LOS ANGELES — This isn’t the last time we’ll ask this question, but it might have been the last chance we had to ask Urban Meyer this question for quite some time.
So during the pre-Rose Bowl news conference on Monday, at the end of a 12-1 season that included a seventh straight win over Michigan and the third Big Ten title in five years, I asked Meyer what was wrong with Ohio State.
That is, what is wrong with Ohio State when it comes to competing with Clemson and Alabama, the two teams that will play for the national title for the third time in the last four years.
College football belongs to the kings.
The point was made after the semifinals Saturday, when the Crimson Tide beat Oklahoma by 11 and the Tigers beat Notre Dame by 27, that the game belongs to the one-percenters, the best of the best, the elite.
That’s true. So the question for Ohio State is — are the Buckeyes in that group?
I wrote a year ago that Clemson had taken Ohio State’s place in the college football hierarchy, at least the spot we assumed the Buckeyes would occupy after beating Alabama in 2014 on their way to the first title of the playoff era.
Here at the end of 2017, Clemson occupies the place in the college football world that two or three years ago you would have expected Ohio State to hold. The No. 2 program in the country. The primary challenger to Alabama.
Here at the end of 2018, nothing has changed — except the coach that made people believe the Buckeyes could go toe-to-toe with Alabama is leaving. As he prepares to depart, Meyer said he and Ryan Day have talked about just what I asked.
Is Ohio State there with Clemson and Alabama?
“Ryan and I have spoken of that, what is the weaknesses of the program,” he said, “because Ohio States and Washingtons, they hire coaches and give you the support to go do that. And I don’t want to say we failed, because that’s a really, really tough word. But we have.”
Sitting at the Rose Bowl, with the Buckeyes 85-9 in his seven-year tenure, Meyer himself viewed this as failure by some definition. That idea alone is part of why you thought the Buckeyes might run with the Tide for a bit, because the guy in charge didn’t think anything else is acceptable.
“I said at the press conference with Ryan Day: Here’s your job. You beat the rival. Every other game you have to win as well. Every player has to get drafted in the first two rounds. No off-the-field issues, and never lose to that rival. And, by the way, your classroom, you’re dealing with 31 ACTs on the average. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Go get it, tiger.’
“That’s what it is. I tell our players, I think there’s really good conversation, is that there’s no one that forced Chris Petersen to go to Washington and those players, those great players that he has, they understand that. Anytime I see someone like, man, this is (tough) — no, no, it’s not, you made a choice to come here. This is a place of excellence.
“Well, we had a great year, 12-1. Yeah, but we missed the ultimate prize. That doesn’t mean we make everything so miserable around there. We thank them because they really gave great effort. But we’re not embarrassed to say that we are at one of those programs that should be there.”
Dang. He’s at the Rose Bowl, on his way out the door, and he’s right there chasing Saban to the end. The Buckeyes have fallen short of the ultimate standard, while at the same time, those reaching that standard have pulled away.
I believe Ohio State occupies a space with Oklahoma and Georgia just below Alabama and Clemson, but how far below are they? And how can the Buckeyes close the gap?
Meyer is coaching his last game, and Day is preparing to shape his own program. As I said to Meyer when I asked the question, this isn’t about losing to Iowa or Purdue or just saying, hey, avoid blowout losses.
It’s a foundation issue, a root cause. Do Alabama and Clemson have something in recruiting, in facilities, in coaching, in player development, in basic facets of the program, that send them to the title game year in and year out and Ohio State to the just-short-of-the-playoff bowl?
We’ll hit that question this offseason, because it can’t be examined the day before the Rose Bowl. But consider this.
The Buckeyes had a national championship passing game this year. They had a national championship secondary in 2016. They had a national championship run game and offensive line in 2015, and a national championship defensive line in 2017.
Throw Dwayne Haskins in with Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore, for instance, and the Buckeyes could hang with anyone. The recruiting is there — quite a bit better than Clemson’s actually, and behind only Bama’s – and no one would question Ohio State’s facilities or NFL development.
So I think it may have been some coaching, more than anything, and it showed up with some of the assistants this year more than ever.
Is Ohio State like Alabama and Clemson? No. At its core, can it be? The answer, even in a new era, should be yes.
Ohio State 20 Questions is a daily series that will carry our coverage of the Buckeyes up to the Rose Bowl. We’ll answer big and small questions about the football program and its future every day here at cleveland.com.
Question 5: Why are we still waiting on Demario McCall?
Question 6: How does Mike Weber leaving affect J.K. Dobbins?
Question 14: How do Ohio State’s players view the Rose Bowl?
Question 17: What’s it like to get blown out in the playoff?
Question 18: Can Tate Martell throw?