Dienhart: Time to wonder 'What if?' with Ohio State

COLUMBUS — The crowd poured onto the field. No one was going to stop the Scarlet and Gray throng from celebrating this Ohio State win over Michigan.

Yes, every victory over the Wolverines—that “team up North”–is special in these parts. But this one will be savored even more. This one was the seal on top of an unbeaten season. This one capped a season that never will be forgotten at Ohio State.

“Well, to be 12-0, it really hasn’t sunk in,” said Urban Meyer. “I want to make sure they’re properly recognized as one of the great groups of seniors in the history of this program, however we’re going to do that. Maybe we’ll get 19 bronze statues somewhere, raise some money.”

[VIDEO: Ohio State honors 2002 team, Tressel]

Cue the laughter. And joy.

Bringing this fairytale season full circle was the fact Ohio State’s last unbeaten team—the 2002 national champions–was in attendance to watch the 2012 Buckeyes’ punctuate the perfect season. But because of NCAA probation, Ohio State’s dreams end right here.

Now, we are left to wonder: What if?

Nov 24, 2012; Columbus, OH, USA; A general view as Ohio State Buckeyes fans rush the field after defeating the Michigan Wolverines 26-21 to go undefeated on the season at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREWhat if the Buckeyes weren’t on probation as a result of violations incurred under the Jim Tressel regime and thus ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game or a bowl?

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith believed the penalties he and school administrators had proposed would be sufficient to appease the NCAA. But when the verdict came down from the NCAA, the Buckeyes were slapped with a bowl ban this season.

“At the time we made the decision, we felt confident that we would not receive the bowl ban,” Smith told the media on Tuesday. “Obviously, when we received it, we were shocked and devastated.”

Ohio State ranked No. 4 in the most recent AP poll–the only poll they can be ranked in–behind Notre Dame, Alabama and Georgia, respectively. Where would the Buckeyes be in the BCS standings? Most likely not in the top two or even in the top four, as Ohio State’s strength of schedule would figure to hold it back in the various computer polls of the BCS formula.

Still, it’s fun to play the “what-if” game.

Could Ohio State beat Notre Dame? I would like the Buckeyes’ chances. Yes, the Irish have a tremendous defense, but the Ohio State offense started to click better later in the season as running back Carlos Hyde emerged. And I think the Buckeye defense could stand toe-to-toe with the Fighting Irish offense, which is solid—at best.

Could Ohio State beat Alabama? See above, as the Crimson Tide are built much along the same lines as Notre Dame—great defense; decent offense.

“I’d say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America,” said Meyer. “I wouldn’t say that five weeks ago. But I think you’ve seen the growth, what we did today and the growth of our defense. … ”

[RELATED: View our Michigan-Ohio State photo gallery]

Ohio State had been staring perfection in the eye four other times when facing Michigan in this iconic rivalry, only to see the Wolverines ruin an unbeaten run. Those memories from 1969, 1973 (tie), 1995 and 1996 remain painful to the folks walking up and down High Street. But Ohio State wasn’t going to be denied on this day.

The Buckeyes looked dominating on defense today, especially in the second half. Michigan finished with just 279 yards—and only 60 of them came after halftime.

“It’s hard to win when you turn the ball over four times and don’t convert third-and-short opportunities,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “We played well enough to win at times, but gave up too many four- and five-yard runs in the end.”

And the Ohio State offense continued to tick along behind the running of Hyde, who has been a monster of late. He had 666 yards in the last six games coming into today. And he finished with 66 hard-fought yards and a score on a day when Braxton Miller was held to minus-three yards rushing. But Miller did hit 11-of-13 passes for 156 yards and a score.

“(Hyde) is developing into one of the best backs in the country,” said Meyer. “He’s a powerful guy. He’s come a long way.”

While Ohio State will have to be content with finishing the season at 12-0, it has to be pleased with where the program is headed under Meyer. He had a debut season for the ages, laying the foundation for what could be a stunningly successful tenure in Columbus.

Nov 24, 2012; Columbus, OH, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Vincent Smith (2) is tackled by the Ohio State Buckeyes defense in the fourth quarter at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIREAnd this team will forever have a special place in school lore alongside the Ohio State national champions of 1942, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1968, 1970 and 2002.

But the question begs: If Ohio State is the last unbeaten team after the season concludes, should it be ranked No. 1 by the AP, the only poll that ranks OSU?

“Just trying to picture the headline here,” said Meyer. “Enough headlines.”

He wasn’t going to touch that question. But it’s a fair one, especially in a season in which there really isn’t a dominating team.

“You know, I don’t know enough … ,” said Meyer “I understand but I’m not going to get into the what-ifs and can’t control what you can’t control. What if we had done this, what if we would have done this. We’re 12-0. I’m going to see to it when you walk into that Woody Hayes facility this team will never be forgotten, because they deserve that.”

The 2013 Buckeyes will welcome back the likes of quarterback Braxton Miller, running back Carlos Hyde, receivers Devin Smith, Corey Brown, Evan Spencer, tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett and four linemen on offense. The defense will have back players like Bradley Roby, Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett, linebacker Ryan Shazier and linemen Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Johnathan Hankins. Of course, a few of those players could turn pro, but they all may want to return for what could be a preseason Top Five team in 2013.

“I’m hoping the guys get that taste and they want to do it again,” said Meyer. “Because once you taste that, it tastes really good. And the foundation, I think, is strong.”

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Your Opinion?
Show Comments (14 Comments)
sbuel2 on 11/24/2012 @ 9:01pm EDT Said:

You are on probation for NCAA violations, some of your players were in trouble twice even while serving the penalty for the first violation. Jim Tressle was honored today but seemed to have no control over his players. I hope that the AP does not decide to split the championships this year in your favor. Probation is a punishment for misbehavior. I am surprised you aren’t out of all the polls. BiB was not very storng this season and you almost lost to Purdue, Wisconsin and today to Michigan, other definitely weaker members of the conference gave you a hard time so not really championship quality team.

Joe W on 11/24/2012 @ 10:16pm EDT Said:

What makes me laugh is all the hate and vitriol from other fan bases. It seems that others are upset that OSU is not suffering according to their expectations. As far as polls, I really could care less about what a bunch of writers, coaches, or computers think about who should or should not be the mythical national champion. My alma mater just finished the season undefeated against the schedule they had…2012 will always be an undefeated season, no matter what the AP, BCS, or any other organization that wants to communicate their opinion on the matter. It was also good to see PSU get the win today…just like OSU…the current players did not participate in the violations. Now for the rest of the B10, go out and win your darn bowl games!

Ashly O. on 11/24/2012 @ 10:24pm EDT Said:

Fun article, fun concept to ponder. But on the national scene, does Ohio State’s team/season even matter? And they ‘hoisted’ their fired head coach who got them into this mess into the air today? That to me is a slap in the face to the entire conference. In Columbus, their season matters. Everywhere else, it doesn’t and they are a blackeye to our ‘weak’ B1G performance this season across the board. It’s sad that this is your lead article Tom. I love what you do, I find you one of the best writers in the land. However, I find this topic a poor choice of judgement for a conference that has 2 teams on NCAA probation, especially when you have a 2nd year member going to the title game who lost only 1 conference game. Seems like we should talk about our members who actually have a chance to move our conference forward after the most turbulent last 2 yrs.

Dustin on 11/24/2012 @ 11:58pm EDT Said:

no doubt this team has done great things this season. but it’s still no guarantee they finish the season unbeaten if they play in the B1G CCG. They have to travel to a neutral site to play a much improved Husker squad that seems to be on a mission since its ugly loss to Ohio State earlier in the season. And lets not forget how well the huskers travel (see Northwestern game.) That makes for a tough game against the Huskers. Adding on top of that, it appears that the heart and soul of that team in Rex Burkehead is back in action. He looks to be playing solid with a lot of passion and strength (see Burkehead carry 7+ Iowa players for 8+ yards two plays in a row). The huskers would be tough to beat. It’s one thing to beat a team one time. It’s a hell of a lot harder to beat them twice in the same season. Which is the challenge that Nebraska faces in Indy on the 1st. like you said, there are a lot of ifs.

Victor Rojo on 11/25/2012 @ 2:11am EDT Said:

OSU would get creamed by Alabama, just like Michigan did. The OSU defense is nowhere near championship caliber, and the offense is erratic. They are also lucky they don’t have to play in the league championship game because it’s tough to beat the same team twice in a season.

Tony on 11/25/2012 @ 2:59am EDT Said:

sbuel2 and Ashly O., I think you forget that OSU isn’t the only school that has ever had a violation and this violation did not give them an unfair advantage such at the Miami Hurricanes booster scandal. Remember the Reggie Bush scandal. You both seem to be ignorant to the fact that the violaion was young OSU football players trading their memorbrillia in exchange for tattoo’s. Unless those tatoo’s had some kind of special power, the players nor the OSU football team, did not receive any kind of unfair advantage by those actions. Yes, Jim Tressel should have reported it, but he wasn’t a NARC. He knew his players were young and impressionable and he tried to show compassion. There are a lot of Pro players in all sports with tatoo’s and they were trying to start their own portraits on their bodies. You both talk like this was some kind of major deal and it wasn’t. It’s suprising they were even banned from participating in a bowl game this year. OSU has the same penalty this year as the University of Miami and UM actuallly was receiving an unfair advantage by the booster enticing recruits and giving money to the star players. I don’t know, Miami sounds like it was a worse case than the OSU case, it is what it is. I think you two need to educate yourself and learn the difference of the SMU’s, Baylor’s, UM’s and that the situations and the punishments should be different. OSU’s violation was far from the UM violation, but they have the same punishment. We have to take it though. All this article is saying is, “What if…” and it’s a valid point of view. It doesn’t matter, but it is fun to ponder unless you are a Michigan fan. Sounds like you both are just Michigan fans who are sore losers. You are what you are, don’t exaggerate a bad situation just because you don’t like the outcome of a game.

sbuel2 on 11/25/2012 @ 7:32am EDT Said:

Asgket O, U agree, The celebration of Jim Tressel again indicates a school placing a person and a football program above all else. Nebraska had to play at Penn State last year after the scandal broke and JoePa was fired, riots and nastiness. The fans cheered the man whose lack of control over his players and hiding the offenses put Ohio State on probation this year. I would have expected the fans to boo him since this situation is his issue, not the other B1G teams and their fans. You knew you were on probation coming into the season. You won 12 games, be happy with that. There is no what if. The television was even putting tressel on his 2001 team shoulders as a play of the day. Obviously your fans and the football program are placed above right and wrong. The players were wrong, Tressel knew and hid it. A second B1G program where football is on a pedistal and nothing else seems to matter except WHAT IF? You are on probation for a reason, you honor the coach who put you there. Not much grace in that.

Tony on 11/25/2012 @ 10:02am EDT Said:

Go Bucks!

Kevin on 11/25/2012 @ 10:46am EDT Said:

Sbuel2……….. Probation is being served according to those who make tha decision. So leave it atthat. Talking about straight football, I would probably pick more on the current number 1 ranked team in Notre Dame. I think those they have beat or surely those they barely beat would have in no way have been much more than a 500 team in a Big Ten schedule. Furthermore I am highly confident that week after week in a Big Ten schedule that Notre Dame would have finished with 2-3 losses.

Finally the AP is about ranking college football teams based on multiple facets. Not one that I am aware of that has anything to do with a Bowl ban.

Shawn Lott on 11/25/2012 @ 10:54am EDT Said:

Ashly, keep in mind that Ohio State didn’t hoist Tressel into the air. His 2002 players hoisted him into the air. He will always be their coach and the coach that led them to a national championship, no matter what he did later in his coaching career at the school. So, of course they love him enough to hoist him into the air. As far as the question of whether or not OSU should be the AP number one if they are the only one left undefeated, I don’t think they should be because of strength of schedule. The Big Ten is weak. This is a a good Ohio State team for sure, but I’ve seen many other Buckeye teams that I thought were better. I really thought that this team was pretty average and the fact that they are without a doubt the best team in the conference doesn’t say much for the Big Ten.

sbuel2 on 11/25/2012 @ 11:23am EDT Said:

Tony, Miami is still under investigation, many of their penalties are self-imposed trying to avoid worst this point. Your players were suspended as seniors and junior and one got a second suspension due to his continuing bad practices. Reggie Bush was years after he went pro. Your guys were on the team last year so nearer the time of the events. take care and enjoy the season you had. it was a great run. Really the petitioning the president, the fans cheering for Tressel, just shows how football ranks on OSU campus. I didn’t hear any boos for tressel. It seems like OSU is blaming other teams and theri fans for being hard on your team. Your team is on probation by the NCAA not the B1G. What might have beens are nice for your fans but this was a probation year so dream about a national championship and I hope the AP doesn’t feel for you. Remember ND beat three b1G teams and Alabama won a B1G match with one of our better teams.

gablefan on 11/25/2012 @ 3:59pm EDT Said:

As a Buckeye fan, I left my seat and went downstairs rather than watch that spectacle unfold. I harbor no ill will toward the 2002 team (no, not even Clarett), but for Tressel to have the gall (not to mention the bad taste) to take his bow at that game was unconscionable. You may not have heard any boos, but I can tell you that I was not the only one to refuse to participate in the adulation for a liar and cheater who gave the Ohio State program a huge black eye.

Ethanosu on 11/27/2012 @ 2:59pm EDT Said:

Real tired of everyone bashing on OSU. We had a perfect season, it wasnt beautiful the whole way through, but we still won every game. you can all act like a bunch of “well educated” jaded football critics, but at the end of the the day, OSU went undefeated. did your team go undefeated? unless you are a notre dame fan then no.

Go Bucks.

Mark Charles Peshaba on 12/10/2012 @ 4:17am EDT Said:

I sure do see a lot of hate? Just hate that the OSU Buckeyes won every game this 2012 season. Probation or no probation. Hate the game not the player.