-- Ohio State offensive lineman Alex Boone said he was watching College Football Live recently when he saw a fan comment scroll across the bottom of the screen that said, "If Ohio State loses this game [to LSU], they should be banned [from the national championship] for five years.
"Gosh," he said to himself. "People really do hate us."
There are no official records to support this contention, but it's entirely possible no team in the history of college football has ever endured as much backlash over the result of one lopsided loss as the Buckeyes have in the 12 months since their 41-14 defeat to Florida in last year's national championship game.
Oklahoma lost 55-19 to USC in 2005 and somehow managed to survive with its reputation in tact. Florida's 62-24 loss to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl did little to dampen the aura surrounding Steve Spurrier and the Gators during their subsequent title run the next season.
Yet despite winning all three of its previous BCS appearances under Jim Tressel (including the 2002 national championship over Miami), despite winning 30 of their past 32 games, last year's Debacle in the Desert somehow became a public referendum against not only Ohio State but its entire conference.
This year, just like last year, Ohio State (11-1) enters Monday's championship game as the nation's No. 1 team. However, whereas the Buckeyes entered last year's Florida game as prohibitive favorites, they've been deemed the underdog this time despite having a better record than LSU (11-2). Their legitimacy was questioned literally the entire regular season, and there are no shortage of critics who feel they don't belong in the top 10, nevertheless the top two.
How big a motivating factor has the backlash become? So much so that Tressel sent his players home for Christmas with a DVD featuring images from the Florida game, followed by a 10-minute montage of TV talking heads ripping into the Buckeyes.
"Last year, people were like, 'You're going to win, you're going to win,'" said Boone. "This year, it's like we're nobodies."
Boone, the Buckeyes' left tackle, was at the epicenter of the meltdown that contributed to OSU's current perception. A normally steady performer who earned second team All-Big Ten honors this season, Boone was the most prominent of several Buckeyes blockers who appeared completely overmatched by Florida's speedy defensive ends, contributing to Heisman winner Troy Smith's disastrous 4-of-14 performance that night. "I took the blame for that game," said Boone, who told his teammates he took responsibility Ohio State's bus ride home from the Columbus airport.
That particular aspect of the game -- Florida's overwhelming pass-rush -- also contributed to the greatly exaggerated generalization that's hovered over the sport ever since: That SEC teams like the Gators and LSU are fast, while Big Ten teams like the Buckeyes are slow. While it certainly appeared that way on a specific night last January, Boone's fellow offensive lineman, Kirk Barton, takes umbrage with the larger assumption.
"If you want to look at our NFL draft [40 times] over the last five years, you could put them up against anybody's," said the senior right tackle. "I don't know how that [perception] got out there. I guess
And that's exactly how the Buckeyes characterize what happened that fateful night a year ago: They had a bad game. While dispensing plenty of credit to Florida, they offer a variety of explanations -- most notably complacence and overconfidence following their dominant regular season -- as to why they appeared so utterly outclassed against the Gators.
"Every mistake we could make, we made, and every good thing Florida could do, they did," said offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. "That was that game."
Boone began hearing the flack over that nightmarish performance almost as soon as the game was over.
"A lot of people called me after the game and bitched me out," he said. And they weren't even random strangers. "These were my own friends," said Boone. "I thought they would call up and say, 'That's OK,' but they were like, 'No, you suck.' "
All of which begs the question: What will they do differently this year to avoid further wrath?
LSU, with its own athletic defensive front (led by Outland winner Glenn Dorsey), presents many of the same problems that Florida did. The Buckeyes' offense has changed considerably, with less of the spread passing formations suited for Smith and more reliance on play-action and the power-running of Beanie Wells. But OSU will also be relying on many of the same offensive linemen, like Barton and Boone, who flailed so miserably against the Gators.
"We've got to block one second longer," said Boone. "We can't let [quarterback] Todd [Boeckman] get hit. We've got playmakers. We've got to let them get the ball."
LSU's players watched tape of that Florida game in preparation for Monday's game. They've also watched tape of Ohio State's games this year.
"Ohio State has a lot of speed," said Tigers defensive end Kirston Pittman. "Their receivers can really move, and [tailback] Beanie Wells, he can fly. From the film we watched of the Florida game last year into this year, [their linemen] have really improved in taking away the edge from teams' [pass-rushers]."
For the Buckeyes' sake, that improvement better show itself against the Tigers. If one national-title blowout can produce a year's worth of backlash, there's no telling how long they'll be doomed to public purgatory if it happens again.