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The Road to Dallas

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How Did We Get Here?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

Well, how did we get here? How on earth is the B1G one win away from adding another national championship to the annals of conference history?

You'll recall that in week two, the Buckeyes joined the B1G in the Midwest's mass grave, courtesy of what appeared to be a season-derailing loss to Virginia Tech. The entire milieu in Ohio Stadium that night was one of utter despair and decrepitude. The die was cast. Frank Beamer's Hokies would have their run of the Buckeyes. The Ohio State offense desperately tried to make a go of it, losing yardage on runs and heaving errant passes into the waiting arms of Hokie defenders. To be fair, those were the passing downs when JT Barrett didn't get planted like winter wheat by a blitzing linebacker.

The Best Damn Band in the Land played on bravely and optimistically like the music men on the Titanic. The Buckeyes' season, already called into question with the loss of Miller one week before the opener at Navy, seemed consigned to fate. The Rust Belt lived up to its name once again, and the narrative chugged along like a southbound train.

Up From the Ashes

The only hiccup was that no one at Ohio State bothered to read the script. Instead of folding the tent and striking the colors, the Buckeyes went back to work. First came the 66-0 dismantling of Kent State. The win was widely dismissed because, well, Kent State for one, but also because it looked like an overwrought attempt to wipe the slate clean. The drubbing seemed as much a post-loss anomaly born of anger and the need for catharsis as anything.

After a week's rest the Buckeyes did it again, trouncing Cincinnati 50-28. Back-to-back 50+ point performances isn't unheard of, but for an offense that struggled to post 21 points against Virginia Tech, the numbers were more than intriguing. The JT Barrett who had looked so bad in the loss to VT suddenly looked very, very good.

Conference play opened the following week and saw the B1G's two newest guidons march onto the field for a shot at the B1G's Scarlet & Gray standard-bearer. First, the Buckeyes traveled to Maryland. After a 52-24 drubbing of the Terps, they hosted Rutgers in Columbus the week following. The result was even more lopsided. Two more games, two more 50+ point offensive outpourings. The new kids on the block got a rude welcome from the Buckeyes. Both looked a bit shellshocked by Barrett's heroics on the field, the speed of the Buckeye offense, and the smothering defense. Suddenly, the Buckeyes started creeping back into the collective football consciousness.

Essentially Lost

Penn State at night. Just the mention of it rankles Buckeye fans. The memories of Ryan "Stonemitts" Hamby dropping crucial passes are still raw. Images of Troy Smith knocked ass-over-teakettle are seared onto our retinas. Happy Valley is anything but when the Buckeyes are riding high. Of course, OSU had little to fear from this Penn State team. Because Hackenberg. Because offensive line. Because sanctions. Because wildcat. When Zach Zwinak went down on the first play, Ohio State's fortunes only seemed to improve. The Buckeyes surely had the game in hand.

What transpired thereafter is so well known to B1G fans, it barely bears recapping. The questionable interception. The questionable roughing and PI calls. The unquestionable play clock gaffe by the referees. From an officiating standpoint, the tilt under the lights in Happy Valley was the B1Ggest game of the year. Famously inept B1G officials showed up in grand fashion and taught a master class on what is best known, in the parlance of our times, as "derpitude."

Two overtimes later, a hobbled JT Barrett was too much for the gassed PSU defense to handle. The limping QB put the game away with a 4-yard run,  grabbing a lead which held thanks to Joey Bosa's heroics. Some PSU fans looked at this game as one PSU "essentially won." While the bad calls favored the Buckeyes, PSU benefited from some drive-saving yellow laundry as well. Few of those calls seemed to make sense to the fans in Scarlet & Gray. Fandom is always that way. Whatever your allegiance, the final whistle of this game left the Buckeyes squarely in the circle of doubt once again. Penn State didn't lay down, and the Buckeyes looked very mortal once more.

Sparta Falls

The PSU debacle behind them, Meyer's boys headed to Champaign for an embarrassing tuneup against the Illini. Leading 31-0 at the half, Ohio State waltzed to an easy victory that even featured an appearance by that "we ain't came to play school" kid Cardale Jones. Once again, for the 5th time this season, the score for the good guys topped 50 points. Whatever went wrong at Penn State seemed to be fixed. PSU's defense was certainly an order of magnitude stronger than the Illini (defense is a "nice thing"), but gone were the miscues, errant passes, and general misfiring that plagued the Buckeyes in State College.

Ohio State couldn't have gotten their act together at a better time. With the OTE commentariat all a-titter, the mighty Spartans loomed large on the horizon. Sad Pizza gifs haunted Buckeye dreams as the college football world almost unanimously called for Mark Dantonio to reprise his role as the grim-faced spoiler. But on that bracing East Lansing night, JT Barrett stared into the soulless eyes of the Galaxy Defense. And the defense flinched. The Buckeyes gashed the Spartans for almost 600 yards, including nearly 300 on the ground. The Spartans couldn't quite keep up, and the Buckeyes had their fate in the East firmly in their grasp.

Denouement

After felling the green giant in East Lansing, the Buckeyes settled into a groove of thoroughly terrifying their fans week in and week out. First came a knock-down/drag-out fight with Jerry Kill's Gophers in the coldest Buckeye game in 50 years (or the coldest Gopher game in about 3 years). Led by Jalin Marshal, the Ohio State offense embarked on a series of baffling turnovers and stunning ineffectiveness. The streak continued into the Indiana game, with the Buckeye season flailing beneath the Sword of Damocles for the better part of four quarters. Thanks to Jalin Marshal's one-man campaign of redemption (to the tune of 4 TDs), the final score looked much better than Ohio State deserved.

The Indiana fiasco gave way to the most loved and hated game of the season-The Game. The Game. The accursed Wolverines, nearly the architect of the Buckeyes' undoing in Ann Arbor last season, limped into Columbus with a condemned man at the helm. The game unfolded like a minor disaster from the start. This is not a new concept for OSU fans. Devin Gardner, a man previously unable to strike the broad side of the team bus, suddenly found his groove on the short outside routes. Nussmeier's disastrous running game even seemed to exhume itself for a spell. Fortunately, the Michigan offensive line worked on a zero-sum system. Their increased competence in run blocking came at the expense of protecting Gardner, who was sacked five times.

While the win was secured rather easily in the end by the relentless Buckeye running game, it seemed a pyrrhic victory. No B1G fan can forget the gruesome scene of JT Barrett's ankle bending in unnatural ways. The shattering of bones signaled the shattering of the Buckeye season for almost everyone. After all, Cardale Jones was the third string bench warmer. He polished the pine the entire season. Surely that fact alone meant that the Buckeyes were dead meat at the hands of Wisconsin.

At the end of the regular season play, the Buckeyes faced two very real problems: the loss of JT Barrett and the up-and-down, unpredictable performances of the defense. Against the Gophers, Hoosiers, and Wolverines, the defense proved, uh, less than impressive. Tackles were missed. The pass rush was anemic. Even Zander Diamont--he of the meek arm and terrible reads--threw six passes for first downs in Columbus. Michigan and Indiana both rushed for quality yardage, with Indiana sniffing 300 yards on the ground. The Spartans almost matched OSU in yardage. As in seasons past, the defense wasn't living up to its promise.

On Wisconsin

Considering the performances by Wisconsin at season's end, there was little reason to believe that Melvin Gordon would be anything but a Crimson nightmare in Indianapolis. The Heisman candidate's average was approaching 200 yards per game. The Buckeyes surrendered big yards to Cobb and Coleman, neither of whom shared Gordon's truly exceptional pedigree. Add in the nascence of untested twitter star Cardale Jones under center, and it was plain to see that Urban's luck had run out. All good things must come to an end.

Or not.

That December night in Indianapolis is now part of B1G lore. The largest margin of victory in the history of a conference championship game brought another terribly named trophy to Columbus. That margin record spans across all conferences, not just the B1G. Cardale Jones was unreal. The casual observer couldn't be blamed for assuming he'd been at the helm of the offense since 2003. Pass after pass hit the mark. Run after run gashed the juggernaut Wisconsin defense. Finally, in the late going, Urban exhibited some form of mercy. One would be hard pressed to argue that the Buckeyes couldn't have made the score worse.

Ebb Tide

With the CCG victory, the Buckeyes answered many questions and silenced scores of doubters. Yet their selection as the fourth seed in the inaugural college football playoff awakened a fresh chorus of detractors. Surely, Cardale Jones can't beat Alabama. Wisconsin was a paper tiger!The B1G West was weak! Alabama's run defense would embarrass every team in the Little Ten! Artis-Payne wishes he'd played Illinois and Northwestern, Pawl, 'cause the B1G ain't nuthin!

Clearly, the vaunted SEC, bolstered by the relentless prattling of ESPN's shameless ciphers, existed in a realm far beyond that of the stodgy B1G. Nothing the Buckeyes had seen could prepare them to face Saban's empire. The depth! The speed! The precision! Such is the greatness of the SEC's stud bull, Paaawwllll. Once again, the B1G would crash and burn on the national stage. The Buckeyes' collapse was all but assured. Add to that, the B1G would go 0-10 in bowl games. So declared Pat Forde. New Year's Day would again prove the ascendency of the south, the west, the moon, and East Timor (essentially anywhere but the dadgum ol' Midwestern Rust Belt) in college football. So it was written.

Culmination

In reality, quite the opposite was true. Like a famous Ohioan from centuries past, Urban made the South howl. The Buckeyes owned the day. The campaign rolled on.

To say that the Buckeyes got to the title game alone would be to criminally ignore the achievements of the rest of the league. Was Ohio State the best team in the league? Yes. But their ability to face adversity and overcome a 21-6 first half deficit against Bama--their largest comeback since the early days of John Cooper--was forged in the B1G. Beating MSU and Wisconsin means something. Playing two overtimes against Penn State means something. Urban Meyer was quoted as having pointedly told his team that both Wisconsin and MSU had downed their bowl opponents. "Maybe the Big Ten's not that bad," he said. "Maybe the Big Ten is pretty damned good, and it's certainly getting better."

The B1G is good. The B1G is getting better. And tonight, the B1G has a chance to silence the critics once again.

How did we get here? We got here by playing football. By getting smashed in the mouth by B1G opponents who came to win, and overcoming. We got here as a conference, because no matter what anyone says, the B1G still plays football. Just ask Baylor. Or Auburn. Or Alabama.

Don't let us down, Buckeyes. Bring it home to the B1G.