The bulletin board probably is not the staple of every football locker room in America in the literal sense anymore. One imagines it has been replaced by text messages and social-media blasts.
But you can believe the message got through to Ohio State last week when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he ranked the Buckeyes 11th in his final USA Today coaches’ poll ballot.
His reasoning? Ohio State (6-0) didn’t play enough games to deserve to be ranked higher. In fact, he didn’t rank anyone in his top 10 who didn’t play at least nine games in this COVID-19 cockeyed season.
That his Clemson Tigers will meet the Ohio State Buckeyes whom he dissed in Friday’s Sugar Bowl for the right to advance to the CFP National Championship Game on Jan. 11 in Miami doesn’t matter one wit to the straight-talking Swinney. He knows the impact of his words, particularly in this case, but he isn’t backing down.
Swinney’s vote and his subsequent explanation has Buckeyes the world over at a rolling boil. A poll on Dec. 21 by the Ohio State website ElevenWarriors.com asked fans which coach they hated more, Swinney or Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh.
Swinney won in a landslide — 83.2% to 16.8%. Given the cold loathing between Ohio State and Michigan, and Harbaugh’s talent for irritating people like a pinch of fiberglass in your shoe, that’s saying quite a lot.
One imagines Swinney has enough success — two CFP national titles and two other trips to the final, including January’s 42-25 loss to LSU in New Orleans — that he can afford not to worry if Ohio State helmets are emitting steam plumes. His players and coaches know what to expect.
“Yeah, he's going to speak from his heart,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Monday during a round of pre-Sugar Bowl video news conferences. “And he's going the stand on his beliefs. And he's certainly not going to be politically correct.”
“I have all the respect in the world for Ohio State,” Swinney said Monday. “For people not to think that, I can't do anything about that.
“It's not that they're not good enough. I just don't think it's right that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion and one team has to play eight.”
Swinney’s reference is to the three other teams in the playoff: 10-1 Clemson, as well as 11-0 Alabama and 10-1 Notre Dame, who meet in Friday’s other semifinal in the Rose Bowl in Texas. For any of them, winning two more games will mean they will have played 13 games total to capture the trophy.
Ohio State would “only” have to go 8-0.
It’s understandable that Swinney’s comments would rankle Ohio State. And certainly his vote was not the height of diplomacy.
But it doesn’t change the fact that he is absolutely right.
The Buckeyes don’t belong in the playoff, not because they aren’t good enough, but because they haven’t had to put their fate on the line nearly as much as the other three CFP teams have. Or teams that just got left out, like No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1), No. 6 Oklahoma (8-2) or the most deserving team from Ohio, No. 8 Cincinnati (9-0). Those other teams had to roll the dice a lot more often than did the Buckeyes.
It isn’t Ohio State’s fault, though. Ohio State pushed hard to play even when the Big Ten wanted to push the season until the spring before finally reversing course and leaving teams with little to no wiggle room. The Buckeyes had three games scrapped, including their annual Good vs. Evil showdown with Michigan.
We’ll never know, but maybe Ohio State would have gotten tripped up by Maryland, or Illinois or Michigan. Sure, the Buckeyes would have been huge favorites in all those games, and upsets were serious long shots.
Just as big a long shot as the prospect of Florida losing at home 37-34 to LSU, a 23½-point underdog, a December upset that threw the Gators out of contention.
“I think games matter,” Swinney said. “I don't think it's right Texas A&M and Oklahoma, that Florida, that Cincinnati got punished because they played more games. These games matter. That game against LSU, that was a big deal for Florida.”
There is little that’s according to Hoyle about this football season. Much that isn’t fair. Teams missed games because of coronavirus outbreaks, and lost games by being without key players, like when Clemson lost 47-40 in overtime at Notre Dame without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
But it’s easy to believe that Ohio State got into the playoff on reputation as much as achievement, if not more. That said, the Buckeyes have no choice but to prove their No. 3 seeding now, and force Swinney to eat his words or deal with the fact that he was right all along.