Jim Tressel used to have a saying. “September is for pretenders, November is for contenders.”
He never said anything about October, which is essentially where Ohio State stands right now having played just six games.
October is normally where problems get fixed. September is when they get found. November is when everything becomes a strength.
For the Buckeyes, they will be taking an October level of self-awareness to a January playoff game. Some people think that’s an advantage, but it’s doubtful any coach would trade places with OSU head coach Ryan Day.
And while Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney agrees that there are advantages to playing more games, he’s much more vocal about the disadvantages.
“I think the games matter,” he said. “The mental and physical toll of a season — there’s nobody out there that would say that somebody who’s played 11 games versus somebody who’s played six is better physically or something like that because it’s a long season. We’ve — we’re going on Week 21. These guys have had no break.
“It’s been a grind, not just football-wise, but the mental challenge and the personal sacrifice and commitment that everybody’s had to make to be able to play and continue to play. It’s been incredible. Our guys have been so committed in that regard. So yeah, anytime you step in between the lines in the game of football, that’s a lot of practices. That’s a lot of physicality. So I definitely think that it matters.”
Despite the physicality and the grind, Swinney also readily admits that Saturday’s win over Notre Dame was their best performance, which would imply that all of those games have been significant in getting the Tigers where they are today.
“Oh, yeah, no question. Definitely our best game, our most complete game. All three phases really complement each other,” he said. “We had a big kick return, made a couple of field goals. Kickoff coverage was very good. We punted the ball inside the 20, I think, three times. And then offensively, we had great balance. Was able to really run the ball efficiently like we wanted to. And then defensively, we held up against the run much better. Then that led to great third-down production on both sides. So I was really proud of our team.”
It’s amazing what more games can do to improve a team’s performance. Like all teams this year, Clemson was forced to develop depth, but they have also been afforded the time to do it.
Ohio State, meanwhile, just came off of its sixth game. Clemson’s sixth game this year saw them leading Syracuse by just six points late in the third quarter. The same Syracuse team that is now 1-10 on the season. Clemson trailed Boston College 28-26 in the fourth quarter in game seven and lost to Notre Dame in game eight.
Since that loss, the Tigers have had a game postponed and then won their next three by scores of 52-17 over Pitt, 45-10 over Virginia Tech, and 34-10 over Notre Dame.
Ohio State is now readying for game seven and — if all goes well — game eight. Ryan Day doesn’t know if OSU or Clemson is helped the most by their differing paths, but he knows what will help most when the two teams finally take the field on New Year’s Day.
“I think at the end of the day, it’s who executes better and plays tougher in the end,” he said. “When you play in big games, you have to execute at a high level. That’s really what it comes down to. Both teams are going to play hard. Everything is on the line.
“It is who executes better is going to pull it out. We have to do that. Whether we played six, eight, ten, or they played 12, I don’t really know. I don’t know what that really means. So we’ll try not to focus on that. We’ll try to execute the best game we could possibly.”
Day has had half the opportunity to see his team in action as Swinney and because of that, there are many unknowns. Ohio State having only played six games means there have been fewer opportunities to build their depth and understand what their young guys do best and where they could help most.
The lack of knowledge about his own team has been something Day has had to come to grips with this season, and now that grip will probably be a bit tighter as the stakes have now become irreversible.
In a world of unknowns, however, Day does know one sure thing about his team, and that one thing will be necessary for Ohio State to secure the upset against Clemson.
“Everyone is on a different journey this year,” Day said. “That’s what makes this season so unique. I just think it has been — as a football coach and someone who loves college football, to see all of these different teams and all of these different young men who have overcome so much adversity — and everyone has a different story. Our story, to me, is just simply amazing. We weren’t even playing the season for a month, and then here we are right now.
“I think we have an opportunity to write one of the greatest stories in the history of college football. I don’t know what it all means. We certainly don’t have the game reps, especially for the younger guys, to find out what they can do. And we haven’t had our best game yet this year. Played some good games, but we haven’t played our best game this year, and we’re going to have to play our best game again to beat Clemson.”