Lessons learned: Urban Meyer reflects on '09 as Ohio State prepares for Orange Bowl
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's easy to forget that Urban Meyer has been here before. In 2009, Meyer's Florida team entered the SEC title game with a No. 1 ranking and BCS championship aspirations. Alabama spoiled the Gators' hopes with a 32-13 upset, an outcome that effectively launched the Crimson Tide's recent run of dominance. Florida expected to contend for the crystal trophy, but instead landed in the Sugar Bowl opposite third-ranked Cincinnati.
Now at Ohio State, Meyer can relate to that scenario this weekend as his 12-1 Buckeyes face Clemson in the Orange Bowl on Friday night. For the first time since he took over in Columbus before the 2012 campaign, Ohio State will have to bounce back from a loss -- the Buckeyes fell to Michigan State 34-24 in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 7. It's a bitter memory for Ohio State players as they prepare to take on the Tigers.
The Buckeyes became so accustomed to winning that players and coaches have had a difficult time adjusting to the reality of the situation.
"I think the worst part was probably the four days after," Meyer said on Thursday. "Three or four of us left Indianapolis and went out recruiting. I went back [to Columbus] then went out recruiting and came back. The feeling inside of you the whole three days, when you walk in with a smile, it's the most phony smile you've probably ever seen. Then you get back and you see the players you care about, and the pain on their face. We had a real emotional meeting -- I don't know if emotional is the right word -- like you would with any type of family members that are going through a hard time.
"From that point forward, we've been fine. And obviously the Orange Bowl has a lot to do with that. This is one of the most premier bowl games in college football."
The Buckeyes had good reason to be disappointed. Coming off a 24-game winning streak, they were one victory away from setting up a meeting with top-ranked Florida State in Pasadena. Ohio State went 12-0 in 2012, but had no shot at a national championship because of an NCAA bowl ban.
"It really stung, obviously," Buckeyes center Corey Linsley told reporters of the loss to the Spartans. "I think I can speak for everybody on the team when I say it really stung."
Meyer said he's reflected back to the end of that 2009 season while preparing for Clemson over the past month. As Ohio State worked out this week at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Meyer unearthed many of his old practice notes from the weeks leading up to his Gators' Sugar Bowl appearance on Jan. 1, 2010 -- "pretty detailed notes," he said. One of Meyer's players from that '09 Florida team, current Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, even swung by, so the coach picked his brain to recall particulars of that preparation.
Whatever Meyer did then, it worked: the Gators ripped through Cincinnati 52-24 to finish the season 13-1. On Thursday, the coach scoffed at the notion that his players would overlook a BCS game.
"We just missed on playing for the national championship, lost the (SEC) title game, and they came back and responded very well," Meyer said of the 2009 season. "Once again, because of the quality of bowl, I credit that to the Sugar Bowl. Our players understand that this is big-time football."
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney similarly understands the importance of bouncing back from a crushing defeat, though in a different sense. Clemson wrapped up an ACC championship season in 2011 with an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. For most of the ensuing offseason, Swinney heard every type of criticism imaginable. Since then, however, the Tigers are 21-4 -- and Swinney is quick to point out that four of those wins came against top-15 teams.
As for the possibility of an Ohio State hangover, Swinney is expecting the Buckeyes' best shot.
"You don't luck up and go 24-1," Swinney said. "This is a team that is truly a few minutes away -- you saw a great team in Michigan State [on Wednesday] night [in the Rose Bowl] -- but [Ohio State] is a team that [was] a few minutes away from being in the national championship game. So they're a national championship caliber team. That's all I know.
"I expect them to play that way, and I expect our guys are going to be ready, and we're going to have to play and perform to a high level to have a chance to win."
A handful of noteworthy Buckeyes players will try to close out their college careers on a positive note. This could be the final game for junior quarterback Braxton Miller and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier, who have yet to announce whether they'll return for their senior seasons. Junior cornerback Bradley Roby, who likely won't play against Clemson with a bone bruise in his knee, has already announced he'll bypass his senior year for the 2014 NFL draft. Senior tailback Carlos Hyde will call it a career, too. Fortunately for Ohio State, history is on its side: Meyer is 7-1 all-time in bowl games, including a perfect 4-0 in BCS bowls.
The better news for the Buckeyes, however, might be that Meyer knows a competitive team when he sees one. The results have been encouraging for Ohio State. "The ultimate compliment, or the ultimate player is the competitive person," Meyer said. "We use the term 'competitive spirit.' If there's a competitive spirit, then they'll play their heart out. And I would anticipate, with everything I've seen from this team, the competitive spirit is there. Now it's just, are we good enough in certain spots to beat this team?"