They never stopped coming. Last year, we finally yielded.
The Ohio State Buckeyes ruled the Big Ten for a decade under the direction of Jim Tressel. Three national championship games, with one win. A 106-22 overall record (NCAA sanctions be damned). 9-1 against That Team Up North, the only other true power in the conference.
Then it ended.
Within six months of the team’s last BCS win under Jim Tressel, the program had collapsed. The leader that built the Buckeye juggernaut was exiled and one of his greenest deputies took his place in an ultimately failed effort to maintain the program’s standard of excellence. In 2011, three teams fought to fill the hole Ohio State left vacant. Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Michigan enjoyed some of their best seasons in years, a success that was amplified by the Buckeyes’ absence. Two of the three beat Ohio State. The Spartans and Badgers battled for the conference title at the inaugural championship game.
Judging by the tenor of the national discussion, the Buckeyes’ reign was finished. In retrospect, the speculation wasn’t hyperbolic. There are very few programs that can regain their footing after the loss of a great coach. Fortunately for us, the Buckeyes aren’t an average football program.
In November, a mere six months later, the program’s fortune turned. A great coach was replaced by a legendary one. In doing so, the Buckeyes affirmed what many suspected: Ohio State football, as a program, is bigger than any one man. It’s bigger than Jim Tressel. It’s bigger than Gene Smith. And, yes, it’s bigger than Urban Meyer.
If nothing else, 2012 has illuminated just how difficult it is to attain and sustain the level of dominance the Buckeyes did during the 2000s. Michigan got exposed by Alabama in a national humiliation. Michigan State and Michigan both lost to a very good, if not elite, Notre Dame team. Nebraska lost to a better-than-expected but still underwhelming UCLA squad (though the Cornhuskers may be the conference’s best outside of the Buckeyes). Wisconsin, well, sucks. Three teams that seemed filled with promise only weeks ago suddenly look severely flawed.
Ohio State suddenly looks like a king again.
The Buckeyes and the Wolverines both have a bright future ahead of them, but the rest of the conference is badly in need of a culture change. They’re going to get it soon, because they won’t be winning divisional or conference titles with two obviously superior programs on top.
That makes the start of Big Ten play this week particularly interesting. Over the next nine weeks, the Buckeyes will have an opportunity to put each of the programs that spent 2011 picking over the team’s carcass back in their place. That mission starts tomorrow when the team travels to East Lansing for their first away game and perhaps the toughest test they’ll face this season.
At the beginning of this season, the Spartans were the sexy pick to win the Big Ten. I myself succumbed to that, believing before the season that the Buckeyes would lose this weekend. I don’t believe that anymore.
This team matches up well with the Spartans. Our biggest vulerabilities on defense (the pass game and running quarterbacks) aren’t a potent threat this weekend. And the Spartans haven’t faced an offense as effective as Ohio State’s. They certainly haven’t faced a playmaker as game-changing as Braxton Miller. I truly believe that this week is the week that the Buckeyes arrive. The team has played down to its competition in the past two weeks, but the contingent of the Buckeye fan base that is using those performances to prognosticate failure this week has it all wrong. The next two weeks will tell us a lot about this team, but I think the Buckeyes will surprise.
This program is bigger and better than Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Historically, Michigan has been a power worthy of joining Ohio State in the best rivalry in sports. But they haven’t earned the right to claim the Big Ten’s throne because the Buckeyes have been so dominant over them for so long. Michigan failed to make the conference championship game in the Buckeyes’ off year. They need to earn their way back into the conversation (though, in my opinion, they will … and soon).
In short, the Big Ten still runs through Ohio State.
In the immortal words of D’Angelo Barksdale, “the king stay the king.”