Wasn’t last season fun? When Braxton Miller went down just a matter of days before the 2014 season kicked off, I admit to basically writing off the year.
The fact that the title run came in such an unlikely season allowed us all to relax and just go along for the ride. For me, it was the polar opposite of 2006. I expected that team to win every week and each game was a white-knuckle ride with my demands for domination warring with my ability to enjoy the ride. It was my favorite group of Buckeyes…maybe ever.
I loved that team and desperately wanted that to be the year the Buckeyes won it all. I wanted it for Ginn, for Troy, for Gonzo and Pittman. For Little Animal and Malcolm Jenkins and Quinn Pitcock and Vern Gholston. Each week I gritted my teeth and waited for the points to come. The clock moved slower in those fourth quarters than in any other year.
The win at No. 2 Texas was a sphincter tightener, waiting for the Buckeyes to gain some separation over a team that had broken Ohio State hearts the year before. The advantage was only 10 at the half the next game against Cincinnati. Ohio State trailed at the half a week later against Penn State and were only four points up going into the fourth. It was excruciating.
The season was like that. I breathed and unclenched after each win. On some level I enjoyed the wins, but I’m not sure I was enjoying myself that year. The weight of my own expectations simply kept me from breathing easy at any point. Iowa came and went, then Bowling Green, Michigan State, Indiana. And a laugher over Minnesota. Those last two allowed a bit more breathing room.
Then came a struggle over Illinois that ended in a 17-10 win and probably took five years off all of our lives. All that remained between the Buckeyes and a showdown with Michigan was Northwestern, which Jim Tressel’s team dispatched with ease. I remember that game against No. 2 Michigan being one hell of a battle. There were times during that game that I literally forgot to breathe. A key third down here. A pass into coverage there.
I spent the entire evening so terrified of losing—given what was at stake—that I felt more relief than joy when the final seconds ticked off the clock. That was what 2006 was like for me. It was more about the fear of losing than the joy of winning. It's not something I want to repeat but I'm not sure if I can control that. It may just be the way I'm wired.
And then, of course, that game happened in the Arizona desert—a place that had been so good to Ohio State over the previous several years. It was one game out of 13 and it ruined the year for me, and for others. Many years, a one-loss season would be a reason to celebrate (see also: 2014).
It’s not just that the loss came at the end, although that certainly plays a large part. It’s the expectations of that season and the failure to realize that dream that made the one loss hurt so badly. It was wanting it for those seniors and not seeing it happen.
It was crushing.
Last season, with so many young players stepping into more prominent roles with the team and the staff having to replace four fifths of the offensive line, I just didn’t see how breaking in a new starting quarterback was going to be conducive to a special season. I remember thinking that 9-3 sounded like a pretty good deal at the time and I would gladly have accepted it, if offered, before the Navy game.
The team struggled to defeat the Midshipmen and then got handled in the Shoe in Week 2 by Virginia Tech. At that point, 9-3 sounded even better. This was one of those transition years. Nothing more.
Then something weird happened. The team started to quietly amalgamate, learning to recognize and overcome whatever obstacles opponents threw at them. The team got well against Kent State to the tune of 66-0.
Enjoyable as it was just to see the Buckeyes lay the lumber to an opponent—even as impotent a foe as the Golden Flashes—I don’t think any of us were under the illusion that the lopsided victory meant anything, even though it was cathartic after the struggles of the first two weeks.
I boarded a plane for Columbus hopeful of seeing a victory over Cincinnati but I was by no means expecting it to be easy the way the Bearcats had been scoring early in the year. Aside from a few big pass plays, however, the Buckeyes weren’t seriously threatened, winning 50-28. We all worried a bit about the secondary, but not too much, because we still weren’t too sure about the 2014 Buckeyes.
Certainly no one was bandying the word “championship” around at that point. Nor did that change when Ohio State went to Maryland and won 52-24.
Wins were enjoyable and we didn’t fret too much about losing. The schedule was soft enough to get even a young, disjointed Buckeye team—led by a freshman quarterback—a decent record and we figured the potential of a New Year’s Day bowl game wasn’t out of the question.
A 56-17 destruction of Rutgers was nice, but none of us were scraping up money for B1G championship game tickets over it. The following week at Penn State, things got real. We started to care more about the results, even with all that youth on the field. J.T. Barrett put the team on his back (and bum knee) and carried them out of Happy Valley after two overtimes with new hope.
The win over Illinois was expected at that point and Michigan State loomed. This was the real test to see if Ohio State might have some potential for a special season. The Buckeyes prevailed in East Lansing and looked good in the process. A hard-fought win over Minnesota later and we were all suddenly watching SEC and Big 12 games, hoping the right combination of cards would fall in our favor.
The Big Ten East looked realistic, provided the Buckeyes took care of business in The Game. The win over Indiana reminded us that this was a young team and that anything could happen. Ohio State prevailed and went into its rivalry game needing a win to get to its second straight conference championship game. The Buckeyes got the job done, but lost Barrett in the fourth quarter.
All those hopes we’d started to build up over the previous few weeks were replaced with hopes for a decent bowl game. This young 2014 team had looked great at times, and like what it really was at others. Hey, let’s see what this Cardale kid can do, right?
Then 59-0 happened.
Ohio State was in the College Football Playoff and there were few of us who could even believe it. OK, we had to go up against mighty Alabama, but at least we made it into the final four. “House money” became a favorite phrase across Buckeye Nation, because Ohio State was certainly playing with that.
Then it got even weirder and more wonderful.
Zeke and the slobs went nuts, Cardale and the receivers made plays, and the defense stepped up its game. All of a sudden, the Buckeyes were playing Oregon. And then the Ducks weren’t even all that challenging in the end. They couldn’t tackle Elliott or Jones. They could scarcely cover a receiver (and when they did, our guys just caught it off their backs anyway). Their fans ended up whining about this improbable Buckeye team running up the score.
How much did you enjoy that? Yeah, me too.
So now what? Well, Ohio State is expected to be there at the end and I’m already nervous. I can feel those same expectations as 2006 and I feel their considerable heft. I already feel the knots in my stomach in advance of the Labor Day showdown at Virginia Tech.
Every week will be like that. It will be about expectations, whereas last year was just a series of “well, let’s see what happens” weeks. There’s no way I can enjoy this season as much as last year. It’s more endurance than enjoyment. Sure, I’ll bask in the wins as they come…after the games. During them, I’ll be a wreck. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, cheering my team on is a lot different when the target is squarely on our backs, rather than the opposition’s.
I want this team to repeat. I want it to be a dynasty. I want this for J.T., for Braxton, for Zeke. I want it for Darron Lee and Joey Bosa and Eli Apple, and Joshua Perry. I want it for Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall and I want it for the Slobs. I especially want it for the Slobs.
I want it bad. And I expect the Buckeyes to be in multiple fights each week. They’ll get everyone’s best shot, which isn’t necessarily new, but they’ll also fight “Ohio State fatigue” among voters and the public. They’ll fight those who demand style points. They’ll fight to keep the challengers at bay.
Along the way, I’ll root for them as usual. But will I enjoy 2015 as much as 2014? I don’t see how it’s possible. Last year was simply too delightfully unexpected. It’ll always be one of our most treasured seasons because of that. And it’ll likely take an equally improbable team to compete for that spot in our hearts again.
This team isn’t improbable anymore. The 2015 Buckeyes are probable. And that’s going to make this season a tremendous stressful one for me.
How about you?