Must-win for OSU

Dan Wetzel

One of the great fallacies spread by BCS apologists is that the system makes "every week a playoff." Hence, there is no need for an actual playoff.

No matter how oft-repeated, it doesn't become true. Ohio State and LSU both dropped games in November a year ago and advanced to the title game. That isn't how a real playoff tends to work.

The reality is you can lose, even late in the season, and emerge no worse for wear.

Unless you're this year's Ohio State Buckeyes.

Then, there is no margin for error. Fair or not the Bucks will pay for the lingering memory of BCS championship game disasters past until they bury it with perfection.

That makes Saturday's game at No. 1 Southern California the rarest of college football games – an actual must-win.

USC can lose and rebound. Ohio State can't. Unless they defeat USC, the Buckeyes have no chance of reaching a third consecutive national title game.

If they do win only to lose later in the season and finish 11-1, they still might get passed over. Just to be safe, it's 12-0 or bust for the Bucks.

That's not how the BCS rules are written. It's just how reality plays out when opinion is the majority determinant to the title matchup. Human voters aren't supposed to consider the past. They do, however, because, well, they're human. It's one of the many pratfalls of this ridiculous system.

The BCS is staunchly backed by OSU's president, Gordon Gee. He's good at three things: wearing silly ties, skipping town for higher-paying jobs and making wild pronouncements about college athletics. He famously declared "they will wrench a playoff system out of my cold, dead hands."

He's still alive.

Then there is the Big Ten, which so cherishes the current system it's adamantly opposed to anyone even discussing modifications.

So while a win-or-go-home game in mid-September – let alone one at a place where USC has lost once since 2001 – doesn't seem fair, Ohio State has no one to blame but its leaders.

Generally, the perception of a program is important only for recruiting. Ohio State seems impervious to this. It landed Terrelle Pryor after the LSU debacle. It already has eight of the top 100 players in the country verbally committed for next season. The Bucks could lose 222-0 Saturday, and recruits will continue to show up by the SUV-load.

With the BCS, though, perceived strength is paramount with voters due to the two polls it employs. And the national perception of Ohio State right now is based on consecutive January blowouts.

"I think anytime you go out in a highly noticed game, you have an opportunity to make a statement to show you can play the best you're capable of playing," coach Jim Tressel said Wednesday.

The Buckeyes haven't. Or if they have, they just aren't very good.

In truth, Ohio State is very good. Based solely on the losses to Florida and LSU, this is a low-level SEC program. LSU lost twice in conference last year; Florida once the year before. Both needed a bunch of miracle finishes to win the league. Neither broke much of a sweat taking care of the sweater vest.

That isn't reality, though. The Buckeyes are on a 31-1 regular-season streak, powered by Tressel's impressive ability to get them to focus on the task at hand, winning.

While many victories have come against generally weak nonconference opponents and questionable Big Ten competition, Ohio State still did it. And while the Bucks don't play an aggressive out-of-league slate like, say, USC, they aren't the worst cupcake scheduling offenders either.

Besides, it isn't Tressel's fault the Big Ten has slipped.

Ohio State plays. Ohio State wins. Until the big game, that is.

"A chance at a highly noticed game to play our best, absolutely it's something our guys are anxious to do," Tressel said.

This isn't just a highly noticed game; it's the most significant regular-season game in years. It's a true elimination match (at least for one team).

It's even bigger than 2006 Big Ten finale when No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan. Afterward a lot of media (laughably in hindsight) suggested the two teams should have a rematch for the BCS title.

Then the teams went out and lost their bowl games by a combined 41 points.

Still, before that reality check, Michigan lost a game and still had plenty of supporters. It took a final-hour performance (and politicking) by Florida to deny the second-chance Wolverines.

Barring a loss in quadruple-overtime or some other wildness, Ohio State will receive no such sympathy. The Big Ten, while perhaps not as weak as some expected, isn't strong enough to make up ground.

So it's all on the line Saturday for Ohio State, its national title dreams in the balance before there's even frost on the pumpkin.

It's like a real playoff, even. Just don't tell Gordon Gee. He might think he's dead.

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