Ohio State's Corey Smith reacts on the bench near the end the Big Ten Conference championship NCAA college football game against Michigan State Saturday Dec. 7, 2013, in Indianapolis. Michigan State defeated Ohio State, 34-24. ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHICAGO — It was a smudge on the Mona Lisa, a patch of weeds on the White House lawn, a losing streak after a school-record stretch of wins.
Ohio State knows the difference between near perfection and perfection.
Coach Urban Meyer’s first two years in Columbus ranked among the best in school history. High on the wall of the Buckeyes’ indoor practice complex, a “12-0” banner honoring the bowl-banned 2012 team hangs in the same row as those marking the program’s seven national championships. Another perfect regular season followed, with Ohio State coming within one game of playing for the national title last year.
Yet for all OSU has accomplished, players wondered this week if they had truly accomplished anything at all.
At least anything they’ve truly wanted.
The three seniors representing the Buckeyes at Big Ten media days in Chicago cast this fall as a legacy-defining season. Their class begins another year of outsized expectations with two major omissions from otherwise resounding résumés: a Big Ten title and a bowl win.
“When we went 12-0 in the regular season last year, that felt great but those are all steps to get to what you really want,” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “So we took steps to the door and got kicked off the porch. We need to finish that now. We need to go through that door.
“I think that's the whole goal now this year. We know it takes each and every game. But when it finally matters to get to what we worked for, it's time to win.”
A year ago, the Buckeyes closed the season with losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. It did not sit well. Quarterback Braxton Miller and tight end Jeff Heuerman recalled the Buckeyes’ failed late fourth-and-2 run against the Spartans replaying on loop in their minds. Bennett called the ending to the year a “tragedy” before catching himself.
Now, all signs point toward another visit to the porch. While many questions remain — the Buckeyes must replace four starters on the offensive line and, according to Meyer, “completely blew up and started from scratch” with a pass defense that ranked 110th nationally last season — Ohio State is the media’s preseason pick to win the Big Ten and a favorite to appear in the first four-team national playoff.
Ohio State’s players expect nothing less. While Meyer usually changes his teams’ guiding slogan each season, he saw no reason to this year. An oversized banner reading, “The Chase,” will hang over the team’s practice field for the second straight season. A sense of unfinished work endures.
“We’re still trying to finish the chase,” Bennett said.
Meyer will not call the last two seasons a failure, declining to borrow the logic of Michigan’s Brady Hoke, who uses the tag for any year that ends short of a Big Ten title.
“Failure? Oh, I think that's a strong word,” Meyer said. “There's injuries, there's issues. I'm very careful not to say — and you'll never see it anywhere in our facilities — that the national championship is our goal. Our goal is to win the Big Ten championship. The national championship is something we're chasing, but there are so many variables. I don't want our players feeling like they're a failure. Some people did some magical things in that 24-game run. So I don't use that word.”
Still, he will not hesitate to use the missing accomplishments as a motivational chip.
“Certainly that's in the shoebox of ideas if we have some complacent players,” Meyer said. “But if you have a hungry team, you don't need to worry, and my anticipation is we'll have a very hungry team.”
Of that, players say there is little doubt.
“This group of seniors, we don't have that Big Ten championship and we don't have a bowl win,” Heuerman said. “Those are two things we need to accomplish this year, and we're going to do everything we can to do that.”