Michigan talk is hard to ignore in Columbus. Nearly impossible, in fact.
After all, Ohio State is at risk of dropping three straight rivalry games to the Wolverines for the first time in more than a quarter-century should it fail to turn things around in Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.
But Buckeye athletic director Gene Smith didn’t exude an all-or-nothing attitude toward the 119th edition of The Game during an exclusive interview with Eleven Warriors this week. Smith said so far this offseason, his conversations with head coach Ryan Day have centered around assembling the right pieces to make a championship run and focusing on winning the games that will make the Michigan matchup all the more consequential in the first place.
Ultimately, if Ohio State doesn’t get the job done in its season opener on the road at Indiana in less than three months, any chatter surrounding the program will pertain to much more than just its series with the maize and blue.
“I haven't really talked specifically about Michigan. We have a lot of other games before we get to them,” Smith said on Real Pod Wednesdays. “So right now, you're focused more on developing your roster and developing your team. And really trying to ensure that, from a position point of view, you have your starters that you know who they're going to be and some you don't. But you also need to develop your depth. And so, really talk more about what we need to do to develop and get better and staffing, personnel, management goes behind the players. It's all about staff and trying to make sure we have all those things in place. So a lot of different issues that we talk about relative to the organization.
“So we focus more on just getting ready for Indiana, because that's our first contest. The team up north game won't matter a whole lot if we go over and not do what we're supposed to in Bloomington. So we got to take care of business there.”
Smith also thinks the Michigan narrative would be different had Ohio State eked past Georgia in this past season’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup at the Peach Bowl. Two points separated the Buckeyes from a trip to the national championship game, where the Bulldogs decimated TCU in historic fashion during a 68-7 shellacking in California.
Given how close the Buckeyes came to knocking off the defending national champions one game prior, many believe Ohio State could’ve done something similar to the Horned Frogs – or at least come out with a win. Smith shares that belief and said if the Buckeyes won it all in 2022, there’d be significantly less fan focus on Michigan’s recent fortune in the rivalry.
“It's so funny, everybody's so focused on just one game,” Smith said. “We were basically one point away from being in the national championship game, and I think had we got that two points we needed to convert and ultimately played TCU – I feel confident we would have performed well and won a national championship – I'm not so sure about all this chatter.”
Smith also alluded to the fact that without a little bit of controversy and multiple close calls, Ohio State might have beaten the Bulldogs in the first place. Not only did the Buckeyes miss a would-be-game-winning field goal from 50 yards out at the buzzer, but Ohio State also got a bad break on an overturned targeting call that both knocked Marvin Harrison Jr. out of the game and cost the Buckeyes a likely touchdown.
“everybody's so focused on just one game. We were basically one point away from being in the national championship game, and I think had we got that two points ... I'm not so sure about all this chatter.”– Gene Smith
Unfortunately for Ohio State, the past can’t be undone. The Buckeye ended the 2022 season on back-to-back losses, no matter how impressive their performance was in defeat against the eventual national champions. But despite failing to beat Michigan, win a conference title or capture a national championship, Smith still looks back fondly on what Ohio State accomplished this past year.
“We were in position to (win it all), and really proud of our guys. They had a chance there. There's some questionable moments in that game, we won't get into it,” Smith said. “But at the end of the day, we had a shot and I'm really proud that they put themselves in a position to possibly win the CFP.”
While Smith doesn’t want one loss to overshadow a season in which Ohio State came within arm’s length of hoisting a national title, many fans won’t share the same perspective. As elated as the fanbase would’ve been to win it all, some Buckeye fans might still have seen it as tainted due to Ohio State’s second straight loss to its bitter rival.
Of course, the Buckeyes remain dead set on righting the rivalry wrongs of the past two seasons in 2023. But perhaps more than anything else, Smith is hungry for another national championship trophy, no matter what path Ohio State must take to capture it.
“At the end of the day, I want to win the biggie, I want to win the natty,” Smith said. “Whatever it takes to get there, I'm all in for it.”