Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
This is it for the Ohio State seniors. On Saturday, they’ll walk into Ohio Stadium gladiators – warriors at the top of their form – ready for perhaps their biggest battle against their most hated enemy. But when they walk out, their careers will be over.
There will be no lingering in the sunset of a career, no choice to return for one more season, no resurrection from retirement. They will exit stage right – most of them never to play a meaningful down again – and take their place in history.
This senior class has already had most of their history written for them, though. It’s filled with the trials of a turbulent program, a deep-cutting scandal that rocked the team and its supporters to the core and a revolving door of three head coaches in four years.
Ten or 20 years from now, those looking back at this period will remember the program’s troubles more than its triumphs.
Saturday is an opportunity for the troubled group though. It’s an opportunity for them to control part of their legacy and carve out their own place in the OSU history books instead of having it defined for them.
Only nine Buckeye football teams have gone undefeated in the program’s history.
Michigan – and only Michigan – stands in the way of this team becoming the 10th.
It’s remarkable when you think about it. In 2011 the then-juniors contributed to a team that went 6-7 and lost to Michigan for the first time since 2003.
When a postseason ban robbed the group of a bright-lights bowl game in their final year, it would have been easy to throw in the towel. Yet again, factors beyond their control were dictating their future and their place in OSU history.
A new coach, who undoubtedly had his gaze transfixed on the future more than the present, had no reason to hold any loyalty for them.
The bowl ban meant that the most important aspect of 2012 season quickly became how it would set up the 2013 team. The 2012 team – and its seniors – would be lost in the transition.
But somehow, this team became something. It’s on the brink of something great.
Sure, the Big Ten is weak this year and sure the out-of-conference schedule was even weaker, but as Kansas State and Oregon proved last Saturday, going undefeated is no picnic, regardless of the opponent.
This Buckeye team isn’t dominating. It doesn’t overpower many opponents and the defense (though it has improved lately) is one of the weakest in recent memory.
But they keep winning. Often ugly. Often barely. But winning nonetheless.
A win Saturday completes the job. It makes the team that everyone was ready to forget memorable. It will spark an endless wonder of “What could have been if they were eligible?”
The stakes are high. Lose Saturday and most of it goes down the drain. For the first time in a long time, it all really does comes down to Michigan and that’s what makes this Saturday’s game special.
It’s been a long time since there was so much on the line for a Michigan game. The Rich Rodriquez era at Michigan was not kind to the rivalry and neither was a 6-6 Buckeye team last year.
Even in years where both teams came into The Game highly ranked, there was always bowl positioning and conference championships at stake.
During the years of the legendary Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, there was still the Rose Bowl.
For the Buckeyes this year, there’s none of it. Only Michigan.
“This is what it all comes down to – playing Michigan,” said little-known senior wide receiver Taylor Rice, whose career will surely end after this game. “Winning or losing. This is what determines the outcome of our season … It’s been a great season but this is what really counts. This is what our season comes down to. This is our Super Bowl.”
The Game carries the prize of remembrance and the spoil of irrelevance – especially for the seniors.
“We’re forever indebted to (the seniors) because they didn’t have to do what they did,” said coach Urban Meyer.
That’s true. Their leadership helped put a broken program back together and leave it in a position to compete at the highest level of college football for years to come.
But The Game Saturday is a chance to leave something for themselves – a history that’s worth remembering.