COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Spring is the time for college football teams to be optimistic.
That is, unless you’ve lost the last two national championship games. Then all those hopes and all that promise can be shadowed by doubts.
Make no mistake about it: Ohio State is loaded with talent and knows it. At the same time, the Buckeyes have yet to erase from their memory banks those lopsided losses to Florida (41-14) and LSU (38-24) in the last two Bowl Championship Series title games.
“It’s very hard to put it behind us,” tailback Chris “Beanie” Wells said. “It happened two years in a row. But that’s something that a lot of us are using for motivation to get back there next year and just become a better and more united football team.”
The Buckeyes, who play their annual spring intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, are missing just two starters on either side of the ball who started against LSU in the Superdome in January.
Despite all that talent, there are naysayers everywhere. The Buckeyes are well aware that much of the nation has grown tired of seeing Ohio State teams rise to the ultimate game before falling as fast and hard as a punctured kite.
After the latest prime-time defeat, many national columnists and writers vilified Ohio State for playing a weak schedule and coming from a weak conference. The 2008 schedule (which includes a ballyhooed game at Southern California on Sept. 13) is much more difficult, despite other non-conference games against Youngstown State, Ohio and Troy. The Big Ten also appears to be a bit stronger.
But that doesn’t mean poll voters will easily forget those two black eyes in the championship games when the Buckeyes looked slow, predictable and passive.
“People are going to have an opinion and some people might think, ‘They’ve got a lot of people back, they’re going to be good.’ Some people might think, ‘They run in the mud and they’re slow,”‘ All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “It doesn’t matter. Either way you have to only focus on what you can do to better your team.”
What’s most troubling for most of the Buckeyes is that they’re not sure what went wrong against LSU.
After Ohio State was blown out by Florida the year before, the prevailing opinion was that the top-ranked Buckeyes were hurt by a 51-day layoff between their annual regular-season finale against Michigan and the bowl game. Also, many — including several players — thought stars such as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith spent too much time celebrating individual honors and not enough preparing for the Gators.
The result was a shockingly one-sided beating.
So after finishing the 2007 regular season 11-1 and winning an outright Big Ten title for the second year in a row, the Buckeyes changed their practice schedule and spent less time at the bowl site. With many first-year starters, they had a fresh approach to the showdown with LSU. They came into the game confident and ready.
Then they went out and laid another egg — taking a 10-0 lead before watching LSU run off the next 31 points.
Linebacker Marcus Freeman struggled to try to explain the LSU loss. He said that defeat, like the one the year earlier to the Gators, still lingers.
“Those two games are something you’ll never forget,” he said. “Even when we’re 50 and older, that’s something we’ll always talk about, ‘Hey, you remember those two losses?’ I think that helps us grow in maturity and as a team. But it’s something we’ll have to try to move on from.”
Coach Jim Tressel rarely mentions either loss, even when asked a direct question about them. But clearly both are still on his mind.
“At every step there are different things that motivate you and inspire you,” he said before spring practices began. “You have a whole 13 games of experiences whether it’s the thrill of this win or the disappointment of that loss, the championship loss or whatever.”
Teams try to turn negatives into positives. Maybe those losses can be instructive.
“We always have to remember what happened in the past, but this is a new year,” defensive end Lawrence Wilson said. “We know what happened. That’s our main focus this year, to finish, to never be satisfied.”