Alternate reality isn't a safe space. It's just safer.
My preferred land of make-believe from the past two decades is where Ted Ginn doesn't go down on the first play of the Ohio State-Florida BCS title game - because it is impossible to disprove. And it's a much healthier place for fans like me who witnessed the real version.
After Teddy left that game - just one blessed play into the coronation - the Buckeyes lost any ability to stretch the field which allowed the Gators to pay rent in the trenches, and the outcome was academic. Ohio State plus Ginn (plus a quick 7-point lead) is far more competitive and possibly wins the imaginary game. Imaginary. Still feels unfair.
Of course, Ginn wouldn't have made any difference that night trespasses on our alternate reality. Equally impossible to disprove. Safer doesn't mean safe. We have a gruesome view of reality, even from where the Buckeyes have their most explosive player.
OHIO STATE WAS knocked off schedule so badly by B1G leadership this season that winning a title in eight games might have eclipsed what the 2014 team accomplished with a 3rd string QB.
Ginn escaping the consequences of the only tragic TD celebration in program history has a reluctant new neighbor, and it's Trey Sermon playing a full game against Alabama. He was the difference maker necessary for Ohio State's offense to exploit every defense the FBS had to offer this weird season, including Alabama's. The Buckeyes might not be B1G or Sugar Bowl champions without him.
Imagine Ezekiel Elliott's three-game stretch against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon abruptly ending after his first carry in the title game where he'd contribute a 246-yard 4-touchdown effort. That was the emerging precedent we clung to heading into Monday night.
Sermon left for the hospital with 59 minutes left in the game. He was more like Teddy than Zeke.
But kind of like *gestures up and down the 2006 Florida roster* the Buckeyes had a lot more to deal with than just one missing stud on offense against Alabama. Losing No.8 was a large part of the loss, but playing only eight games this season was much larger.
Ohio State's conference handling the pandemic like its contemporaries did is the safer space alternate reality for the 2020 epitaph. The Buckeyes were knocked off schedule so badly by B1G leadership this season that recovering and winning a title in eight games might have eclipsed what the 2014 team accomplished with a 3rd string quarterback.
All the delays and postponements ACC and SEC programs dealt with in the early and middle of their conference schedules smacked B1G programs in the middle and the end of theirs, because the virus operated on its own schedule. Timing was everything. That delay delivered B1G consequences far beyond Sermon getting injured, including:
The Crimson Tide went three full weeks without playing a game in November due to COVID protocols. They still finished 13-0, two layups short of where they would have landed without the pandemic. It's easy to have missed that the Buckeyes' gold pants-less November and December took place while Bama was also dealing with cancelations.
So the only conspiracy around why Alabama players weren't still getting nabbed by COVID in January is they were almost two months ahead of the curve - which is to say they were kept on schedule. The Buckeyes hit the same speed bumps Bama did, all the way down to their head coaches testing positive. They showed up late and it was impossible to recover.
Give Ohio State its original pandemic-modified 11-game schedule with three off weeks and assume it goes 11-0. Some of those games still get postponed, with the off weeks serving their purpose. Maybe Justin Fields (or even Sermon, whose switch flipped in game five) is a Heisman finalist.
THE BUCKEYES wERE short-handed, off-schedule, put in position to fail and facing quite possibly the best team ever.
The Buckeyes still hack Clemson's One Big Trick in New Orleans and face Alabama without the COVID absences that dominated the back half of its abbreviated season. What now?
We've already time-traveled back to August and made B1G leadership competent just to get to this point. Now let's give Ohio State even more unfair goodies - the full Clemson 2019 Fiesta Bowl Gift Pack™. Hell, even throw in where the replay booth stops action to halt momentum and review plays for several minutes. Give the Buckeyes all of those advantages against Alabama too.
Unfortunately, Ohio State needed more than just Sermon and that kind of dark magic to win on Monday night. It was short-handed, off-schedule, put in position to fail and facing quite possibly the best team ever. This healthiest version of this edition of the Buckeye secondary had no shot of containing these Alabama receivers despite facing Ohio State's in practice every day.
Some things can't be blamed on COVID or Kevin Warren. Winning would have been a storybook ending for a very short story. As for the actual ending, we got this instead:
In Sermon's place on Monday, Master Teague managed 15 carries for 65 yards and two touchdowns, while Marcus Crowley played his first offensive snaps of the season to record six rushes for 14 yards. Sermon's night ended after one carry for two yards.
You never want to see running backs getting their first snaps of the season in the title game. The Alabama "rematch" - which everyone on both sides has looked forward to since the last one six years ago - was worse than it should have been. But the outcome wasn't in doubt, especially if you only watched the Crimson Tide passing attack against the Buckeye secondary.
We're generally terrible at coping with Ohio State football losses because they tend to happen in ways like last season's Fiesta Bowl, or in West Lafayette, Iowa City, or other places we just don't expect to come up empty. After solving Clemson so emphatically, a title seemed much closer than it actually was.
Losing to Alabama is quite common; slightly more common than losing to Ohio State. There's peace in coming up short against a superior team, and that's exactly what happened on Monday night, despite all of the distractions and pandemic weirdness that painted this season.
Watching the Buckeyes lose at full strength - with Sermon, fewer COVID absences and after a dozen games - might have been a safer space. But against this edition of the Crimson Tide, it still wouldn't have been safe.