What, were you expecting a Star Wars analogy? It's in there. You don't have to look very hard to find it. Ohio State has been lording over the conference in some manner or another for most of the modern era of college football. The numbers, records, bowl appearances, and the rest are there, and they paint a pretty persuasive picture of dominance and a take-no-prisoners attitude.
But the long term numbers aren't even necessary, and in some ways they get in the way of just how great Ohio State has been over the last decade and a half. Since the introduction of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998 Ohio State has won or shared eight of the fourteen Big Ten championships. There were nine double-digit win seasons and nine trips to BCS bowl games -- three of those were for a national title. If you want to look at just the six seasons from 2005 to 2010, Ohio State lost an unbelievable five conference games during those six years. That is one less conference loss than Ohio State has BCS bowl game appearances in the same span.
Perhaps that was the reason that last year felt so good. Finally, the hens were given a chance to take back control of the hen house from the wolf. Michigan State, Purdue, Nebraska, and Penn State all notched victories against the Buckeyes -- not to mention Michigan snapping its seven game losing streak against that team from Ohio. Little rebellions all over the galaxy striking back.
Last season was cathartic for much of the conference, but I have a feeling the good times won't last.
Ohio State's dominion over the Big Ten during the BCS era is largely a story of Jim Tressel's ability as a head coach and recruiter.
Tressel came back to Ohio State after a long and productive career at the FCS level (then Div. I-AA) where he led Youngstown State to a whopping four national titles over a span of seven years. Tressel had already been a coach at Ohio State in the 80's when spent time as an offensive position coach under Earle Bruce. However, Tressel's homecoming was met with trepidation. He wasn't a flashy hire or a hot coordinator. He was just a guy who had a connection to the program and won a ton of games at a lower level.
Tressel, however, knew what he was getting into.
"I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field."
Not only did Tressel beat Michigan -- both early and often -- but he slowly rebuilt Ohio State into the Big Ten's most dominant program once again. John Cooper had won big, but his teams struggled to finish off seasons strong. Cooper's Buckeyes finished second in the conference four times, and lost to Michigan three times when going into The Game with an undefeated record and a top-five ranking. Overall Cooper was 2-10-1 against Michigan; something that stuck in the craw of all Ohio State fans. Cooper was great, but not great in the biggest moments (something Tressel would struggle with on a national level).
Jim Tressel never had this problem when it came to the Big Ten. After going 2-1 against Michigan Tressel's teams ran off a string of seven straight heart-wrenching victories over rival Michigan. This stretch had a large effect on the legacy of Lloyd Carr (who, until Tressel took over had the upper hand in the rivalry), and will always stand as one of the biggest black eyes on the regrettable career of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head coach.
Not only this, but Tressel put together a powerhouse of a team through stellar recruiting. Only one year in Tressel's ten as head coach at Ohio State did the Buckeyes fail to bring in a top-25 class (per Rivals team rankings, as far back as they go). That talent was then developed at a high level. As noted last week, the only team better than Ohio State at developing its recruits into draft picks over the last decade was USC, a veritable cornucopia of NFL draft talent during the last decade. That includes 14 first round draft picks during Tressel's tenure, as well as a Heisman trophy winner in Troy Smith.
Every Star Wars reference needs a Darth Vader. That would be The Vest, The Senator, ol' Jimmy Tressel himself. The events themselves don't require much retelling -- the media has been all over this one from the very beginning (somewhere an 11W writer is shaking his head vigorously in agreement). Tressel, like Woody Hayes before him, ended up leaving Columbus as a strange combination of sinner and saint. The fans loved him almost unquestionably for his long list of successes, but the stench of NCAA violations and the cover up of Tatgate* ultimately clouds the picture and taints the wild success of his tenure. It doesn't matter if it was an isolated incident. College football, like steroids in baseball, is forever hung up on the hint of accusation. Suspicion casts a shadow over everything**, deserved or not.
*(I am looking forward to when this whole -gate thing gets so ridiculous that someone grossly misuses it causing a "-Gate-gate" scandal where the misplaced moniker/modifier becomes the ultimate cause of controversy and we all agree that the whole damn thing is so meta that we better just put the worn out suffix out to pasture.)
**(So don't be that guy that tries to discount Ohio State's unprecidented run of success by saying "well, they cheated so it wasn't fair." Nobody likes you, so stop.)
Last season was as close to a disaster as you could find in Columbus. Late in the spring Jim Tressel was removed as head coach and Luke Fickell got the call up to keep the seat warm on an interim basis. Speculation surrounded Ohio State's preference for its next coach -- some guy doing the noon game for ESPN -- and Fickell never once got a comfortable moment in charge. The tattoo scandal not only claimed the coach, but five important players, and another set of NCAA violations added to the pile. With starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor gone to the supplimental draft, Ohio State had to look to a savvy veteran or a promising youngster. Unfortunately, that savvy veteran turned out to be Joe Bauserman, a walking incompletion factory. Thus the fate of Ohio State's offense was put in the hands of true freshman Braxton Miller, who had to wait until midway through the season to get the job outright, and then wait even longer to get some of his best offensive help back from suspension. Toledo almost stole one, Miami beat up on the Bucks in South Florida, Michigan State took out years of frustration, Purdue got a win in overtime, Penn State saved its own scandal laden season with a win against the Buckeyes, and Michigan turned around what had generally become one of the most pathetic streaks in all of college football's rivalries. The uncertainty that followed Fickell everywhere he went meant that recruiting stagnated while Michigan -- invigorated under new coach Brady Hoke -- raced out to a huge head start on the 2012 class. Meanwhile, Gene Smith continually botched any and all chances for positive press, and put the cherry on top by not self imposing a bowl ban because he was confident that the Buckeyes would steer clear of one, only to get a bowl ban in place for 2012 and be utterly dumbfounded by it.
Sometimes Murphy's law just takes over and you have to do your best to ride it out.
That isn't to say Ohio State was an innocent victim harried by malevolent forces that governed the sport. Ohio State fostered an environment that allowed multiple NCAA violations to occur, then tried to pass it off like the school did nothing wrong and everyone should just go about their business. Say what you will about the trumped up violations that Michigan faced, but Dave Brandon played the university's reaction to that like a chess grand master. Gene Smith on the other hand couldn't stop chewing on the plastic chess pieces, and at one point it seemed like he may have choked on a rook.
The one thing that did go right for Ohio State during 2011 was that the guy in the ESPN booth really did want back in the game. He had left the college game a year before after health problems and a regression by his previous team turned out to be too much to handle.
Thus, Urban Meyer took over the reeling Ohio State program just days after its loss to Michigan. Recruiting instantly turned around and Meyer was able to flip the class from a middling group of three-stars to a power packed class that was top-five in the nation. Excitement once again swirled around the program and sportswriters everywhere began talking themselves into Ohio State being the best team in the Big Ten -- this happening just a year after Ohio State went 6-6 with seemingly no offense to speak of.
Some things never change. The king stay the king.
So as we stare down the coming 2012 college football season, a billowing cloud of fury and excitement just now beginning to peak over the late-June horizon, it becomes apparent that no matter how bad things got in Columbus last year, that the Buckeyes were merely down on the mat for a short time. The cartoon birds flew in quick circles as Ohio State shook its head and looked up at the rest of the Big Ten standing over it grinning. But the birds have gone away and the Buckeyes are back on their feet.
Life isn't a movie. Tressel wasn't Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine, the 2011 season wasn't the Fully Armed and Operational Death Star, weak and able to be destroyed from the inside out*. This isn't about good and evil. It is college football, and the truly great empires don't stay down for long, and yes I say that knowing full well what the implication toward Notre Dame is. The movie doesn't stop and the narrative has no end.
Ohio State is back. Time for the good guys, Team 133, to lace 'em up and go fight for good once again. The Buckeyes will do the same. The Empire is dead. Long live the Empire.
*(Gene Smith was, is, and forever will be Jar-Jar Binks, though.)