Coming into the 2015 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were more highly regarded as the top team in the country than any other in college football history.
They were coming off a dominant championship performance in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
They had nearly every starter on the team returning, and the ones who did leave had more-than-adequate replacements.
They were the only team to ever receive all 61 first-place votes in the preseason AP Poll.
So, it’s fair to think that, with a loss tainting their 12-1 record and keeping them from appearing in each of the first two playoffs, their 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl could be considered a disappointment when the big picture is looked at.
Just don’t tell the Buckeyes that.
OSU coach Urban Meyer was asked that very question during the post-Fiesta Bowl press conference, about if his team looks back with regret at that Nov. 21 loss to Michigan State, knowing that a better offensive output than the 14 points it scored would have put a trip back to the playoff entirely in the Scarlet and Gray’s hands.
But disappointment was the furthest thing from Meyer’s mind after the victory.
“Thanks for coming,” Meyer responded with a chuckle. “Those who know me, I can’t let go of things. I’ve let go of that. We just won the Fiesta Bowl.”
That’s the mindset the Buckeyes took on immediately after the loss to the Spartans, churning out arguably their two best games of the season in their 42-13 win at Michigan and in the Fiesta Bowl. In a season where players who know they could have done more often look disinterested, thinking ahead to the next season or to their upcoming professional careers, OSU turned in a much closer resemblance to the team it was expected to be.
But to the Buckeyes, they always were that team, even if they didn’t always perform like it.
“I always feel like that, that we’re one of the top teams in the country,” redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett said. “But like I said after we lost to Michigan State, that was something that we could have controlled. Losing kind of put our destiny in somebody else’s hands. We put that on ourselves and used it as a growing opportunity.”
Barrett said the team regrouped after the defeat, knowing that the rest of the season could go one of two very different directions depending on how much fire was left.
“I definitely feel like we grew for the better of this organization,” he said. “Going up to (Ann Arbor, Michigan), playing a good game, then coming here to the Fiesta Bowl, great atmosphere on New Year’s, putting a good game together as well. With that, we just live and we learn. I feel like we’re better as a team for what happened.”
For as much supposed certainty of the greatness of the 2015 squad surrounded OSU before the season, an equal amount of doubt will probably creep into next year’s unit.
Eight seniors started for the team this season: Braxton Miller, Nick Vannett, Taylor Decker, Chase Farris, Jacoby Boren, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington and Joshua Perry.
And another eight starting underclassmen — Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell — followed the seniors out the door.
What that all means is that the Buckeyes will step onto the gridiron next season with just six returning starters.
But even amid the uncertainty, the doubts that will creep in surrounding the team’s ability to get it done, OSU expects to roll with the punches and take great pride in whatever it is able to accomplish.
That’s just the world Meyer has created for his players.
“When everyone’s shooting at you, we play for Ohio State, so every week, we get somebody’s best shot,” Elliott said after the Fiesta Bowl. “You’ve got to stay focused, you’ve got to have almost a perfect season just to make it to those playoffs. I hope the younger guys learn from our mistakes from this year, and I hope they grow from it.”
One of the players who had to get an early taste of that new era, sophomore defensive end Jalyn Holmes, who had to play an increased role in the Fiesta Bowl thanks to the absences of Washington (suspension) and Schutt (injury), as well as Bosa’s early ejection, said that is not something the players worry about.
“It just speaks of the program,” Holmes said. “It’s just a ‘next man up’ program.”
Whether or not an OSU team that will likely be short on experience can be a top-four team — or top 10 or top 15 — is irrelevant to the players who suit up in the scarlet and gray. It is ingrained in OSU culture to play with the same sense of pride every time the jersey and pads are put on.
“We play for our brothers,” Lee said. “Just play for the guy next to me. Just try to do my job to put the team in the best position to win.”
Elliott is stepping out with a guy yet to make his collegiate debut in Mike Weber likely picking up a lot of the carries. Washington and Schutt’s void in the middle is being filled by players like Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger, who had hardly ever gotten regular snaps until needed on an emergency basis in the Fiesta Bowl. And one Bosa is being replaced by another on the defensive line. So, a talent drop-off is to be expected. It has to be.
It’s very possible that the Buckeyes won’t have the talent to be a contender for the playoff, or even for the Big Ten title. But that’s not to say that it won’t be the same old OSU team that has shown up since Meyer entered the program.
The pride doesn’t come from the 50 wins Meyer has racked up in four years, a program record.
It comes from the identities the coach has instilled in all of his players.
And with the roster now comprised entirely of Meyer’s recruits for the first time, they are all in too deep for that to change now.