COLUMBUS - Ohio State is No. 1 in the polls and headed for the national championship game against No. 2 LSU in the Tigers` den at the Superdome. Still the Buckeyes say they get no respect.
"In all likelihood we will be the underdog because pretty much everyone on earth hates us," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said Sunday night shortly before the Buckeyes and Bayou Bengals were confirmed as the opponents in the Bowl Championship Series title game. "That`s cool. We`re going to be playing in Louisiana against LSU and SEC Nation. So, it`s just one of those things we`ll probably end up being the underdog, but that`s fine with us. We`ve played in hostile games before. It`ll be a lot of fun."
The Buckeyes have used last year`s title game - a 41-14 thrashing by Florida - as incentive ever since the final seconds melted off the clock in Glendale, Ariz.
Now they`re motivated to right that wrong by proving that they belong in this title game and erasing the memory of that ugly defeat.
"We understand that people are going to question (us) about last year and people are going to remember that," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "People are really going to question how legit we are as a team going into this game. That`s something that`s just a real issue, a real fact. We can`t change that. We just have to prepare the best that we can and go down there and play the best we can."
The Buckeyes (11-1) meet LSU (11-2) at the Superdome on
Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. The opening line Sunday night had them as five-point underdogs to the Tigers.
Both teams made remarkable, almost historic rebounds, Ohio State since losing its next-to-last game against unranked Illinois on Nov. 10, and LSU since losing to Arkansas on Nov. 22.
Both dropped to No. 7 in the BCS rankings after those defeats. Yet both, somehow, find themselves in the ultimate game.
LSU helped itself with a 21-14 win over Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday night. The Buckeyes also come into the game riding a one-game winning streak, beating archrival Michigan 14-3 on Nov. 17.
Still, both needed help from the teams ahead of them, right up through Saturday`s wild games. Top-ranked Missouri lost to Oklahoma 38-17 in the Big 12 Championship, at almost the same time that No. 2 West Virginia dropped a 13-9 decision at home to heavy underdog Pittsburgh.
Those two losses were enough to open up the top two BCS slots and pit the Buckeyes against the Tigers. They were just the latest in a long, long string of setbacks for almost every team that dared to climb into the top 10.
"Nothing surprises me in football," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "Would I have predicted exactly what happened (Saturday)? Probably not. But you might not have predicted what happened the whole season."
Two weeks after their last game, most of the Buckeyes showed up at the team`s practice facility to watch the pivotal games on two giant TV screens Saturday night.
The outcome was almost too much to ask for.
"It was crazy. To see those teams go down like that unexpectedly, it was a great feeling," quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "(It required) a little bit of everything, I guess. A little bit of praying, a little bit of hoping. We just felt we had an opportunity. It`s surprising both of them lost, but it`s a good deal for us."
The Buckeyes bristled at the suggestion that they had to rely on the kindness of strangers to back into the title game.
Asked what he would say to someone who said his team was lucky, Tressel said, "What do I say to that person? I`d rather be lucky than good. I don`t know. I think our guys have done a lot."
What they did was win a second consecutive outright Big Ten title and third in a row overall, along with earning a berth in their third national title game in six years. They won the 2002 title with an upset victory in two overtimes against Miami.
The latest trip affords the Buckeyes a chance at redeeming themselves after last year`s lopsided loss.
"There`s definitely a stigma around Ohio State because of last year," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "But that`s something we can`t control. All we can do is try to win this game."