As much as any other fanbase in college football, Ohio State devotees know and understand that being considered the favorite in any given game against another quality opponent is an undesirable situation. Admit that you have a good team and you might as well throw in the towel right then in there: everyone who watches this sport knows that hubris means way more than petty things like "talent" or "execution."
Especially in bowl season, for some reason, and I know this because of the weird little totems that we carry around with us for years and years and years to justify how incredibly disrespected and ignored Ohio State football is around this time of year.
My favorite example from this incredibly specific subgenre of fandom quirks came during the lead up to the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, in which Jim Tressel's Buckeyes played the Notre Dame Fighting Irish under Charlie Weis. Ohio State fans were told (or told themselves that everyone else was saying) that the Super Bowl-adjacent Weis was going to whip up an incredible offensive gameplan that Ohio State wouldn't be able to stop and the Buckeyes would lose by 50.
I actually can't remember if any of that is true. Sure, Mark May might've belched a spit bubble on ESPN's wrap-up show that made a noise that sounded a lot like "Weis will dominate the Senator" or something to that effect, but really the only archival evidence that I can find that backs that up is A.J. Hawk saying this after the win:
"I been hearing a lot about how are you guys going to beat a Notre Dame team when you give Charlie Weis four weeks to prepare for it," Buckeyes senior linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "That kind of upset me because I thought, 'What about giving Coach Tressel four weeks to prepare for you?'"
Not that the narrative of Super Cool and Smart Weis versus Very Dumb and Boring Tressel didn't exist, but what's funny about this is you can find all kinds of comments where Weis was perfectly complementary to Ohio State in the days and weeks before the Fiesta Bowl; talking about how great the defense was, how improved the passing game had been, how smart of a coach Tressel was, and so on.
But it turns out that none of that mattered! Here's Luke Fickell in 2015 talking to ESPN about the 2006 Fiesta Bowl:
At a breakfast event both teams attended before the bowl, Weis made some comments that got the Buckeyes' attention.
"I just think it was his natural ability to be very confident and arrogant," Fickell said. "I remember him saying something about, 'Well, the Patriots would have won another Super Bowl if I wouldn't have gotten sick.' It was just the perfect little thing to warm up the guys."
"We walked out, and I remember A.J. and a couple guys saying, 'I can't wait to play this now,'" Fickell said. "I was like, 'Ah, thank you.'"
If it was real to A.J., then it was real on the field. Ohio State won that Fiesta Bowl by a decent margin, stuck a pin in the incredibly overinflated Charlie Weis mythos, and nothing bad ever happened to Jim Tressel ever again. The End.
13 years later, things feel more than a little bit different. Social media and YouTube have made an irreversible impact on how we digest news in college football; Dabo Swinney and Ryan Day have to micromanage expectations for their teams on what feels like an hourly basis because no one can afford to be seen as giving even a hint of a morsel of bulletin board material to the other team.
Take, for example, Dabo Swinney's interview with ESPN here and his players' talking to The State here. In them, Swinney and company gush about how great Ohio State is and how terrific of a coach Ryan Day has become and frankly, for my purposes as a sports writing dude, this does pretty much nothing for me.
I could tell you that quotes like "they're so similar to us" and "wow J.K. Dobbins is excellent, he's just like Travis Etienne, who we practice against every day" are classic southern passive-aggressive shit talking, but that's just me getting my hopes up. Because from both a fan standpoint and a writing standpoint, I would love to see Dabo drop the incredibly obvious facade of "aw shucks, I can't even believe I have a job, we're just lucky to be here" corn-pone crap and just admit that he thinks he has the better team.
He won't, of course, but I also have to admit that it's extremely weird that as ostensibly thinking creatures our goofy lizard brains still need that kind of disrespect to send our hypothalamus into overdrive. While it'd be undeniably shitty for Travis Etienne to call J.K. Dobbins an "overgrown semi-sentient dump heap who smells and looks like a butt," for some dumb reason I also believe that it'd help Dobbins beat Clemson so... I actually think Etienne should do it? Maybe?
Ohio State, for all of our mythologizing about how disrespected they were against the 2005 Fighting Irish, were actually 4.5 point favorites headed into that game. What that win and the subsequent story-telling about it taught me is that in the disrespect game, reality is whatever you make it.
I hope that Ryan Day and company find exactly what they're looking for before their own Fiesta Bowl.