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When Winning Isn’t Enough: the Ohio State Story

Buckeye Nation has been in an interesting state throughout the month of October 2016. While most people in America are fretting over the ridiculousness of presidential politics and the specific candidates to choose from, it seems that many Buckeye fans are struggling to enjoy this football season.

Following a spectacular September with four blowout victories, the Buckeyes have seemingly regressed to a state of growing pains throughout a month filled with conference games. For those keeping score at home, the month included:

  • A 38-17 home win over Indiana where the passing offense completely stalled out for less than 100 yards;
  • A 30-23 overtime road win at Wisconsin where the team was out-schemed for over a half before making adjustments to come back from a double-digit deficit in the second half;
  • A 21-24 loss at Penn State where the offensive line faltered (6 sacks) at the same time the play calling turtled by playing not to lose, and also in a game where special teams had an unusually awful night with two blocked kicks in the fourth quarter; and
  • A 24-20 win at home against Northwestern in which a 10-0 early lead was followed by offensive ineffectiveness for the remainder of the game.

While it is certainly fair to ask some questions and evaluate what this team is doing to work through the youth growing pains and fix any play calling deficiencies on offense, an overwhelming sentiment has emerged the past two weeks that feels familiar after watching Buckeye Nation be frustrated all of the season with the 2015 Buckeyes.

That sentiment is this: winning by small margins against teams like Northwestern is just not good enough.

In short, many fans are not enjoying a bounce back victory over a hot Wildcats team that came in on a 3-game winning streak, but instead, are complaining about every deficiency this team shows. Complaints about the offensive line, the weak play at wide receiver, the overly conservative nature of J.T. Barrett, the slow down of turnover generation on defense, the special teams mistakes, punt return adventures, and on and on.

Hell, even the beat writers at Cleveland.com started a topic online that gained traction throughout the fan base along these lines: “Urban Meyer is 56-5 (57-5 now) at Ohio State, but…

Yes, seriously.

A program with a national title two seasons ago and dominance over much of the Big Ten for the last 15 years is being criticized for flies in the ointment when the overall background is a 57-5 record since 2012. Oh, and that also includes a 13-2 record against Michigan since Coach Tressel took over in 2001.

How quickly some of these fans forget: success is fleeting for almost everyone in this sport where rosters turn over in their entirety every 3 or 4 years. Dynasties happen, but they do not tend to last for very long. Before the 2002 national championship, Ohio State had not won a title since 1968! Lest we also forget how badly OSU fared against the Wolverines under prior coach John Cooper in the 1990s (2-10-1).

If fans cannot enjoy being a consistent player in the national championship picture and the type of team that loses about one game per year, on average, then those fans are doing it wrong. Every program outside of Tuscaloosa would absolutely kill for what Ohio State has right now.

Here’s another dose of reality. The Big Ten has five, count them, FIVE teams in the top 12 of the initial College Football Playoff committee rankings. The only conference even in the same ballpark is the SEC, which similarly has five teams in the top 13. This is a huge sign of respect from the highest authority about the depth of the Big Ten.

It’s not just the ranked teams, as the next tier of teams (Northwestern, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan State when not in 2016, etc.) are solid competitors as well. In that type of conference which is the best in college football, there are very few easy wins or weeks.

If that sounds familiar, it should. That’s precisely how the SEC dominated this sport for an entire decade, as the depth of competitors in that conference made every week interesting in conference play. The depth also made it abundantly hard to go undefeated, and also to repeat as conference champs. Alabama finally pulled that feat off in 2014 and 2015, but before that, a different team won every year going all the way back to the 1990s when Florida and Tennessee each had consecutive titles.

Those rules are how life is in the Big Ten now. None of those October games (post Rutgers) on Ohio State’s schedule was a pushover opponent, especially considering these are the opponents which know OSU the best. It’s exactly why Alabama has struggled at times with teams like Ole Miss, opponents which know the Crimson Tide well.

Teams, even the top-level ones, in the SEC got through this period of dominance in the sport by being content with wins of any variety. Wins move a team towards the goals of conference titles, which often leads to a playoff appearance. Survive and advance.

That’s what a young Ohio State team did in October, most of the time. While the loss against Penn State was disappointing for Buckeye Nation, it did nothing to take the season goals off the table. A second loss would do that, but it has not happened yet.

In the context of this outstanding run of success and a super-competitive conference and East Division, every Big Ten win should be cherished, no matter how big or small. Instead of suffering through every Saturday in a season that flies by quickly when the team does not meet some sort of standard of perfection, delight in the exciting close games and the big battles between top contenders which focus the attention of the nation on Big Ten country.

This is exactly what college football fans live for and yearn for. The chance to play meaningful games in November and December against Top-10 programs like Nebraska and Michigan. That’s what faces Ohio State in 2016.

If substantial parts of Buckeye Nation cannot enjoy this period of unprecedented consistent excellence (57-5!), then how sad will we all be when times get worse in the future? If you count yourself among fans who believe in national championship or bust, especially with a young developmental team like the 2016 version of the Buckeyes, then I truly pity you. There’s nothing more sorrowful than failing to smell the roses and enjoy the abundant levels of success when the opportunity is there.

Winning is enough. Survive and advance. Enjoy it, and seize the moment. 

After all, if you choose not to, then some other fan base (Michigan or otherwise) will do it for you. Trust me, Buckeye Nation, you will not enjoy that.

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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