COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the 109th meeting of Ohio State and Michigan, history intercepted the present, a ghost haunted reality and a villain who robbed a season's soul was serenaded like a king.
One of the most surreal moments in a rivalry that spans three centuries happened between the first and second quarters of Ohio State's 26-21 victory over Michigan on Saturday. The Buckeyes honored their 2002 national championship team, and among the honorees was Jim Tressel, the exiled coach of that charmed squad remembered for its nail-biting wins and Maurice Clarett's runs and run-ins. As the crowd roared in approval, Tressel was hoisted on the shoulders of his former players in front of a raucous standing ovation. Tressel bobbed above the masses for nearly 90 seconds, waving in appreciation and emotion clearly welling behind his dark senatorial glasses.
Has a guy ever been given a standing ovation at a game where he cost that team a possible chance at the national title?
"I'll let you talk about that, I'll let you handle that," Ohio State AD Gene Smith said with a laugh at halftime. "We anticipated a warm reception for him. We didn't know the players would pick him up."
Tressel also didn't want to answer that question, as he and a security detail blew past the media. It was his action -- or lack of action -- regarding potential NCAA violations that led to Ohio State's bowl ban this season. But the moment offered a metaphor for an afternoon where the sins of the past were officially replaced by the possibility of the future.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Ohio State senior offensive lineman Jack Mewhort stood on the field and waved the students down to join the celebration. The moment culminated in a sloppy but thorough Ohio State victory. The Buckeyes shut out Michigan in the second half, forced four turnovers and limited the Wolverines to just 47 plays from scrimmage. "This is a real football team now," Meyer said, complimenting his defense's improvement. "It wasn't earlier. It was a ham-and-egg team, it was a team finding the way."
Ohio State completed its sixth undefeated and untied season in school history, leaving Meyer to ponder how he'll honor the 19 seniors who stuck around and gave everything knowing there was nothing to play for at the end of the year. "Maybe we'll build 19 bronze statues somewhere," Meyer joked.
He added later: "We're 12-0. I'm going to see to it when you walk into that Woody Hayes facility this team will never be forgotten. They deserve that."
The team's indelible legacy will also be shrouded by Tressel's sins. His failure to forward an e-mail that potentially compromised the eligibility of numerous players led to a scandal, which, in turn, led to his dismissal and rocked the campus last year.
"Sure I'm going to wonder," Meyer said later, in a quiet moment, when asked whether his team could have stacked up with the best in the country. "But I think I learned that lesson. I'm not going to try and control what I can't control."
Given what he could control, Ohio State's wholly imperfect season ended in the most fitting way imaginable -- with perfection. These Buckeyes looked bumbling at times against Michigan, as they had two turnovers and nine penalties and squandered multiple opportunities finish off the Wolverines. But they had a stud quarterback in Braxton Miller (14-for-18, 189 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions) and a defensive line that shined in the absence of star end John Simon. Still, will the lack of a chance to prove themselves against a BCS title contender eat at the Buckeyes?
"That's something that will always be asked," said senior receiver Taylor Rice. "Honestly, this is enough for me. It's painful knowing we can't test the waters in the national championship game, but this was our national championship."
It's uncertain whether this Ohio State team would have even made it to the title game. CBS number cruncher Jerry Palm said on Saturday that he guessed the Buckeyes would have been second in the BCS standings heading into the weekend. Still, without the poll data, Palm said it's really impossible to tell.
It's also uncertain whether Ohio State would have been held back by this season's putrid Big Ten. A one-loss SEC team like Alabama might have used momentum from its conference title game to jump the Buckeyes, but no one will definitively know, and the topic will be debated in saloons and sand traps around Columbus in perpetuity.
In an e-mail on Saturday evening, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he didn't want to get into any hypotheticals.
"OSU's program accomplished everything they could in light of the 2012 NCAA sanctions," Delany wrote. "It's a credit to the players and coaching staff that they did not get distracted with things outside of their control and were able to focus exclusively on those things that were in their control."
The other question that will certainly be debated for decades is whether Smith's decision to accept a meaningless bid to the Gator Bowl last year instead of self-imposing a ban cost Ohio State a chance at the national title. But, like everything else, that issue is more complicated than it seems.
"Who knows if they would have given us another bowl ban?" Smith said in his office a few weeks ago. "I just don't know."
Smith, in fact, defended his decision to play in a bowl game last year. "We had a lot of people, a lot of experts in the room," Smith said. "We made the best decision we thought we should make at the moment. Do I still disagree with [the NCAA decision]? One hundred percent."
Smith reasoned that the Buckeyes ended up a victim of a more forceful NCAA, a reality that manifested itself in the ruling against Penn State.
"I think we were caught in the eye of change and how the NCAA was going to deal with infractions. I think that's evident by the fact the sanctions are being defined and the new enforcement process is representative of that. Look how Penn State was dealt with was representative of that. At the time, we made the best decision possible."
With all the extenuating circumstances, all Meyer could do was honor his seniors and start planting the seeds for the 2013 season. He did that. Ohio State's biggest opponents for next year already appear to be the team's lightweight schedule and those pesky BCS computers, as the Buckeyes lose Nebraska and Michigan State from their Big Ten slate and gain Iowa and Northwestern. Moreover, Ohio State's nonconference schedule doesn't include a current Top 25 team, as its "marquee" out-of-conference matchup comes at California. The Buckeyes also play San Diego State, Buffalo and Florida A&M. (Somewhere, Bill Snyder is making fun of Ohio State's strength of schedule.)
Next year, the Buckeyes will have Miller, who will be among the country's top five candidates for the Heisman Trophy, and a preseason ranking somewhere near the top five. Having Urban Meyer as a coach and a star dual-threat quarterback always helps perception.
When asked if Ohio State should be voted No. 1 in this season's final AP Poll, Meyer took a dramatic pause and chuckled, "I'm trying to picture the headline here. I've been in enough headlines I don't need any more."
He went on to give a quote that will resonate throughout the offseason: "I think this team can play and compete with any team in the United States of America," Meyer said.
A real football team emerged on a surreal day. Meyer talked about building a foundation on a day when the coach that caused the previous infrastructure to crack was lofted up and saluted by 105,899 fans.
Ohio State found itself in this lost season. And everyone who exited into the chilly night left wondering what could have been and what will be.