“The excitement level here is probably the highest it has been,” said Jim Lachey. The former Buckeye and Redskin left tackle referred to Columbus, Ohio, where he played in the early 1980s and has worked as a radio analyst. “In the 18 years I’ve covered games since I retired from the ’Skins, this offseason has been as exciting a time as there has been since I’ve been around the program.”
Of that hub-of-the-sport distinction, he said, “You definitely can sense it around here.”
Suddenly, there’s a summer with the first unanimous pre-season Associated Press No. 1 in the history of the sport, and it’s Ohio State of the Big Ten. There’s Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany saying, “We have great energy. We had a great year last year.” Penn State Coach James Franklin told of a “180-degree switch” from “the stories and the narrative that was being told last year,” referring to both Penn State and “the Big Ten as a whole.” Meyer, reinstated as the sport’s poobah, said, “We created a monster,” and, “You’ve got to feed it,” and then, in fluent champion’s language, that his team cannot afford to dwell on that.
The most salient point of all might have come from that almost preternaturally muted coach at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio. Having gone 24-3 with two major bowl wins the last two seasons, he said, “Things hang by the inches. When people get hot, great things can happen. Good football team, good players, well-coached, a lot of confidence, got hot. You know the rest.”
The rest: Ohio State, in a sport where the Southeastern Conference had won seven of the previous eight national titles and finished as runner-up in the other, breathtakingly overcame the loss of two starting quarterbacks, won the first College Football Playoff, scored 143 points in three postseason games and dragged the whole sport north.
That seemed far-fetched even on Dec. 1, 2014. It’s hard to remember now, but the Big Ten remained only mildly relevant up to then. It hadn’t reached a national championship game in seven years. In non-conference games against the 65-team top tier in 2014, it stood 5-12. Against ranked non-conference teams, it stood 2-5, with the wins by a couple of stragglers over a couple of No. 18s: by Indiana in September at Missouri, and by Northwestern in November at Notre Dame.
Its defending champion and Rose Bowl champion, Michigan State, had taken a 49-37 pounding at home to underdog Ohio State. Its new frontrunner, Ohio State, had rebounded beautifully from a loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, but had just lost surging quarterback J.T. Barrett to a fractured ankle on Nov. 29. Ohio State may have needed a smashing victory in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 6 — and it came by 59-0 — just to nudge from No. 6 to No. 4 and into the first four-team playoff.
Nobody sat around forecasting that nine months thence, the buzz could reside in Columbus and thereabout. Then, on Dec. 30, Michigan, a vaguely relevant 46-42 across seven seasons, loudly hired Jim Harbaugh to return to the town of his quarterbacking as coach, one who had been to three NFC Championship Games with the San Francisco 49ers. Then, on Jan. 1, to hear Meyer tell it, there came two little turns — one in a trivial bowl game, the other in a less-trivial bowl game.
“I’ll tell you when I think the tide turned a little bit,” he said later that night, “was when Wisconsin beat Auburn (in the Outback Bowl). Everybody on our team knew that. I made sure they knew that. Then Michigan State came back (from a 41-21 deficit) and beat an excellent Baylor team (in the Cotton Bowl). And maybe the Big Ten’s not that bad. Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good. And it’s certainly getting better. Because the mind is a fragile thing.
“So there’s no doubt when we saw Wisconsin beat Auburn (34-31 in overtime), that was a major, major moment for us getting ready for this game.” Of his players, he said, “You should have seen their faces, man. They knew. They knew.”
They knew enough that not even a 21-6 deficit could discourage them later that night against No. 1 Alabama. By halftime, they trailed only 21-20. With two minutes to go, they led 42-28 before winning 42-35, all with third-string Cardale Jones as (excellent) quarterback.
“It’s probably the best game I’ve seen Ohio State play in the last 18-20 years I’ve been doing this,” Lachey said. “Against that champion” — three of the previous five seasons — “and in that atmosphere” — in the Southeast — “and against a team from the SEC.” He mentioned the adage that one must beat the champion to become the champion. “That night,” he said. “About as good as I’ve seen it.”
Eleven nights later in Texas, after the first title game in nine years without an SEC team in it, the epicenter had moved, the idea of Meyer had gone further north, and inches had turned to northbound miles.
This year’s curiosity (Michigan) opens Thursday at Utah, and this year’s monster opens next Monday at Virginia Tech.