For the first time in nearly four years, Ohio State is not a betting favorite to win its next game on the schedule.
The Buckeyes are currently considered four-point underdogs for Saturday’s game against Michigan, according to Vegas Insider, marking the first time Ohio State has entered a game as an underdog since the 2014 national championship game against Oregon.
Typically, being projected as an underdog is a source of motivation for a sports team, particularly one like Ohio State, where losses are rare (only nine since Urban Meyer became the Buckeyes’ head coach in 2012) and being favored to win is expected.
It seemingly has worked as motivation in Ohio State’s previous six games as an underdog since Meyer’s arrival, since the Buckeyes have won all six of them.
|Jan. 12, 2015||Oregon (-6)||Ohio State 42, Oregon 20|
|Jan. 1, 2015||Alabama (-7.5)||Ohio State 42, Alabama 35|
|Dec. 6, 2014||Wisconsin (-4)||Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0|
|Nov. 8, 2014||Michigan State (-4)||Ohio State 49, Michigan State 37|
|Nov. 17, 2012||Wisconsin (-1)||Ohio State 21, Wisconsin 14 (OT)|
|Sept. 29, 2012||Michigan State (-2)||Ohio State 17, Michigan State 16|
Going into this week’s game, however – at a time where the Buckeyes are perhaps being doubted more than they have at any point since Meyer’s arrival – Meyer says he isn’t planning to talk to his team about being an underdog this week.
“We don’t talk about those things,” Meyer said during his press conference Monday. “We have a saying around here: The most prepared team will win the game. It’s not who’s favored or who’s not. I didn’t know that (Ohio State is the underdog). And I don’t imagine our team really does.”
Even if Meyer wants to downplay it, it’s hard to believe that the coaches won’t talk about the doubters at all this week. In August, when Meyer was on administrative leave and Ohio State was surrounded by uncertainty, associate head coach and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was telling the team that “it’s the Buckeyes against the world.” And, in the past, Meyer has used doubts from the outside as a motivating factor for his team.
The 2008 book “Urban’s Way” by Buddy Martin detailed how Meyer used perceived slights against Florida, the team he coached at the time, leading up to its appearance in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida to conclude the 2006 season:
Meyer used the slight by the national media, circling the wagons in his finest Earle Bruce/Woody Hayes fashion. Preying on the angle that nobody was showing his Gators any love, he pulled out the oldest trick in the book: the dreaded Bulletin Board.
Most coaches don't believe players can be motivated by bulletin-board material anymore, but again Meyer went against that trend. After all, the body of work for his propaganda war wasn't inspired by just a single clipping from the local sports page, but an entire season of being neglected as a potential national championship contender—what he viewed as a clear-cut bias against Florida.
Some of the lack of respect by the media was perhaps justified because of the way Florida's offense struggled midseason, but Urban wasn't going to admit that. Besides, he had forty-one days to brainwash his players. The campaign would be so successful that he wouldn't even need to give his team a pregame pep talk.
This was not just any old bulletin board, but a ten-foot monstrosity strategically placed near the food table the week before the game, which Meyer called “ten feet of nonsense.”
On it were clippings about Ohio State's superiority and Florida's fallibility, taken from newspaper or magazine stories, the Internet, and, in some cases, right out of a fiction book.
“Half of it was real and half of it was made up. And the half that was made up I signed ‘Kirk Herbstreit of ESPN,’” Urban confessed.
Meyer said Monday, though, that he doesn’t plan to do anything like that this week, saying it “depends on what kind of team you’re dealing with.”
Even so, it’s even harder to believe that the players won’t draw their own motivation from being tabbed as underdogs – most of them for the first time in their Ohio State careers. Several Ohio State players, including right guard Demetrius Knox, have said even before this week that they’ve heard the negative things that people have said about their team all year and that they have been motivated by that criticism.
“It’s exciting when people doubt you,” Knox said on Nov. 7, before the Buckeyes’ game against Michigan State. “The doubts that we have coming towards our program, we love that. Everybody here expects us to win and that’s the mindset, but when people have a little bit of doubt toward you, you get to prove them wrong.”
That said, Meyer doesn’t want his players to be thinking about what other people think about Ohio State entering this week’s game. Instead, Meyer wants his players to focus on what they need to do this week to give themselves a chance to win.
“If they are, then they're looking at the wrong stuff,” Meyer said. “They ought to be working on how they win their individual battle against a good team.”
The outside noise surrounding Michigan’s favored status to end Ohio State’s six-game winning streak on Saturday only grew on Monday, when Michigan running back Karan Higdon responded affirmatively when asked if he would guarantee a win over the Buckeyes.
Meyer said Monday, however, that he wanted his team to show respect to the Wolverines and let its play do the talking.
“You work so frickin' hard at it to do your very best,” Meyer said. “That's our sign (of respect). Not talking about it, not publicly going after people, because we don't, I don't do that.
“How do you show respect for them and the game? You work, which we are. We're working so damn hard for this.”