Don't blame Urban Meyer for Ohio State running up the score
There was Penn State coach Bill O'Brien's long, seemingly bothered, stare across the Ohio Stadium field. There was O'Brien and Urban Meyer engaging in something that looked like a dead-fish postgame handshake.
There was a three-second pause when O'Brien was asked whether he was bothered when Meyer, who, after Ohio State was already up 49 points in the third quarter, decided to challenge a ruling on the field Saturday night.
"He didn't think we had a first down, so he called time out to challenge it," O'Brien said after the Buckeyes' 63-14 annihilation of the Nittany Lions. "I have no thoughts on that."
Many others do have thoughts on that, and days later they're still asking a simple question: Was Meyer running up the score?
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These debates are almost always wearisome – if you don't like getting blown ou,t then play better; this is college football not Pop Warner; it's more degrading if the better team tanks, etc.
Besides, only Urban Meyer knows for sure whether or not he was trying to inflate the margin of victory.
The more germane question is if he indeed wasn't, then why the heck not?
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Ohio State is trying to reach the BCS championship game, and the arcane system doesn't award points for sportsmanship. In fact, it promotes the exact opposite.
It's a brass-knuckle beauty pageant, a smoke-and-mirrors competition of perception among the 175 voters in two opinion polls.
And Meyer is well aware that he is going into the stretch run in a disadvantaged position.
The Buckeyes are fourth in the rankings. Despite being 8-0 this season (and carrying a 20-game win streak), they not only fail to control their own path forward, they could still be jumped by teams behind them. They could even wind up being muscled out of a championship game berth by a program with one loss.
A perfect storm of a poorly constructed non-conference schedule – which then further fell apart when Vanderbilt cancelled a game – and a Big Ten slate that lacks anything that could be called a nationally relevant challenge has left Ohio State in a position where simply winning isn't enough.
It's a foregone conclusion that Ohio State will have to win all its games to even be considered for a slot in the title game. Style points are now essential in making the case that the Buckeyes' success is more than just ho-hum competition and that they deserve the opportunity.
The highest-rated opponent Ohio State has played this season – or is likely to play – is Northwestern, which was No. 16 at kickoff last month. The Buckeyes won a hard-fought game, 40-30. Northwestern, however, has lost four in a row, and that ranking appears to be more preseason hype and an easy early-season schedule than any discernable might.
There is still a trip to Michigan, but the Wolverines have impressed no one this season. There's the Big Ten title game ahead, but that isn't likely to feature a top-20, let alone top-15 opponent. Meanwhile, teams in other conferences are playing a few top-10 opponents and dominating the national discourse and voter eyeballs.
If at least two of the three teams ranked ahead of Ohio State – Alabama, Oregon and Florida State – wind up unbeaten, then the Buckeyes are on the outside looking in. There's no denying that.
If Baylor, currently sixth in the BCS standings, wins out with a schedule that features No. 10 Oklahoma, No. 15 Texas Tech, No. 18 Oklahoma State and a Texas team that could be ranked in the season finale, the Bears will could very well jump them also. Baylor's resume would be unquestionably better.
There are other scenarios too, such as Alabama losing to LSU but still winning the SEC and finishing 12-1. Will voters really leave the two-time defending national champs out for a team pointing to a win over Wisconsin? Don't bet on it.
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That might apply also to a high-powered Oregon team, which could, say, lose at No. 5 Stanford but (if Stanford tripped up later) still won the most competitive conference in the country. Or maybe a 12-1 Pac 12 champion Stanford, which would own victories over seven teams ranked, including those Ducks.
If the voters decide to go with quality wins over a one-loss team, a perfect Ohio State is in trouble.
There is the added problem of bias against the strength of northern teams – a factor that shouldn't be considered but will undoubtedly run through the minds of the voters.
Whether it is past Ohio State losses in the title game or Bama's blowout of Notre Dame last year or the fact that the best (only) quality non-conference win by the entire Big Ten is currently Michigan over Notre Dame, some are just going to knock down the Buckeyes. People want to see Oregon vs. Alabama. Almost no one is clamoring for Ohio State vs. Alabama.
That's what Meyer is dealing with. He needs to make the Buckeyes look good.
It's not really football. It's not really fair. But when has that mattered with the Bowl Championship Series?
His conference is killing his chances as he goes into a three-week stretch where the national attention will be down south and out west, not on Ohio State's games with Purdue, Illinois and Indiana (combined record: 7-14).
Meyer may just play good, conservative, fair-minded football. We'll see. But he ought at least consider trying to hit the gas pedal and not letting up. If he can score 100 points and impress a fickle voter, then score 100 and impress a fickle voter.
If the Big Ten doesn't like it, then the Big Ten should get better. The league's prolonged stretch of mediocrity and coming overexpansion that dilutes things even more will be a recurring thorn in the side of the Buckeyes' national aspirations.
Now there is certainly some poetic justice to the idea that Ohio State could be done in by the BCS in its final season of existence. No school defended the ridiculous system more – former president E. Gordon Gee once declared they'd pry a playoff out of his "cold, dead hands."
And, of course, no conference was more obstructionist than the Big Ten. Commissioner Jim Delany, former Penn State president Graham Spanier and current Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman long ago proved to be a bowl director's best friend. If it wasn't for them, the four-team playoff (or bigger) would already be here and Ohio State would have some breathing room.
Meyer doesn't seem like the type that's really into Shakespearean story arcs, however. Gee once mocked other school's conferences as the sisters of the poor, but the truth is the Big Ten has become just that.
Twenty wins in a row and Ohio State is the new Boise State – the team the voters are looking for a reason to leave out.
So let's say Urban Meyer would never, ever try to run up a score and wasn't doing anything like that when he challenged the spot in the middle of a blowout of Penn State.
That's his prerogative, and some will criticize him because they think running up the score is unfair to opposing teams.
Under the BCS though, if Urban Meyer doesn't do it, if he doesn't try to make his team look as good as possible, isn't he being unfair to his own players?