A month ago, Ohio State was a win away from playing for a national championship. Through Urban Meyer's first 24 games as the head coach in Columbus, the Buckeyes had lost zero times.
Of course, the championship dreams and that perfect record were dashed in a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, and so the Buckeyes have to settle for a slot in the Orange Bowl. You know the expectations are high when the main question entering a BCS bowl game is whether one of the participants can "get up" for the game. But that's the reality for this Ohio State team, one that was oh so close to playing for the crystal football.
"The worst part was probably the four days after," Meyer said at a Thursday press conference regarding the program's first loss under his leadership. "All the coaches, I think three-fourths of our staff left from Indianapolis and went out recruiting. Myself, I went back and then went out recruiting. We came back, and the feeling inside of you the whole three days we had to walk in and smile, that was the most phony smile you've probably ever seen. And then to get back and see the players you care about and see the pain on their face. We had an emotional meeting ... and from that point forward they've been fine. And the Orange Bowl's had a lot to do with that."
The Orange Bowl is still quite prestigious, though, as perhaps those Buckeye fans already buying their tickets for the title game need to be reminded. And Clemson is one heck of an opponent. Let us not forget that while it's not the national title bout, it is a BCS bowl game between a pair of top-10 teams. Meyer hasn't forgotten that. He said he's coached teams that needed a wake-up call when playing for a consolation prize. This situation, though, is keeping his Buckeyes alert.
"If it was against an opponent that didn't have the flash or the talent that Clemson has — that's a very good question and it's true. We've dealt with that before. The Sugar Bowl, when I was at Florida, we just missed playing for a national championship and we lost the (SEC) title game. And they came back and responded very well, but once again because of the quality of bowl. I credit that to the Sugar Bowl," Meyer said. "And so our players understand, and the way they're treated, they understand that this is big-time football. So I don't feel that, and obviously the final results will be (Friday) night."
The quality of opponent, too, is very high. Clemson suffered two losses all season long, and those came against Florida State, the No. 1 team in the country, and South Carolina, a top-10 team a game away from playing No. 2 Auburn for the SEC championship. Led by the electric offensive tandem of quarterback Tajh Boyd (the ACC leader in offensive yardage) and wide receiver Sammy Watkins (who Ohio State safety C.J. Barnett called the best wideout he's faced all season), the Tigers posted 50 points five different times this year. Add that to Ohio State's own high-scoring offensive unit starring dual-threat quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde, and you've got a potion for an explosive Orange Bowl.
"The issue is going to be the team you're playing, and they're very good at what they do," Meyer said. "And it's not just covering, but it's getting them on the ground because the skill positions at Clemson are as good as anyone in America. I'm anticipating that our guys play very hard."
Friday, Meyer will coach in his fifth BCS bowl game (with his third different team). He's also been in charge teams that have been sent to BCS games when bigger things were possible. He was very frank in press conference when comparing this group of Buckeyes to his prior groups of players, so when he said his team would be ready to play, it carried some weight. Will an Orange Bowl win erase the feeling of what could've been? Probably not. But a 25-1 record in two seasons ain't too shabby.
"It's a chance to go compete. Whether it's checkers, ping pong, we're going to try to go win a game. Our objective every time they keep score is go win," Meyer said. "And that's the mentality we try to create within our program, and whether it's the Orange Bowl, whether it's the eighth game of the season, we're trying to win that game. Early in bowl practice we gave a lot of work with the young players and in the plus periods after practice, but the last 10 days have been all about trying to compete to win.
"12-2 is a lot different than 13-1, and winning a BCS bowl game is very important."