Earlier this season, the numbers "4114" served as the key pad code to enter Ohio State's practice facility. The team whose reputation had been drastically altered by those very numbers hasn't had to look hard to find motivation after the debacle in the Arizona desert last January.
Last year's 41-14 BCS title-game loss to Florida has been the basis for every knock against a fabled program and a conference that has been written off as nothing more than slow and plodding. On Monday night, Ohio State will make a repeat title game appearance, against LSU, and redemption is weighing heavy on these Buckeyes.
"I look at it as if we're an army going to battle for Ohio State pride once again," running back Chris "Beanie" Wells said.
While coach Jim Tressel may, at least publicly, be a little gun shy about using the "R" word as motivation -- telling beat writers in mid-December, "I don't know if I embrace redemption" -- he sent his players home for Christmas break with a gift that reeks of it. Tressel had the team's video coordinator put together a 10-minute DVD that opened with the Gators celebrating on the University of Phoenix Stadium field after last year's title win and followed with a montage of talking heads belittling the Buckeyes and saying they don't belong in New Orleans.
The message was well received.
"Obviously you watch films like that and you realize just how much everybody hates you," offensive tackle Alex Boone said. "But at the end, who cares? Who cares what anybody thinks but us. This is our team. None of those people are going to play come Monday night."
Knocking off the Tigers would go a long way toward debunking the Big Ten's inferiority, while a loss would only strengthen that theory (and turn that DVD into college football's version of The Ring). Can OSU pull it off?
Here are five reasons why the Buckeyes will be hoisting the crystal football on Monday night:
1) Speed? Believe it or not, the Buckeyes do have it. Ohio State can indeed run, but the Gators' quick defensive line had its way with the Buckeyes (who can forget a helmetless Earl Everett chasing down Troy Smith) last year. While everyone seems to be expecting LSU's Glenn Dorsey-led front to cause similar problems, don't forget that the Tigers, who allowed 29 sacks, will have their hands full with Ohio State's equally fast defense.
"We have speed to match up against them," safety Kurt Coleman said.
Buckeyes junior defensive end Vernon Gholston has emerged as one of the nation's premier pass rushers, totaling 13 sacks (fourth in the country), while junior linebacker James Laurinaitis has 103 tackles (8 1/2 for loss) in leading a defense that is sixth nationally with 100 tackles for loss.
The increased speed on defense, and throughout the team, came with the help of someone who knows a thing or two about picking up the pace. The Buckeyes worked on their quickness with speed coordinator and Olympic gold medalist Butch Reynolds, and at random points during practice, OSU would run the ironically named "SEC Tiger Drill" in which they would run the width of the field three times, take a 20-second break and do it again.
2) Beanie Wells will be able to run against LSU's defense. Yes, Dorsey is the most decorated defensive player in Tigers' history. Yes, he leads a unit that some mock drafts say could have four first-round picks. But as Wells said: "I think if you really look at the film, teams could run on LSU."
Well, at least part of the season they could. The Tigers' third-ranked defense allowed just two yards per carry in the first 10 games, including 0.9 yards per carry during the opening three weeks. But over the last three games the banged-up unit was yielding 6.2 yards per carry, the brunt of which came from Arkansas, which totaled 385 yards.
In Wells, the Tigers will face a big body along the lines of the Razorbacks RB Darren McFadden (206 yards vs. LSU). The 6-foot-1, 235-pound sophomore rushed for 1,463 yards (821 in the last five games) behind a hulking offensive line led by NFL-caliber tackles Kirk Barton and Boone. It averages 6-5, 316 pounds per lineman. The group allowed 14 sacks all season and can hold its own against LSU's vaunted front.
3) The vest -- or at least the guy who's sporting it. When it comes to big games, there are few coaches who can rival Tressel's ability to deliver.
In Tressel's seventh year at Ohio State, the Buckeyes are making their fifth BCS appearance (surpassed only by Florida State's Bobby Bowden, USC's Pete Carroll and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who have all made six BCS games). Tressel is 3-1 in those games and 4-2 in bowl games, including a 33-7 win in the '04 Alamo Bowl against an Oklahoma State team coached by LSU's Les Miles. Tressel is also 6-1 against archrival Michigan and has collected eight wins over top 10 teams in his tenure in Columbus.
And he's done it with an almost stately demeanor that has earned him the nickname "Senator Tressel." That approach will be key with the Buckeyes playing in a pro royal-purple-and-old-gold crowd; a less-than neutral site that Barton has likened to Rocky IV, in which Rocky Balboa travels to Russia to train and fight Ivan Drago.
"[Tressel] gets you fired up in a different sort of way," Boone said. "He's not off the wall, bonkers, you really don't even know if he's happy, sad, anything."
4) Just like in 2003, the pressure is off Ohio State. A year ago, the Buckeyes entered Glendale, Ariz., unbeaten behind Heisman Trophy winner Smith, and were seven-point favorites against the Gators. It created an acknowledged lackadaisical approach to the game and ended up costing OSU.
Back in '03, when Ohio State won its first national championship since 1970, it was a 12-point underdog against No. 1 Miami. Fast-forward four years and the Buckeyes, despite being No. 1, are back in that role as four-point underdogs. The fact that they've done it minus the key ingredients of '06's potent offense has given this team a workmanlike mentality.
"Last year people kept saying, you're going to win, you're going to win," Boone said. "You start to think, We're going to win. Maybe we don't have to practice as hard as we are. This year it's the opposite. [People say,] 'You're too slow, you're not going to make it, you don't hit hard enough.' We've been taking practices up another level and running and hitting as hard as we can, and I think it's going to be different."
5) The most telling stats in recent years are both in Ohio State's favor. Five times in the last six BCS title games, the team with the defense that has allowed fewer points that season has gone on to claim the crystal trophy. The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the country in scoring defense, yielding 10.7 points per game, while the Tigers have allowed 19.6 a game (21st).
Ohio State, which is in the top-six in the country in seven categories, is also No. 1 in total defense (225.3 ypg), pass defense (148.2) and pass-efficiency defense. While Ohio State hasn't faced an offense as potent as LSU's No. 20-ranked attack, which averages 448.2 yards and 38.7 points per game (12th), being an offensive juggernaut hasn't necessarily guaranteed winning a national championship either.
Four of the last five champions have ranked lower than their opponents in total offense, and the Buckeyes enter the Superdome with the nation's 57th-ranked attack (397.1 yards per game). Ohio State is 36th in scoring (32 ppg).
Of course, there is always the fact that the one team to buck (no pun intended) both of those trends was last year's Gators.
Prediction: Just like Ohio State did last year, LSU will get on the board first by feeding off the quasi-home crowd. But behind Gholston and fellow end Cameron Heyward, the Buckeyes will pressure inconsistent QB Matt Flynn into a key mistake or two, while OSU will ride the steady game management of QB Todd Boeckman and a heavy helping of Beanie Wells to redemption.
Ohio State 27, LSU 21