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National Championship Preview: How Ohio State can take down Alabama
Sports Pulse: Sports reporters Dan Wolken and Paul Myerberg give us their takes on how they think the game will play out
SportsPulse, USA TODAY
After a season that cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the conference and first-year commissioner Kevin Warren, don’t look for a “Mission Accomplished” banner to be hung at the Big Ten headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, to celebrate Ohio State’s appearance in the College Football Playoff and championship game matchup with Alabama.
Nonetheless, amid all the things that went wrong for the Big Ten during an already trying year — beginning with the mishandled decision to cancel and later reenter the regular season — that the Buckeyes are playing for the national championship represents a rare win for the conference.
“They were fighting to get back to play for a national championship,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day. “This is everything on the line, everything we wanted, and so now all the focus goes on to Alabama. We’ve just got to prepare.”
The argument can be made that giving Ohio State a shot at the playoff was one of the primary motivators behind the league’s decision to reboot the season in late October, along with the vocal blowback from several Big Ten athletics directors, coaches and players.
As expected, the Buckeyes took advantage of the opportunity.
Ohio State has been the Big Ten’s defining figure during college football’s modern era, capturing at least a share of 33 conference championships in the past 70 years and serving as the league’s one and only reliable contender to pit against the best teams from the remaining Power Five conferences.
Since the arrival of Woody Hayes in 1951, Ohio State has gone 615-169-15, a winning percentage of 77.9%, and claimed seven national championships. The rest of the Big Ten has combined for five championships. With the exception of Michigan, which trails 40-27-2 in the rivalry during this span, the Buckeyes have won at least 70% of their games against every current Big Ten member.
OSU has done a particular number on the league since 2012, when Urban Meyer ushered in an era of dominance that might be unmatched in program history, creating a degree of separation from the rest of the conference that expands with each passing year.
The 2020 season was no different. After going 5-0 during the regular season and beating Northwestern in the championship game, the Buckeyes have posted two straight unbeaten conference seasons and won 21 straight Big Ten games.
“We always talked about, when we are at Ohio State, the hallmark of greatness, the test of greatness is consistency,” former coach Jim Tressel told USA TODAY Sports. “And I think Ohio State has embodied that and keeps turning it up a notch.”
How Buckeyes stack up against competition
Going back to 2012, OSU is 69-4 against Big Ten competition during the regular season with five conference championships. (The 2012 team went 12-0 but was ineligible for the conference championship and postseason due to NCAA infractions.) Of those four conference losses, just one has come at home.
This year’s team made Big Ten history by winning the program’s fourth outright conference championship in a row, one year after the Buckeyes became the first to win three straight outright championships.
The Buckeyes’ regular-season conference record is the best of any Power Five program across the past nine seasons. OSU is also the only Power Five program during that span to not post two or more conference losses in a single season at least once.
►Alabama is 67-7 in the SEC since 2012 and a perfect 6-0 in SEC championship games. While winners of three of the past nine national championships and the undisputed powerhouse of college football, the Crimson Tide have finished second in the SEC West twice in the past four years.
“Very challenging game for us all the way around,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Monday night’s matchup with OSU. “But these are the kind of games if you’re a competitor you really look forward to playing in, and this is a great opportunity for our players to compete against a great team.”
►Oklahoma has gone 67-13 in the Big 12 and won six straight league championships, the last four under coach Lincoln Riley. The Sooners lost twice in Big 12 play this season and lost a combined six league games in 2013 and 2014 before hiring Riley as offensive coordinator in 2015.
►ACC juggernaut Clemson is 66-7 in conference play since 2012 and unbeaten in six league championship games. After playing second fiddle to Florida State through 2014, the Tigers have lost just three ACC games in the past six years.
Ohio State’s record during the regular season and in championship games is made even more impressive by the Big Ten’s development into the only conference with a legitimate argument for being considered equal to the SEC.
As one reflection of the league’s increased depth and competitiveness, the Big Ten finished each of the past four years with at least five teams in the Amway Coaches Poll; the six to end last season were the most of any conference.
During this four-year span, the Buckeyes have gone 34-2 in Big Ten games, including the conference championships, with all but six of those wins coming by 11 or more points.
While the conference has improved, gains made by several programs — including Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa — have failed to match the Buckeyes’ pace. Nowhere is this more evident than in recruiting: OSU has finished with the Big Ten’s top-ranked signing class in eight of the past nine cycles. According to the composite ratings compiled by 247Sports.com, only one of those classes finished outside of the top seven in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision.
Beating the Crimson Tide to secure the program’s second national championship in the past seven seasons would give this era a credible case for being seen as the most dominant in Ohio State’s history, a profound statement given the Buckeyes’ status as the most predictably successful program in the sport.
Ohio State skipped coaching carousel
Buoyed by remarkable coaching consistency and a fertile in-state recruiting base, OSU has experienced none of the multiple-year lulls that have randomly plagued every other FBS blueblood.
Notre Dame had only two winning seasons from 1956-63, another three losing seasons in the 1980s and cycled through three head coaches between Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly. Miami has won more than nine games in a season only once since 2003. Oklahoma failed to win a conference championship from 1988-1999. Nebraska was a paragon of consistency for more than 30 years but has not been a national factor this century.
Michigan fumbled back-to-back hires in Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke and has yet to threaten OSU behind coach Jim Harbaugh. Southern California struggled through the 1990s and the 2010s, sandwiching the Pete Carroll-coached dynasty of the 2000s. Even Alabama spent a decade in the wilderness before being saved by Saban in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes haven’t suffered consecutive losing finishes since 1922-24, have lost six or more games just three times in the past 74 seasons and have posted just two losing seasons since 1966.
The program claims four national championships during that period: 1968, 1970, 2002 and 2014. Three coaches are responsible for those wins: Hayes, Tressel and Meyer. Each of the program’s five full-time head coaches before Day — Hayes, Tressel, Meyer, Earle Bruce and John Cooper — are either in the College Football Hall of Fame or, in Meyer’s case, a lock for induction when eligible.
Only once since 2005 has OSU failed to at least share the conference or division championship. Only once in that same span have the Buckeyes failed to win at least 10 games, including games later vacated by NCAA penalties and not counting this season’s abbreviated schedule. This season marks the fifth time since 2002 that OSU will play for the national championship.
“At Ohio State, a lot of the discussion is how do you do against your rival, how do you do in the Big Ten and then how do you do on the national scheme of things,” Tressel said. “In these 20 years, you could check off all three of those boxes.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports college reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg