Decade in Review: Looking Back at the Biggest 'What Ifs' of the 2010s

By David Regimbal on January 23, 2020 at 10:10 am
Urban Meyer against Michigan State in 2015

Hindsight is a hell of a drug.

Decade in Review: The 2010s

The 2010s were an unquestioned success for the Ohio State football program. The Buckeyes dominated their rival by winning nine of 10 matchups by an average of more than two touchdowns. They won four Big Ten titles, made three College Football Playoff appearances and won a national championship in 2014.

It was the kind of decade all but two other programs in the country would've killed for, and yet, there are still moments you can look back and ask the question:

What if?

Eleven Warriors assembled a collection of the biggest what ifs of the decade. These scenarios aren't meant to be tied together — they stand alone as moments that had an enormous impact on the trajectory of the program, a given season, legendary careers, and potential national titles.

What if Jim Tressel had sent that April, 2010 email to compliance?

Few people here need to revisit the specifics of Jim Tressel's fall from grace, but just to jog your memory — in April, 2010, Ohio State's head man received an email from a lawyer alerting him to the fact that several star players were selling signed Buckeye memorabilia in exchange for cash and free tattoos.

Instead of alerting compliance and taking the tip to the proper channels, Tressel handled the matter internally, which was of course a major NCAA violation that ultimately cost him his job and ended his legendary coaching career.

What would've happened had Tressel forwarded that email directly to the compliance department? How long would he have coached at Ohio State before hanging it up for good? And how would've his program stood up to the Alabama and Clemson dynasties that emerged during the decade?

What if Ohio State had self-imposed a bowl ban on itself in 2011?

Tressel's fall from grace wasn't an individual affair. Ohio State's name was drug through the mud for an entire year. The Buckeyes replaced Tressel by giving an interim head coach title to former defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who went on to produce an uninspired 6-6 regular season.

Throughout the summer and fall of 2011, the NCAA conducted an investigation that many expected would result in serious sanctions on the Buckeye football program. A bowl ban was certainly on the table, and it was a penalty many expected.

What if Ohio State had imposed a bowl ban on itself in 2011? The season didn't make the midway point of October before falling off the rails, and the Buckeyes could've gotten ahead of the punishment by incurring a penalty on an already lost season.

Instead, they accepted an invitation to the Gator Bowl for a matchup against 6-6 Florida. They lost that game 24-17, two weeks after the NCAA levied a one-year bowl ban on the Buckeyes that would take place in 2012.

You know how this played out. The Buckeyes turned things around that season, going a perfect 12-0 in regular season play. They would've faced a Nebraska team in the Big Ten title that they beat by 25 points earlier that fall. It's safe to assume they would've won, and a 13-0 Ohio State team would've gotten the nod over Alabama from the BCS to play undefeated Notre Dame in the title game. That Irish team got flattened by the Tide, and it's hard to imagine Manti Teo's squad fairing much better against the Buckeyes.

What if Urban Meyer didn't return to coaching?

With Fickell tagged as an interim head coach, everyone knew the Ohio State administration was on the hunt for a new head man. Meyer way always option 1a, and it's a credit to Gene Smith's leadership and ability that he got his man in the end.

But what if Smith hadn't landed Meyer? What if the former Florida coach had been happy with his new role in the media and had no desire to coach again?

The other candidates who were tossed into the ring of consideration by media were big-time hitters at the time. There was of course Fickell, whose shine dimmed a bit during the 2011 season. Then there was Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, a Youngstown, Ohio native who had led the Sooners to national prominence.

But the consensus was that the Buckeyes wanted someone with stronger ties to the state of Ohio, and if it couldn't land Meyer, then none other than... Bo Pelini was a legitimate candidate.

Imagine your Ohio State Buckeyes led by Bo Pelini. I apologize for ruining your morning.

What if Ohio State had run the dang ball against Sparty in 2015?

Some losses sting more than others. There's a defeat that took place fewer than four weeks ago that will assuredly haunt my dreams for the rest of my life (that's foreshadowing, for you folks who miss those kind of things). 

Another one of those losses came in the second-to-last week of the 2015 college football season. The Buckeyes boasted the most loaded roster in the country that year, came into the season as the first-ever consensus No. 1 team in college football history and were riding a 23-game win streak when they hosted a Michigan State team that was a significant underdog.

In miserable conditions, Ohio State kept star running back Ezekiel Elliott involved early, giving him seven first-quarter carries that helped the Buckeyes build an early 7-0 lead. But for no other possible reason outside of self-hatred, the coaching staff effectively shut Elliott out of the action the rest of the game, giving him five carries in Ohio State's final eight drives.

The result was a stunning 17-14 loss to the Spartans that kept Ohio State out of the Big Ten title game, and in turn, the 2015 College Football Playoff.

Had the Buckeyes won that game, would their annual rivalry with Michigan to close the season have woken them up from their 11-week sleepwalk? They certainly responded that week with a 42-13 thrashing of Jim Harbaugh's first Wolverines team. Instead, we were robbed of one of the most talented Ohio State teams in school history from having a shot at a national title.

What if Ohio State had turned the keys over to Burrow in the spring of 2018?

Oh, you've been thinking about this a lot lately.

After Ohio State lost record-setting quarterback J.T. Barrett to graduation, a competition arose between fourth-year junior Joe Burrow and third-year sophomore Dwayne Haskins.

The race between the two was neck-and-neck through winter conditioning and spring camp, as Meyer routinely said he couldn't name a guy who was even slightly ahead.

The spring game was a big deal, and by all accounts, Burrow outplayed Haskins. But with the totality of spring camp reps combined with the scrimmage, Meyer and the coaching staff were leaning Haskins' way, and they rightfully allowed Burrow to transfer away with immediate eligibility.

But what if the scales had tipped the other way?

Imagine Burrow, as you saw him at LSU this past season with an uncanny ability to find space in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field, in Day's offense for two full seasons.

Would he have developed so amazingly in Columbus? Would he have stayed for two full seasons if he had? Would that have been enough to get Ohio State a title (or two)?

What if the late scoop and score against Clemson would have stood as called in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl?

Imagine a world in which the officials calling the game could reach the same consensus that officiating experts watching that game came to almost instantly?

A moment like that came at the worst possible time for Ohio State during its showdown with Clemson in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl. After the Buckeyes had scored the game's first 16 points, the Tigers road momentum wave after momentum wave to score 21 unanswered points. With less than five minutes remaining, Trevor Lawrence threw a pass that was caught and then fumbled by Justyn Ross. Buckeyes safety Jordan Fuller scooped the ball up and returned it 29 yards to put Ohio State up 22-21. 

It could've been a momentum swing Ohio State needed to stop the Tiger rush and close out the win and a berth in the national title. But after review, the call was preposterously ruled an incompletion.

There's no saying the Buckeyes would've won that game had the call stood. But in a matchup with two teams who were by pretty much every standard even, it was an enormous blow to Ohio State and another positive momentum swing for Clemson, who went on to win in the final minute.

The other 'What Ifs'

The Eleven Warriors staff contemplated a multitude of what ifs, and they're laid out below:

  • What if /gestures vaguely/ Zach Smith wasn't a thing?
  • What if Day had taken the Mississippi State job in 2018?
  • What if Nick Bosa had stayed healthy the entirety of the 2018 season?
  • What if Braxton Miller never suffered his season-ending shoulder injury in 2014?
  • What if Cardale Jones went pro after the playoff run?
  • What if Jeff Heuerman made that fourth down block against Sparty in the 2013 Big Ten title game?
  • What if Barrett didn't break his leg against Michigan in 2014?
  • What if Christian Bryant hadn't shattered his ankle in what should've been garbage time vs Wisconsin in 2013.
  • What if Barrett was marked short on the 4th-and-1 against Michigan in 2016?
  • What if the playoff committee kept Ohio State above LSU and drew Oklahoma in the 2019 playoff?

What's your biggest what if of the decade?

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