In the BCS era from 1998-2013, there was only one team that won the BCS Championship Game in back-to-back seasons. Alabama took down LSU in 2011 and then Notre Dame in 2012.
Nobody else managed the arduous task of repeating.
One team that seemed poised to do so, however, was the 2003 Ohio State squad. Coming off an unexpectedly triumphant 2002 campaign, they returned 14 players talented enough to be taken in the 2004 draft, including first-round selections Chris Gamble, Michael Jenkins and Will Smith. Quarterback Craig Krenzel was still there to lead the offense. More than half their defensive starters were back.
And as if seeing the same teammates who had helped them beat Miami 31-24 in double-overtime wasn’t enough to remind OSU’s players that a crystal trophy had just been added to their trophy case, the highlights continued to air on ESPN, and seemingly everyone in Columbus had purchased a national championship sweatshirt.
“Since OSU hadn’t won a title since the 1968 season, it’s easy to see why there was a great degree of excitement,” says linebacker Bobby Carpenter. “There were parties for about a month afterwards, and it felt as if 2003 would be exactly the same.”
“People were talking about the victory,” adds receiver Roy Hall. “Students talked about it. Professors used the game as an example of what ‘hard work and perseverance’ can create. Restaurant servers and shoe store employees asked endless questions about what it was like in Arizona.”
As if to add a punchline, Hall points out he had redshirted the previous season, and he wasn’t sure how people knew who he was.
Imagine then how other members of the team felt surrounded by a nearly constant drone of celebration and higher expectations.
Coach Jim Tressel was, by comparison, relatively quiet on the matter. Although he didn’t discuss it much, he did one day hang a sign next to his office door that read, “Complacency will come to collect.”
“Every player noticed it at some point and knew exactly what it was referencing,” says Carpenter.
Most polls had the Scarlet and Gray ranked second as the season started, behind favorite Oklahoma. The Buckeyes would finish with a record of 11-2 and ranked fourth by the Associated Press.
For most teams, a fourth-place finish would be a remarkable achievement. For a team with the lofty goals of Ohio State, it was a disappointment.
“It was tough,” admits corner Dustin Fox. Had it been made harder by the previous year’s success? “I think so,” he concedes.
“The target was on our back. We had so much talent, so you couldn’t really hide. That’s a parallel for this year’s team.”
There are other parallels. Beyond the talent and a title that appeared to have been won a year ahead of schedule, there was—and is again—a soap operatic quality to aspects of the Buckeye’s offseason.
Ohio State in 2003 was dealing with the media buzz surrounding Maurice Clarett. Although a much happier circumstance than Clarett’s NCAA drama, the 2015 Buckeyes have a three-way quarterback derby that has already been the subject of much talk and speculation.
Coach Urban Meyer’s version of “complacency will come to collect” is “the grind.” He has repeatedly used the phrase to describe the upcoming campaign.
Those who have been there before say “the grind” is a spot-on description for what happens next.
“It is a deadly accurate truth,” says Carpenter.
“Yes,” agrees Fox. “It gets harder.”
So what would they recommend to Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the 2015 Buckeyes as they look to climb back up the hill, in fact, maybe an even bigger hill now that the BCS has been replaced by a playoff?
“You can’t listen to the noise,” says Fox. “You can’t be smelling yourself to much. Enjoy the ride.”
Don’t, however, try to enjoy it alone.
“Sticking with your teammates is key,” offers linebacker AJ Hawk.
Meanwhile, Hall had this advice: “Every second that a player spends thinking about how great they were last year, or when they will get drafted next year is a second that the competition gets better than them.”
The grind indeed.