We remember the defeats. We can name them without a thought: Purdue, Iowa and … wait, no hints … it’s right there on the tip of the tongue … oh, yeah, Penn State. That last one was all the way back in 2016, so it’s understandable it takes a second to recall. We remember these results because they are so terribly rare, like a hair out of place on Tom Brady.
Yes, this is the entire list of Ohio State losses against Big Ten football competition during the past five seasons. The Buckeyes are 38-3 in conference play over that period, plus four more victories in Big Ten Championship games. They have won four consecutive undisputed league titles. That never happened before in the Big Ten’s 125-year history. Even Alabama in the SEC can’t quite match those particular distinctions.
For many, Ohio State’s dominance in Big Ten football has come to be accepted as part of the natural order, like leaves changing colors in autumn and the enduring mediocrity of reality TV. (Twenty years of Survivor, really?)
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Is it good for the conference, though, for the Buckeyes to rule in this manner?
“That’s the age-old question, like: Is it good for the NFL to have a dynasty like the Patriots? To a certain point, it gives everybody a villain,” BTN analyst Joshua Perry told Sporting News. “I think we all like the antagonist of the story. We like to have something to hate. And there’s some people that actually love being the villain. So from that regard, it’s good.
“You look down South, and Alabama is doing it, Clemson’s doing it. It’s kind of what the sport is.”
Perry was a linebacker and the leading tackler for the Buckeyes when they won the initial College Football Playoff championship in 2014. Although that remains the high point of the current OSU dynasty, it served as the foundation for what has happened since.
One could make the point that with the CFP constructed as is, with no automatic bids for conference champions, it is better for a league to have a power such as the Crimson Tide or Buckeyes because it means there’s a decent chance to accrue whatever financial benefits a playoff berth generates.
The Pac-12 does not have such a power since USC and then Oregon dipped, and thus it has not been involved in five of the seven tournaments to date. Ohio State itself has been to four, and Michigan State made it in 2015. The victory that put the Spartans in position to be invited was a 17-14 upset of the No. 3 Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium in late November.
Given how uncommon it is, a Big Ten victory over Ohio State can define a team’s season. Their overwhelming upset in 2018 gave the Purdue Boilermakers something to boast about – and the chance to appear in the Music City Bowl. Iowa, in 2017, wound up 8-5 and played in the Pinstripe Bowl. The 2016 Nittany Lions earned the opportunity to play in the Big Ten Championship game and, following victory there, their third Rose Bowl as a league member.
“I want this to come off the right way: We have been as successful against Ohio State as anybody, clearly, in the conference,” Penn State coach James Franklin told SN. “And that is obviously beating Ohio State and having some, really, unbelievable games depending on your perspective. I would say a lot of times for the fans, those closes losses are sometimes harder because you’re so close and you feel like you’re there.
“But you’ve got to have respect for them as a program, what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve been able to do it. I am really proud of where the program was when we got to Penn State and what we’ve been able to build, really, with our bare hands – and when I say that, I mean all of us, the community, the coaches, the players, all of us together. And they’re a really good example of what we want to do, where we want to be and how we want to play.”
It certainly helps other Big Ten programs in terms of defining what they must accomplish, the level they must reach, if they are to succeed at the game’s highest level.
The Indiana Hoosiers, on the ascent under sixth-year coach Tom Allen, lost by a single touchdown to the Buckeyes in a road game last November. Surrendering three touchdowns in the second quarter and another directly after halftime put IU in a 35-7 hole, but a furious comeback nearly resulted in another of those results Big Ten fans would have remembered for years. The Hoosiers will get their chance at home this time, on Oct. 23, and they’ll face a team in its first season with quarterback CJ Stroud, who has not yet thrown a pass at the college level. If there’s a time to get the Buckeyes, this might be it.
“I think it’s just about playing four quarters. Defensively, we didn’t perform in the second quarter like we should have, and they kind of took advantage of that and jumped to an early lead. We’ve got to play every play 100 percent and can’t take any quarter off, for sure,” IU linebacker Micah McFadden told SN.
“They have great recruits and they have great players and obviously have a great coaching staff. But they’re definitely a locked-in, focused team every week. They don’t take any games off, just like we shouldn’t. They’re definitely somebody to chase after, but we’re planning on being one of those teams, as well.”
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison said he wanted to join the Buckeyes because he believed playing among (and against) their high degree of talent “would force me to improve, and I’d get the best out of myself.” When hired as head coach in 2012, Urban Meyer accelerated the program’s recruiting. Successor Ryan Day has taken full advantage of the advantages that success provided.
“They haven’t hired a bad coach, ever,” Perry said. “The programs that have dropped off have made poor coaching decisions. They’ve made poor hires.
“And so when you have that kind of consistency, it becomes a lot easier to recruit. It becomes a lot easier to get booster involvement. It becomes a lot easier to lean on that pride and that tradition. You see a lot of these traditional schools that aren’t winning anymore, that’s what they’re trying to lean on. When you’re Ohio State, you say: Yeah, we got the tradition, but we’re also balling in the current era.”
Maryland coach Mike Locksley, whose Terps were picked to finish fifth in the 2021 Big Ten East in the Cleveland.com media poll, was an assistant coach at Alabama from 2016-18, when the Crimson Tide went 41-3, played in the CFP title game each season and won the championship in 2017. He has a first-person understanding of how college football power sustains itself.
“People love being associated with winning. And both those programs win, and they win big, and they win a lot, and they win consistently, and they become the haves. And people love being affiliated with them,” Locksley told Sporting News.
“As long as they’ve got that thing rolling, they’ll always have opportunities to recruit the best players in the country. You can be as good a coach as you want to be. I was a much better coach when I was at Alabama because of the players we had there. So until you can go get the type of players they have, when you get off the bus, you’re going into gunfight with a knife – it’s not a good deal. You’ve got to show up with the same type of weapons they have and play with the right kind of habits to have success like they have.”
“I think for all of us, each and every year when you start putting together your program, you’ve got to win against the bully in your neighborhood. And Ohio State has been that team.”
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