“But they lost to Virginia Tech. They never should have made the playoff.”
“You just can’t lose to Virginia Tech at home and be playoff-eligible.”
“Man, how did THAT team lose to Virginia Tech?”
“Virginia Tech wasn’t even all that good last season — you mean they LOST to those guys? At HOME? At NIGHT? Come on!”
They heard it all through the 2014 season. They heard it through the long, hot summer of anxiety, when fans can’t wait for college football to return but are always unable to live completely free from worry. Even if you were a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes, the defending national champions in college football, the arrival of a new season meant that everyone’s out to get you. As the wearers of the crown, you have something to lose. It shouldn’t feel like a burden, but it does.
What if — for the sake of discussion — Ohio State had lost Monday night’s season opener against the Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg, Virginia? What if the improbable occurred twice in a row? Very improbable events, even those that are seemingly impossible, occur in college football on an annual basis. The chaotic nature of football and its one-game-per-week structure allow for a certain degree of randomness. Football, strictly in terms of the number of games played in a regular season, is the ultimate small-sample-size sport.
Then add the human element: It is in the nature of college football — played by 18- to 22-year-old male members of the human species — to be volatile. These unique intersections of hope and opportunity, these very particular chemical cocktails of adrenaline and fear and hubris and complacency, create unexpected outcomes.
It happens every autumn. You just don’t know where or when the surprises are going to unfold.
College football is a sport in which Stanford, as a 41-point underdog, won at USC in 2007. It’s a sport in which Syracuse, two weeks earlier in that crazy 2007 season (the craziest in the 21st century and certainly one of the three wackiest of the past half-century), won at Louisville as a 36-point dog.
Ohio State had NO CHANCE of losing to Virginia Tech? Not quite.
So, the question is asked again: What if it had happened? What if the Hokies had won back-to-back games against the Buckeyes?
Nothing about the 2014 national title would have been invalidated or diminished. No banners, trophies or other commemorative objects would have lost their value. No memories would have been altered.
However, those voices and refrains — “BUT THEY COULDN’T BEAT VIRGINIA TECH!” — would not only have continued to reverberate. They would have done so with even more national resonance.
Yes, 12 straight Ohio State wins following a loss to the Hokies would very likely hae put the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff, anyway. Only a sea of undefeated teams or perhaps a one-loss SEC champion would have stood in the way. However, even while acknowledging that (systemic, structural, political) reality, the Buckeyes would have had to go about the task of not stumbling another time over the course of three months.
In that three-month journey, questions about a “Virginia Tech problem” would have lingered over their heads and in their hearts at every turn. Human beings being what they are — mortal, frail, not robots — that could have had an effect on the Buckeyes… IF they had lost.
Sure, this wasn’t narrowly about gaining revenge, but Ohio State’s journey to Blacksburg was certainly a business trip rooted in the attempt to resolve a problem and put an end to a lingering question: “Can the Buckeyes take care of Virginia Tech?”
The deed is done, but just to prove the point about college football’s fragility and the attendant reality that “anything can happen,” the first half from Lane Stadium offered a reminder that while Ohio State is the best team in the sport, it is not airtight. Unlikely plot complications could make life difficult for the champs, and in the first half, that’s what we saw.
Deflected passes turning into interceptions.
Rivers of holding penalties which prevented the game from being a blowout in its early stages.
A fumbled kick by a guy (Ezekiel Elliott) who was not the first choice as punt returner on the roster.
Just a few unplanned occurrences gave Virginia Tech a 17-14 halftime lead, even though Ohio State’s didn’t play all that badly. If one half could proceed like that, what not two?
All things are possible… well, except for Kansas beating Ohio State or 73 other things. (You get the point.)
How would Ohio State respond to this situation? It’s not as though the Buckeyes were caught off guard at the beginning of Monday’s tilt. They were prepared, and they looked the part of a team that’s going to mash everyone on its schedule, with the exception of Michigan State. It was only after gaining a 14-0 advantage that the Buckeyes lost the plot. The flow of a game can get away from 19- and 20-year olds; it is an eternal source of the hope in underdogs’ hearts, and will be as long as college football is played.
Everyone in Lane Stadium knew Ohio State was likely to fix things in the second half, but Urban Meyer’s team had to go about the process of doing it.
In just a few seconds, the Buckeyes restored order with one of their many home-run plays, and that was that. Braxton Miller undressed Virginia Tech defenders en route to another long-distance score for Ohio State, and before anyone could blink in the third quarter, the Buckeyes — not necessarily crafty boxers on this night — overcame their inability to land a large quantity of point-scoring jabs by landing a small amount of devastating haymakers. They scored a TKO early in the ninth round of this 12-round bout.
How does this win set the stage for the rest of the season? Ohio State can’t expect to win with only haymakers all the time. A few games are likely to be grinders, in which the Buckeyes will need to use 10-play drives to score touchdowns. Yet, the instructive dimension of this game is that Ohio State possessed high-level quick-strike potency on offense even without receivers and H-backs who are supposed to be important producers in 2015. Even without Joey Bosa on defense, Ohio State got the better of Virginia Tech’s offensive line — not always, but certainly more often than not.
A Buckeye bunch without maximum depth — on this night, in this situation — still owned more than enough resources to overcome in-game adversity and win this game with relatively little drama.
Experience, coaching, physical prowess, and Braxton Miller at wide receiver. Ohio State’s toolbox of attributes and advantages runs deep. One the Bucks stopped making major mistakes, Virginia Tech’s hopes ended.
If you were to analogize the season to a tennis match, there is no question at all after week one that the 2015 college football campaign is on Ohio State’s racquet.