During the last four weeks, the parallels between 2012 Ohio State in its first season of sanctions and 2010 USC were becoming a little too eerie. Both teams fumbled through their first four games, narrowly beating teams they should have obliterated and shakily clinging to their undefeated status, with pollsters still pinning them around the middle of the Associated Press top-25 poll —mostly in deference to historical precedent.
In the fifth week of the 2010 season, USC fell to unranked Washington on a last-minute 32-yard field goal by Erik Folk — a newly-minted Trojan nemesis who had also beat USC in 2009 — that set in motion a dismal 4-5 finish to the season and booted the Trojans from the top 25.
To be honest, I expected the same of Ohio State in its road matchup against No. 20 Michigan State last Saturday.
For everyone who came away unimpressed with USC’s methodical 27-9 dismantling of Cal, look no further than the week before to see the Buckeyes’ fortunate 35-28 victory over the Golden Bears on a 72-yard touchdown heave to wide receiver Devin Smith in the game’s waning moments. The preceding week’s lackluster 29-15 edging of still-winless UAB — at home, nonetheless — didn’t convert many to the Buckeyes’ bandwagon.
In advance of Ohio State’s first road game of the season, I anticipated (and, admittedly, hoped) the longtime Big Ten behemoth would stumble badly, as college football’s karmic way of punishing the Buckeyes for evading penalties far worse than whatever the Trojan administration was “supposed to know.”
Understandably, USC fans met Ohio State’s December 2011 sanctions with universal scorn. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel denied knowing his players were selling signed Ohio State memorabilia for tattoos — a blatant lie. There was even a paper trail linking former quarterback Terrelle Pryor to checks he received from a Columbus sports memorabilia dealer when he was a student at Ohio State — a smoking gun if there ever was one.
This is not the space, however, to relive past injustices. Trying to sort out the NCAA’s “rationale” can make your head spin.
The fact of the matter is: the Buckeyes did not falter against Michigan State, staving off the Spartans’ fourth quarter comeback attempt with stout defense and notching a narrow 17-16 win in East Lansing, Mich.
Now No. 12 Ohio State rightfully sits one spot ahead of No. 13 USC, though its positioning is largely inconsequential to the Trojans because the Buckeyes are not eligible for the postseason.
Ohio State, much like USC and every other team besides Alabama and perhaps Oregon, is flawed. It is subject to bouts of poor tackling, leading to explosive plays for opponents, and is over reliant on quarterback Braxton Miller’s playmaking ability with his legs. When Miller exited twice in the game against the Spartans, it became clear that needing a quarterback to run for more than 100 yards each game to win is a risky proposition.
Despite these flaws, however, there is significantly more hype surrounding the Buckeyes going forward than the 2010 Trojans ever had for two main reasons: The beleaguered Big Ten is eminently winnable and coach Urban Meyer is much more likeable than USC coach Lane Kiffin.
USC faced an uphill battle against Oregon and Stanford in 2010 and 2011, so the Trojans mostly disappeared from the public consciousness until they shocked Oregon at Autzen Stadium last season.
Moreover, the public perception of Kiffin was — and still is in many circles — of a petulant, entitled narcissist who rode his father’s coattails into the coaching profession. Critics believe a guy, who had burned so many bridges in the past surely had no chance of resurrecting the program.
Meyer, on the other hand, is universally respected, especially after successful stints at Utah and Florida.
By almost all accounts, the Buckeyes are positioned much better this season than the Trojans were in 2010.
That said, don’t let it surprise you if the season suddenly turns south and, you quickly begin to hear analysts professing the team’s imminent decline.
A loss to No. 21 Nebraska at home Saturday could begin a downward spiral similar to the one the Trojans experienced in 2010 after their upset loss to the Huskies.
In fact, controversy is already lurking beneath the surface.
On Sunday, news broke that Michigan State’s coaching staff accused Meyer’s assistants of doctoring the game film the team is obligated to send opponents before each game. Meyer’s film crew allegedly cut out pre-snap motions on offense, so that the Spartans couldn’t study the different motions the Buckeyes run out of various formations.
If this story balloons any further and coincides with an upset loss to the Cornhuskers, the Buckeyes might tread the same lonesome road of the hated and ignored the Trojans navigated a mere two years ago.
The verdict is still up in the air on how Ohio State will fare in the later stages of the season once the reality that they are not playing for a bowl game really settles. But the Buckeyes should know that early season success doesn’t mean much when you’re sanctioned.
Take it from a USC program that’s already been down the bowl-less road.
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