Ohio State football is no stranger to perfection.
It's become less impressive over the years, but one of the things that as a young adult that I hung my hat on was Jim Tressel's 2002 Buckeye squad being the first team ever to go 14-0 in college football and win a modern era championship. The narrative surrounding that team mostly involved their close victories and matchup against Miami, but as a teen that had grown up with football in the 90's, 14 wins seemed like a ridiculous plateau that deserved its own kind of recognition.
That's changed in the time since, of course; six other teams have gone 14-0 or better in the last 20ish seasons. But that normalization means that in this, the weirdest college football season in living memory, there is even more pressure on Ryan Day and the Buckeyes to be perfect. Wire to wire.
Perfection is damn near impossible and also absolutely necessary in 2020.
One of the underappreciated things about being a Buckeye fan is the psychic weight of a long history of coming so damn close to perfection, only to blow it spectacularly. I'll get to the extremely obvious elephant in the room in a second, but we'll end on a happy note, I promise.
Earle Bruce's 1979 team, for example, was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the penultimate AP Top 25 Poll going into the Rose Bowl against No. 3 USC. Win that game, they're likely national champions. They lost by a point, allowing No. 2 Alabama (who they had been in a back and forth all season) to leapfrog them and capture the top spot at the end of the season.
John Cooper's 1996 squad was undefeated and ranked No. 2 going into the Michigan game, where they predictably lost, opening the path for Florida to win the national championship after kicking the hell out of Florida State. And in 1998, 13 year old Johnny Ginter was coming out of a Texas Roadhouse only to find out that a game he thought an undefeated and No. 1 Ohio State team had well in hand against Michigan State was in fact not very well in hand at all.
And so on. Florida in 2006. Wisconsin in 2010. Michigan State again in 2015. Purdue in 2018. Clemson in 2019.
All of these are single blemishes on otherwise stellar seasons, but at the level that Ohio State plays, a single blemish is absolutely devastating.
The irony of that statement, of course, is that Ohio State's last championship came in a season where basically nothing went right for more than a week or so at a time. The Buckeyes sustained what should've been multiple devastating losses: one in the loss column on the scoresheet, and two to their starting quarterbacks (including one before the season even began). That they ended the 2014 season holding up multiple championship trophies just further cements in my mind that that season was something truly unique and weird and powered by witchcraft and sorcery. We will never see anything like it again.
Well, probably. Not in 2020, at least.
With only eight regular season games in play, the Buckeyes can't really afford to lose to Nebraska or Maryland and still hope to make whatever postseason exists by the time December rolls around. They have to win every game, and convincingly, to make up for the head start afforded to other teams around the country.
What's interesting is that the best comparison to 2020 might be a season in which there were almost no stakes at all. In 2012, Ohio State had nothing at all to play for but pride; banned from postseason play for the dumbest, most milquetoast "scandal" in the history of college athletics, the Buckeyes couldn't add to any trophy cases or even claim a consensus Mythical National Championship in the polls. But what they could accomplish is going undefeated while kicking a lot of ass in the process, which they then proceeded to do.
Had the 2012 squad accomplished anything less than what they did, had they dropped a game or looked less than dominant, their team might be forgotten by fans. Instead their success is held up as a touchstone for talking about the unfair punishment that Ohio State had to endure and will always be viewed as a team that could've won a national championship. That has value.
There are still stakes for the Buckeyes in 2020. But if they want to be successful, they'll need to adopt the same mentality as the 2012 team, which shook off a hangover and charged head first into an uncertain season.
At the end of 2020, maybe then the Buckeyes will be at a place that has eluded so many other Ohio State teams in the past: perfection.