It had already been a long and trying for Ohio State football before the NCAA finally ruled on further sanctions in mid-December. But when the program was dealt a one-year bowl ban in addition to further scholarship reductions and an extended probation, the Buckeyes were forced to weather yet another off-the-field blow.
Some believe that OSU got less than it deserved. Some believe the NCAA was too harsh. Whichever side of the fence one falls on, some truths are inescapable. Whether intentionally or as a result of its own dysfunction, the NCAA dragged its proverbial feet for months beyond when this matter should have been settled. And if there was to be a bowl ban, it should have been in effect this year.
Instead, the absurd delay in adjudication has left a set of disjointed penalties; a vacated 2010 season, a vacated 2011 Sugar Bowl with bowl money returned, and now bowl in 2012-2013. And yet, it the middle of being grounded, so to speak, Ohio State is off to the 2012 Gator Bowl.
It’s nonsense. It’s a sad effort put forth by the NCAA. The Buckeyes are guilty and earned their sanctions through their own actions and inaction, but the way this case was handled by college football’s governing body is, in a word, pathetic.
Nevertheless, Ohio State must shake off the surprise of next year’s bowl ban, must shake off the disappointment of a challenging 6-6 campaign. The team has one game left to salvage something positive as it transitions to a new era under future coach Urban Meyer. Standing in its way is Meyer’s former program, the 6-6 Florida Gators.
On paper, the Gators and Buckeyes endured similar seasons. Both were frustrated by uncharacteristic struggles, limping through the fall with ineffective offenses.
While Ohio State’s passing game was nearly non-existent, ranking 117th in the FBS with 126 yards per game, Florida’s air attack wasn’t much better. With 190 yards per game, the Gators came in at 86th in the nation.
On the ground, the Bucks were far more successful. OSU’s combination of tailbacks Dan Herron, Jordan Hall, and Carlos Hyde and freshman quarterback Braxton Miller resulted in a rush game that proved hard to defend. Miller may still be developing as a passer, but his scrambling ability is not in doubt. Ohio State averaged just under 196 yards per game on the ground and ranked 26th nationally.
The Gators were less consistent, finishing 74th. However, in terms of total offense, both teams finished outside the Top 100.
Defensively the Bucks ranked 24th. Statistically, the Gators were 9th. Both had better numbers against the pass than the run, but at least some of that was due to the nature of games that each played in. Opponents were often permitted to run the ball by virtue of being ahead or within one score.
Florida suffered too many turnovers on the year; the Gators’ margin of -0.92 is 113th in the country. In contrast, the Buckeyes had more takeaways than giveaways, finishing with a margin of o.33.
Finally special teams, where Ohio State enjoys a slight edge. Return man Jordan Hall is explosive, and can flip field position each time he touches the ball. And after missing his first two kicks, Drew Basil made 15 of his next 16 field goal attempts to finish the season strong. Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis also enjoyed a successful campaign, hitting 21 of 25.
The tale of the tape tells us that this game should be close, featuring two teams that endure similar weaknesses. On the sidelines, Florida head coach Will Muschamp is desperate to avoid a losing season in his debut year in Gainesville. Ohio State’s Luke Fickell is eager to end his brief career as interim head coach with a much-needed victory for a battered program.
Looking beyond the numbers, Ohio State seems to be in a good position to win. The 6-6 record is a bit misleading; the Bucks lost their five conference games by a mere handful of points and were competitive all year. If not for a couple of defensive lapses, the results might have been quite a bit better.
Although Florida was forced to face a brutal SEC gauntlet, the Gators had some equally uninspired performances against lesser foes. Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and even FCS Furman put up good fights, and in their finale against Florida State, the Gators looked completely lost.
That said, the Buckeyes can take nothing for granted. The SEC is the nation’s best conference for a reason, and last time Ohio State expected to beat Florida it was embarrassed in the National Championship. OSU needs to head to Jacksonville with humility, fully prepared for a tough test and armed with the determination to avoid a sub-.500 season.
The keys to victory will involve Miller’s improving arm and the powerful ground attack. OSU needs to use the pass to set up the run, keeping the Florida defense honest by using receivers DeVier Posey and Philly Brown and tight end Jake Stoneburner early in the contest. Once the Gators’ secondary is forced to think pass, Ohio State can engage Herron and company to control the clock and the flow of the game.
Defensively, John Simon and the talented d-line have to take advantage of Florida’s uncertain QB situation. John Brantley, Trey Burton, and Jacoby Brissett have split the snaps under center, and each has had his difficulties. Simon and his linemates need to have backfield penetration on their to-do list, as disrupting the signal-caller should lead to some turnover opportunities.
Perhaps most importantly, the Buckeyes have to avoid crucial mistakes that would cost them momentum. OSU will, in essence, be a road team surrounded by a partisan Florida crowd regardless of how well Buckeye fans travel. Giveaways, penalties, and other self-inflicted woes could be devastating in that environment.
When it’s all said an done, Coach Fickell should walk away with his seventh win of the season as he turns his attention toward becoming the tema’s defensive coordinator. Posey and Herron should see their eligibility come to and end on a relative high note, and the Buckeyes should take their first big step toward getting the program back on track.
It will be close and hard-fought, a tough game featuring two erstwhile powers not accustomed to their current positions. But expect the Bucks to come home with the W.