Anyone needing proof of how hard winning a national championship is needs not look beyond Ohio State football in the poll era.
Since the first Associated Press poll in 1934, Ohio State claims eight national championships (five from the AP), but at least twice as many Buckeye squads have been within a win of joining that list and failed.
Close calls are common, of course, and they happen across the country… yet it’s hard to imagine any school has had any more than the Scarlet and Gray.
Ryan Day knows his second-ranked Buckeyes are on the verge of history — or ready to join a large group of Ohio State teams that were almost famous.
“We haven't talked about that part of it because we hadn't been to this point yet,” the coach of the Buckeyes said. “We didn't want to get ourselves too far ahead.
“That is going to be part of the message, though, that if you want to be known as one of the best of all time, be up there with the national champs, you want to be in rare air, here we go, this is the push right here.”
Setting a New Pace
A chance to play for the national championship will be on the line when the Buckeyes suit up against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28, but that’s not all.
Stacked at every position, it is hard to find a weakness in the 2019 Ohio State lineup as veterans have matured at some spots and youngsters have stepped up to star at others.
Beyond that, the way the Buckeyes handled their first 13 opponents this season (all double-digit wins) gives them a legitimate claim to the title Best Ohio State Team of All Time if they can take down the Tigers in a College Football Playoff semifinal and then LSU or Oklahoma in the national championship game.
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In a study of 25 Ohio State teams that won the national championship or came up just short, none outscored their opponents by as many points per game — 36.2 — as this one, and these Buckeyes have done it against a schedule as tough or tougher than any their predecessors faced.
If the Buckeyes win their last two games, they will also have more wins against ranked opponents — seven — than any of those teams we looked at.
But then being the best has hardly been an automatic qualifier for being national champion, at least as far as Ohio State is concerned.
Many great teams have failed to win it all, and some legendary teams were perhaps not even that great. They just did what they had to do when they had to — and in many cases got just enough breaks along the way to immortality.
Credit: Christian Petersen
Credit: Christian Petersen
Let’s Get Weird
Determining the best Ohio State team of all time is a tricky business, and Ohio State’s most recent national champion provides a good example.
(By “best” we are measuring which accomplished the most in its era or particular season, not who would win if they lined up against each other since the evolution of players and the game makes direct comparisons like that difficult, if not impossible.)
The 2014 Buckeyes finished 14-1, beating five ranked teams along the way to the first College Football Playoff national championship. Despite a 14-point loss to Virginia Tech in the second game of the season, they finished with a scoring differential of 22.8 points per game.
That is the most for any of Ohio State’s eight national championship teams, but it is not even in the top 10 in school history.
That’s right — we found 11 teams in the poll era that outscored their opponents by more points than any of of the Buckeye squads that won it all.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of unpredictability. As the most recent Ohio State team to win it all provides an example, so does the first to be snubbed.
The 1944 Buckeyes won all nine of their games, including four against ranked opponents, and outscored their foes by 23.1 points per game. That wasn’t enough for AP poll voters, though, who chose Army No. 1 (leaving Ohio State to lament being “civilian national champions”).
The next time Ohio State came up just short is widely considered the most painful, most shocking — or both.
The 1969 Buckeyes rolled into Ann Arbor to face Michigan not only unbeaten but unchallenged. They left with a 24-12 defeat that dashed hopes of back-to-back national titles and denied coach Woody Hayes from having one of the sport’s great dynasties as Ohio State was named consensus national champion in ’68 and shared the title in 1970.
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The ’69 Buckeyes set a cruel precedent as the first Ohio State team to have its championship dreams crushed in their last game of the year, and astute Ohio State fans will probably not be surprised to learn the No. 2 and 3 teams on our list were also undone by the Wolverines.
A 10-10 tie prevented either Ohio State or Michigan from winning it all in 1973, and a 13-9 upset of Ohio State in 1996 was the Buckeyes’ only loss that season.
Other Big Ten teams took turns standing in the way over the years, too.
Michigan State ruined perfect seasons for Ohio State in 1974, ’98, 2013 and ’15 while Wisconsin gave the 2010 Buckeyes their only loss (before the NCAA took away all their wins, anyway…).
Maybe the most bizarre of such upsets occurred just last season when an out-of-nowhere 49-20 loss at Purdue kept Ohio State out of the CFP.
The ’69 team, which couldn’t play in the postseason because of Big Ten rules at the time, is one of seven teams to need only to win their last game to be crowned No. 1 and then lose. That also happened in ’74, ’75, ’79, 2006 and ’07.
Credit: Stephen Dunn
Credit: Stephen Dunn
(Another oddity: 1970 team was undefeated in the regular season and lost the Rose Bowl to Stanford but still was named national champion by the National Football Foundation.)
Then there is the matter of going undefeated in the wrong year.
Like the ’44 team, the 2012 Buckeyes were undefeated but uncrowned, a victim of NCAA sanctions stemming from the same scandal that ultimately wiped out the 2010 season.
The ‘12 Buckeyes were ineligible for postseason play and ignored by pollsters after Alabama thrashed Notre Dame in the BCS Championship game.
Credit: Jamie Sabau
Credit: Jamie Sabau
For what its worth, though, the 2012 Buckeyes also had the lowest scoring differential of the teams we examined (14.3), while the ’18 team checks in at fourth-lowest.
In between them? National championship teams of 2002 and 1961.
The title teams of ’57, ’54, ’68 and ’70 also are all near the bottom of that list while none of the top 10 in points differential actually won it all.
Add it all up, and the ’69 team still has a strong claim to be the best team in school history. They outscored opponents by an average of 32.2 points, the best on our list of 25 champions and almost-champions, and beat three ranked opponents in only nine games.
Wins by any margin in the last two games will leave these Buckeyes as the most dominant — by scoring margin, anyway — in school history.
Wins over seven ranked teams would also be more than any of Ohio State’s previous national championship teams.
That means all that is left for Days’ team to do is, well, the hardest part: Win.
“Not that it really matters with our day-to-day operation — We’re not going to be trying harder or anything else like that,” Day said of aiming for the top. “We just got to do a great job of focusing day in, day out, maximizing each day as we can so we're prepared on the 28th.”