Ohio State unparalleled on the field
Ohio State, owners of the No. 1 ranking, the Heisman Trophy and its archrival, showed its peerless in college football, writes Pat Forde.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The national championship game is now Ohio State against a 10-point underdog to be named later. But let's not fast-forward to the desert just yet.
On a day when the most-hyped game in the 103-year history of the most-hallowed rivalry is played, we should stay in the Midwestern moment. At least long enough to see how Ohio State offensive lineman Kirk Barton celebrated it.
Barton knows how to do it right. When you wrap up a 12-0 record, a wire-to-wire regular-season run ranked No. 1, an undisputed Big Ten championship, a third straight victory over your ultimate rival and a Heisman Trophy for your star quarterback, you break out the good stuff.
Ohio Stadium is a smoke-free facility, but Barton didn't give a damn about that. Or, as the song goes, about the whole state of Michigan.
The Ohio State junior offensive tackle sat on a chair in a mob-scene interview room puffing curls of cigar smoke into the air. Barton said his stogie cost $125.
So where'd you get it, Kirk?
"The ghost of Red Auerbach," he responded cryptically.
Barton did cop to buying a bottle of Dom Pérignon to go with his smoke. Said it set him back "half a scholarship check. I'm eating Spam the next three weeks."
Turns out the Massillon, Ohio, product is more Spam than Dom by nature.
"I'm such a hillbilly, I had to ask the lady at Whole Foods how to open it," Barton said.
They had no problem getting the sucker open in the euphoric Buckeyes locker room after beating Michigan by the sacrilegious score of 42-39. Didn't matter that a hallowed rivalry built on smashmouth conservatism turned into an Arena Football League game. Didn't matter that this was the second-most points scored in 103 meetings between the two schools, topped only by the Wolverines' 86-0 victory in 1902.
(At least the late and truly great Bo Schembechler was spared the sight of the offensive numbers from this game -- 900 total yards and 76 passes -- the kind of big-game numbers that got the Big East panned a couple weeks ago by football elitists for being a pansy league.)
But stats, style and score were irrelevant. This was a time to celebrate something grand. So Barton poured a few glasses of Dom for some of his mates: guard T.J. Downing, center Doug Datish and the Buckeye most deserving of a champagne toast, 2006 Heisman winner Troy Smith (it's all over but the polling now).
"This is just a going-out party," Barton said. "It's a special day for us. A day we'll never forget."
Nobody in the record crowd of 105,708 will ever forget being in The Shoe on Saturday. This was history unfolding, and everyone drinking it in. Smith cementing his folk hero status, Tressel cementing his ownership of Lloyd Carr, Ohio State cementing one of the greatest runs in its gilded history.
But just in case the memories aren't enough, many of the fans who stormed the field after the final gun took souvenirs with them: the newly sodded field had about 40 bare spots on it when the crowd dispersed. Fans gouged out much of the turf where the Buckeyes just staked their claim to the BCS National Championship Game.
Without a legitimate challenger in sight.
Let Barton and his teammates guide us through the list of pretending contenders. And let the list start with the losing team here Saturday.
"If you're coming off a loss and don't win your conference, I don't think you deserve to play for the national championship," Barton declared.
"I'm not for a second chance," said cornerback Antonio Smith. "I think it takes away from the rivalry here. But it's not up to me to decide."
"I don't think I'm particularly excited about going back out there against them," defensive end Jay Richardson said. "Because that was a tough one."
Rematch? Ain't gonna be no rematch. Not unless Top Ten teams keep falling like bowling pins over the next two weeks (Rutgers did its part, recusing itself from title contention) or it comes down to Michigan-Notre Dame.
The final score is closer than the game played out. The Buckeyes had 106 more yards of total offense and gift-wrapped 10 Wolverines points with a botched center snap and a tipped-ball interception deep in their own territory. They were a minus-three in the turnover department -- two of them utterly unforced -- but never really had to sweat in the final 15 minutes.
Michigan only led for 6 minutes and 29 seconds Saturday, all in the first quarter. It only had a single fourth-quarter possession with a chance to tie or take the lead. The Wolverines went three-and-out on that possession, and Ohio State promptly drove 83 yards for a 42-31 lead. School was out at that point.
So who else could play the underdog role in Glendale?
"The game I'm looking at is probably Notre Dame-USC," Barton said. "I'm thinking the winner of that is going to be our opponent."
Barton said this before Cal-USC kicked off. But given the Trojans' run the past few years, there are a few Buckeyes who would like a shot a them.
"I always wanted to play them," Richardson said. "I've heard too much about them."
Barton said he'd prefer USC over the Fighting Irish.
"I'll be rooting against Notre Dame," Barton said. "I'm not a big fan of their coach and the program."
This might have been the Champagne talking. Or not. The guy is 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, so I'd imagine it would take more than a glass or two to make Barton silly.
But pressed for details on why he doesn't like the Fighting Irish -- whom the Buckeyes whipped 36-20 last year in the Fiesta Bowl -- Barton didn't back off very far.
"I don't know," he said, before going sarcastically diplomatic. "They're a great program, they're Notre Dame -- wheeewww."
"They couldn't handle us."
But even if Notre Dame beats USC, it's hard to see the voters moving the Irish past Michigan. They'd have identical records, and the Wolverines would own a 26-point win in South Bend. Unless the leprechaun sabotages the Top 25 voting, there's no way you can rank Notre Dame ahead of Michigan.
Richardson mentioned SEC Eastern Division champion Florida, which did nothing to help its strength of schedule Saturday by blitzing 2-10 I-AA Western Carolina. Nobody mentioned SEC Western Division champ Arkansas.
Both have a Thanksgiving weekend game to deal with -- LSU for the Razorbacks and Florida State for the Gators -- before they meet in Atlanta on Dec. 2. Get through the SEC 12-1 and you'll have a compelling argument for inclusion.
You will not have a compelling argument for beating Ohio State.
Nobody can make that argument today. The Buckeyes are 12-0, No. 1, Big Ten champs, owner of the Heisman Trophy and owner of their archrival. If that isn't worth celebrating with a cigar and some Champagne, what is?
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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