COLUMBUS — No one could have blamed at least a few of the 19 seniors on Ohio State’s football team if they had bolted for somewhere else.
The NCAA decreed last December that the Buckeyes couldn’t play in a bowl or even in their own conference championship game after the 2012 season. The NCAA also said players were free to transfer without the usual penalty of having to sit out a year.
But all of those seniors stayed, and they were rewarded Saturday with an improbable 12-0 season.
“The most selfless group I’ve ever been around,” coach Urban Meyer said after Saturday’s 26-21 victory over archrival Michigan.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, now it’s as if they’re all dressed up with no place to go. While other, lesser teams prepare for postseason trips, they are on the outside looking in.
“It’s all right,” said safety Christian Bryant. “We’re 12-0. That’s good enough for me.”
What bothers them the most is that no one will ever know what might have been.
“We’ve known for a while that we’re not going to be able to prove at the end of the season how good we are,” wide receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner said. “If we are the last (unbeaten) team, I certainly think we deserve to be in the top two if not No. 1. But that’s not for us to decide.”
Their last victory was much like many of the others. In only a handful of games did Ohio State have the victory well in hand in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes ended up winning six games by seven or fewer points, including two in overtime.
“The biggest thing is we refused to lose,” safety C.J. Barnett said. “There’s a bunch of times we were down, had to go to overtime and stuff like that. We found a way to win.”
A lot of teams might have buckled under all the pressure. The Buckeyes relied on a number of bit players to take starring roles.
“I haven’t been doing this a whole long time but I can’t remember a greater ‘team’ season — somebody else (making a big play) every time. Some other guy,” said co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, the interim head coach during the tumultuous 6-7 season in 2011. “This team is unbelievable how they feed off each other.”
Meyer gave all the credit to the seniors. Some of them deflected it back to him.
“I want to make sure they’re properly recognized as one of the great groups of seniors in the history of this program — however we’re going to do that,” the first-year Buckeyes coach said.
Then, tongue in cheek, he added, “Maybe we’ll get 19 bronze statues.”
Better make that 20.
“(Meyer) is the key ingredient that pushed us over the top,” said one of the seniors, special teams player Zach Domicone. “Just the way he pushed us every single day and made us love one another and really preach team over self.”
There is still a void left by not getting a reward for recording just the sixth unbeaten and untied season in Ohio State’s 123 years of intercollegiate play.
“It’s going to hit me when I’m not doing something next week, preparing for the next game,” offensive tackle Reid Fragel said.
Ohio State’s fans are angry that this year’s team must pay for the infractions committed by former coach Jim Tressel. No member of the current team was ever linked to the tattoo scandal that led to the NCAA penalties.
The Buckeyes can’t play in next week’s Big Ten title game, even though they won the conference’s Leaders Division outright. They won’t go to a major bowl game, even though they’re one of only two FBS unbeatens (No. 1 Notre Dame is the other). They won’t be mentioned in the Bowl Championship Series title talk because of the NCAA penalties.
But they will be getting a Big Ten division championship trophy. And they’ll receive rings for winning that title.
Plus they’ll know that they did everything they possibly could.
“Hey, we’re 12-0. That’s all I can say,” linebacker Etienne Sabino said. “People can talk what they want. There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ right now but we did what we had to do. We set out to win every single game this year, and that’s what we did.
“It wasn’t pretty but it happened. I’m happy.”