I can't really account for this - a writer I don't like that much, on a subject I don't really care about - but in the wee hours I was scanning Pete Fiutak's workmanlike breakdown of next year's frontrunners for the Trophy Which Must Not Be Named and came across this line under the entry for Beanie Wells:
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Always wait for the entire story.
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Unlike the not-so-lovable losers that taxed pro football's patience in the early nineties by merely winning the AFC over and over again, Ohio State can actually be derailed by sentiment. No writer could vote the national punchline out of Super Bowl XXVIII, but if December rolls around and there are any questions whatsoever about OSU's credentials - whether it's one of several one-loss teams vying for one of the mythical championship slots, or if the Buckeyes are up against two other undefeated heavies, however unlikely that is - the avalanche of columns under the umbrella of "What, these guys again?" will put the comment threads on mainstream sports pages and RSS feeds everywhere.
And there will be questions, all spring, all summer, through the season. You can bet that. They come with the premise, which is that there is something inherently flawed about Ohio State, and by extension the rest of the Big Ten over which it reigns, relative to the best teams in the Pac 10, Big 12 and, naturally, SEC. A conference championship in itself won't buy much respect; where did the last two Big Ten titles get OSU "when it counted"? For that, the Buckeyes will have to beat USC in September, and hope from there that the Trojans are still the Trojans - no more losses to Stanford or Oregon State. By the same turn, if Southern Cal turns out to be the one loss in question when it comes to the final vote, ongoing dominance against Michigan will be no salve. Ohio State fans know this. Thanks to two lousy games against teams it had a better-than-reasonable expectation of beating, Ohio State has forfeited the benefit of the doubt for itself and its conference.
So in that little throwaway line, I think Fiutak has overcome sleep deprivation and the electric shock collar Rupert Murdoch applied to keep Pete within reach of his dungeon laptop at all times and articulated one of the great themes of the next nine months. Anti-OSU - hence, anti-Big Ten - sentiment is real, and it's an insidiously anecdotal kind of disdain, like an urban myth that refuses to die. The Buckeyes have plenty of wind at their back in reality: the 2002 mythical championship win over loaded Miami and three other BCS wins since 1999, two straight conference championships, the second-best overall record (a half-game behind USC) over the last three years, and the best conference record. They're 25-7 against ranked teams since 2002.
But there's the steady accumulation of evidence in the long term, and there's the immediate, selective data retrieval of popular memory:
And there's no doubt which has a stronger grip right now on Ohio State's fate.
As a kind of addendum, although I don't think any amount of logic will overcome the gut level party line and its attendant chest-thumping, chanting and triumphant Photoshopping until OSU or the Big Ten reverses its fortune in the mythical championship game (other bowls don't count, as Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State know well after beating SEC teams in January bowls the last two years), there is one persistent statistic that really needs to be put to bed: 0-9. That is, where the Big Ten as a whole is dead even as a conference with its Southern rivals in bowl games for the last decade, Ohio State is 0-9 against SEC teams in bowl games since its Sugar Bowl tilt with Alabama in 1978.
A judgment from nine games over 30 years is worse than judging two games out of 26 over two years. You can do a lot with a selective sample over a certain period of time. Like, for example, the SEC's record in games played on the West Coast this decade:
Is there an overarching reason members of the SEC get the living crap kicked out of them every time one of them plays alongside the Pacific Ocean? Probably not, no more than there is for those same members being 6-17 against the Big East in the same span. It's just a matter of circumstance in a limited number of opportunities over a certain period of time, like flipping `tails' seven times in a row when "Losing My Religion" is on the radio and ignoring every other flip. You don't know anything about the coin unless you look at all the flips.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, as long as people think they know, perception is reality.