Six years ago, the Department of Football at the University of Southern California came from nowhere to crash the national title picture and, not quite succeeding, launched a grievance that changed college football.
The proof lies not in the Trojans’ easy 35-3 win against Ohio State on Sept. 13 but in the absolute lack of games like it these days. The eagerly awaited intersectional meeting is all but dead now, because the cost of defeat is too high. And if Ohio State went down a couple notches in the aftermath, remember that it’s only because Ohio State has the guts to play such a game that we ever see anything like it.
Recall that USC led the media rankings after the 2003 regular season and the BCS rankings still favored Oklahoma and Louisiana State as the national title contestants. The Trojans were done in by the strength of schedule component in the BCS rankings, which found that if everything else were equal among the three teams USC played the weakest competition.
It didn’t matter that it was true. It mattered that the only big-time football team in Los Angeles couldn’t go to the big game. So the BCS changed its rankings system, eliminating the strength of scheduling component.
Thus it’s in the interest of no college football power to slate itself against top competition outside its conference. The BCS rankings used to give teams measurable credit for good wins and dignified losses. Now the voters will give a team credit for a high-profile victory, but the credit for a brave loss that comes with the schedule strength component no longer figures.
It’s not going to help Ohio State in the BCS standings anymore, but we’ll give the Buckeyes moral credit for playing games they don’t have to play. As the BCS made the change, since-departed Ohio State Athletic Director Andy Geiger said the Buckeyes would keep scheduling big-time non-conference games because players go to Ohio State wanting to play those games.
In 2005, No. 2 Texas visited No. 4 Ohio State and escaped with a 25-22 win, launching the Longhorns toward their national championship. In 2006, No. 1 Ohio State went to No. 2 Texas and claimed a 24-7 win, launching the Buckeyes toward the national championship game.
Next year, Southern Cal will return the game at Ohio State. Back when Miami of Florida was good, Ohio State scheduled it home and home for 2010-11. The Buckeyes have scheduled California for 2012-13, which isn’t quite as impressive but might become so. They’ve scheduled an emerging Cincinnati program for 2012 and 2014, Virginia Tech for 2014-15, Oklahoma for 2016-17 and Tennessee for 2018-19.
Ohio State could get away with playing it safe and — who knows? — maybe the Buckeyes will decide to play it that way in the future. For now, at least, they should be heroes for college football fans everywhere because they’ll go outside their region to line up against the best. Try finding a top-notch intersectional game that doesn’t involve Ohio State.
Throughout the media for the rest of the year, Ohio State will be cursed for losing three straight big-time games by lopsided margins. Their appearances in the last two national title games against Florida and Louisiana State, together with last weekend’s loss in Los Angeles, will mark them as failures in some eyes.
But what other national power goes to those lengths lining up top opponents from around the country? The most you’ll usually see from a national power is the so-called “good test,” such as when Florida plays Hawaii in a 56-10 win, or a regional rivalry like Michigan-Notre Dame or Florida-Florida State.
Of course, life in the Southeastern Conference is already tough enough without scheduling Southern Cal, Oklahoma or Texas. Every week in that league has national title implications.
But the Big Ten isn’t like that, and neither are the Big 12 or Pac-10. Teams in those leagues are best off scheduling soft. If they open the season highly ranked they don’t gain a lot by beating other top teams and lose a lot when those games go badly.
Whether the Buckeyes should play it as they do would be a worthwhile debate for their fans. The Bucks entered last week end ranked No. 5. They could have scheduled a respectable major conference opponent, say an Oregon State or Colorado, won the game and then plowed through the Big Ten. That win against an Oregon State or Colorado might have moved them up a spot or not, but they would at least hold tight.
Then they play the waiting game. If the SEC jumps up to bite Florida and Georgia and the Big 12 produces a winner against Oklahoma, Ohio State is back playing for the national title.
Some will say that’s a rather cheap path to the title game, then point to the last two such Ohio State defeats as evidence. But you can’t win the national title without playing in the game, and it’s not like other powers are doing it the hard way.
Another Big Ten team, No. 10 Wisconsin, played a risky game last weekend, traveling to No. 21 Fresno State for a 13-10 win. Fresno State is a very good Western Athletic Conference program that has trouble scheduling the big timers. As the ESPN telecast of that game reported, the Bulldogs don’t have a Pac-10 team on their schedule for eight years, while Texas and Oklahoma State have backed out of games already scheduled.
Maybe Ohio State should back out of tough games. But one can bet it won’t, which is one reason, among many, why it remains such a respectable program despite recent big losses.
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