The first official BCS national championship game could be billed as Role Reversal I. Just as in the last title game in the Valley, a wire-to-wire No. 1 on a long winning streak will meet a team accused of squeaking its way in — if that is even possible.
This time, No. 1 Ohio State (12-0) will play the part of Miami, and No. 2 Florida (12-1) will play, and play, Ohio State.
“I don’t know if I can say I see a lot of similarities,” said Ohio State fifth-year senior Joel Penton, whose career began with a championship ring and could reach a symmetrical conclusion at the BCS title game at University of Phoenix Stadium at 6:30 p.m. today.
“It’s four years later, two entirely different teams.”
Despite Ohio State’s protestations, the more things change …
The Buckeyes — cynics dubbed them the “Luckeyes” for their close shaves through a 13-0 regular season in 2002 — entered the 2003 Fiesta Bowl without much respect against a favored team from the state of Florida, which entered on a 34-game winning streak after a wire-to-wire No. 1 run through the polls.
Yet Ohio State beat Miami, 31-24, a double-overtime upset that ranks among bowl classics, while setting an NCAA Division I-A record for victories (14) in coach Jim Tressel’s second year.
“We wanted to shock the world,” Penton said in reflection.
“We did consider ourselves an underdog. We saw Miami on film. We were very impressed with them, but we knew they had some weaknesses.”
Ohio State players were handed fliers advertising Miami’s after (championship) party, purportedly made by the Hurricanes in their dressing room before that game. Dirty trick or not, it worked.
“We did feel slighted. I think it definitely helped,” Penton said.
“This year, we don’t look at ourselves as a huge favorite. We’re looking at (Florida) on film, and they are as good as anyone we’ve faced this year.”
The Buckeyes have done their best not to discredit the underdog Gators, who are here in coach Urban Meyer’s second season in Gainesville.
“I give everyone respect,” Ohio State Heisman Trophywinning quarterback Troy Smith said.
If Meyer — like Tressel a former Ohio State assistant — has a sweater vest, this might be the time to put it on.
Before the game renders judgments moot, Meyer did not seem to mind the underdog role.
“Florida has been around 100 years, and there has been one great team,” said Meyer, referring to the 1996 national championship team.
“I would put us in the really good category. If we find a way to win (today), then I would put us as a great football team.”
Smith and the Buckeyes enter on a 19-game winning streak and have an average winning margin of 26 points, 36-10. Their closest game was their last, a 42-39 victory over Michigan on Nov. 18. Only one other team scored as many as two touchdowns against them.
Smith, tailback Antonio Pittman and wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez — the “fun bunch” — have accounted for 44 touchdowns. Smith has thrown for 2,507 yards and 30 touchdowns against five interceptions.
“It is a big game, in terms of what everybody wants to achieve, that final glory,” Smith said. “So in a sense it’s bigger than anything that you’ve done thus far.”
Florida lost to Auburn, won one-point games against Tennessee and South Carolina, and had three more victories where the margin was less than a touchdown before beating Arkansas by 10 in the SEC title game.
Quarterback Chris Leak threw for 2,729 yards and 22 touchdowns, and the Gators’ defense ranks just behind Ohio State by allowing 13.5 points a game, No. 6 in NCAA Division I-A.
“I love a 65-0 game. That’s a lot of fun,” Meyer said.
“The 17-16s, when we were hanging on at the end of the game, that causes gray hair and ulcers and everything. But it also strengthens and toughens your outfit. You learn a lot about your team when you get hit right in the mouth. We were hit in the mouth quite often.”
The game will be the latest ever played in a college football season, part of the new accommodation to separate the title game from the rest of the BCS bowls. The Buckeyes have had 50 days off, the Gators 36.
“I don’t see how anyone will be able to debate the layoff effect until they see how we tackle. We haven’t tackled in a while,” said Tressel, who has been asked about it the most.
“And they see how we handle the football when it’s live, because we haven’t done that for a while. That will be the measure of it.”