ago. Be of good cheer, Buckeye fans, for the howls of protest and catcalls of your enemies are but the college football equivalent of roses tossed at the feet of a great performer. It is a sound that you will cherish for many years to come, even as you wait for the next era of dominance to arrive.