Buckeyes embracing perceived underdog role

| By Mike Young |

The Ohio State University football team will never be an underdog in the truest sense of the word.

Unlike last season when the Buckeyes entered as the prohibitive favorite to win it all, expectations are a bit tempered coming into this season. Oklahoma is the betting favorite in the lead up to the Sept. 17 matchup with the Buckeyes, and the money is flowing towards Alabama, LSU and Clemson ahead of OSU in terms of national title odds.

In the preseason AP Top 25 released Sunday, Ohio State checks in at No. 6 while they’re No. 5 in the coaches poll. The Buckeyes aren’t on the level of the teams that played in last season’s National Championship Game but they aren’t being disrespected by any means.

Despite the still lofty predictions for this team, many players feel people are underestimating them.

“I don’t mind being an underdog, I actually enjoy it,” quarterback J.T. Barrett said at OSU media day Aug. 14. “It’s ‘the whole world against you’ type of feel. People who don’t like Ohio State, I don’t have a problem with. I like it, it’s weird.”

Whether real or manufactured, coaches across all sports often try to use this notion of disrespect as a way to motivate their teams. It certainly isn’t an unfamiliar theme surrounding Urban Meyer’s teams.

The leaders of Ohio State’s position groups have experience playing through the adverse 2014 season that culminated in a national championship. A largely inexperienced team went into the season with Barrett at QB rather than Braxton Miller. The early-season loss to Virginia Tech created uneasy feelings about how the season would shake out and then they lost Barrett to an ankle injury right before winning three games with Cardale Jones behind center.

As of now, the 2016 team has Barrett’s presence at QB, junior Raekwon McMillan at linebacker and senior Pat Elflein at center among the small group of players who played a role in the 2014 season. This year’s Buckeyes seem to be in a much better spot to start despite the youth.

But it’s understandable why Meyer would want to stir up the same type of enthusiasm that drove his team to that 2014 title.

“I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants,” Meyer said during Big Ten Media days in Chicago. “J.T. Barrett was buried in the depth chart, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Zeke Elliott, Mike Thomas – those guys were no-names, and they became very good throughout the course of 2014. And another guy, Cardale Jones, was buried in depth chart

“A lot of pressure on our coaches, assistant coaches and myself, to get them game-ready. I would say going into this this is as talented a group top to bottom as we’ve had. Now how do we get them game-ready?”

The 2015 Buckeyes were as talented and experienced as you can hope for in college football. Just making the playoff wasn’t enough to meet the high bar of expectations set before the season.

Barrett believes last season wasn’t just a disappointment because of the returning talent but the program, in general, expects more.

“The year we had last year, maybe at other places that’s a really good year. We lost one game, we won the Fiesta Bowl. I was happy, I guess, but it wasn’t that satisfying feeling of winning a championship,” Barrett said. “In 2016, how do we get that same chip on our shoulder? That hunger, eagerness to be successful?”

Record-wise, Meyer’s Buckeye teams generally performs at its best the rare times people doubt them. Ohio State is 6-0 as an underdog under Meyer, including the upsets over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon en route to the 2014 championship.

With people like Barrett buying into the motivational tactics the rest of the team is falling in line. They seem more comfortable this year rather than coming into the season as the No. 1 team in the country.

“You embrace this more because you go out there not really worrying about what other people think about you,” McMillan said. “Just knowing you can go out there and give the other team your best shot. Your best is, most likely, good enough to win.”