As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Arizona, another Ohio State season coming to an end, the internal conflict of how the 2019 Buckeyes should be remembered took center stage.
That there is no right or wrong answer to that question perhaps best highlights just how much their loss to Clemson in the national semifinal will sting for as long as the Ohio State program exists.
All season long, with each passing week, the sentiment that the current edition of Buckeye football was the best team to ever play in Columbus continued to pick up steam. The collection of talent featured on the field was as high as it had ever been, and it shined in glorious fashion week after week.
With each dominant performance, Ohio State continuously checked every box en route to an undefeated regular season. Their 29-point win over Michigan in Ann Arbor served as the first benchmark necessary for any Ohio State team to be mentioned among the program’s best-ever teams.
The following week, Ohio State won the program’s 38th Big Ten championship, another benchmark cleared. In doing so, the Buckeyes clinched their spot in the College Football Playoff (CFP), the program’s third trip in the playoff’s six-year existence, yet another box checked.
Individual accolades rolled in for both players and coaches as Buckeyes littered the Big Ten’s All-Conference teams and award selections, and a host of them were selected as finalists for many of college football’s biggest awards.
Indeed, not much more could have gone right for this Ohio State team through early December as it seemed to be on a collision course with whoever would meet it in New Orleans for the national championship game.
Through nearly the entire first half of the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, Clemson appeared to be just another footnote in Ohio State’s historic run as the Buckeyes were having their way with the Tigers en route to a 16-0 lead.
But the game was flipped on its head, suddenly and emphatically, as Clemson outscored Ohio State, 29-7, the rest of the way to leave the Buckeyes stunned and on their way to the offseason.
In a season where everything had seemed to go their way, everything seemed to go against them for 35 minutes on Saturday. In the process, the legacy of the 2019 Buckeyes became very complicated.
There are very few programs in the country where a 13-1 record, including a win over a hated rival and a conference championship, can be seen as even remotely disappointing. But the reality is Ohio State is one of those places, and the yearly expectations of winning a national championship are why some of the country’s best high school players decide to play at Ohio State.
That this Ohio State team won’t have even played for a national title, let alone win it, will disqualify them from the conversation of “best ever” for some. The fashion in which the Buckeyes lost on Saturday, where critical, self-inflicted mistakes cost them dearly in a game in which they had Clemson on the ropes on multiple occasions, will further that argument.
For others, this team will be remembered for its sheer dominance of the regular season, led by some of the best individual talents the program has ever produced. The loss to Clemson, defending national champions and winners of 29-straight games, in a national semifinal will just serve to underscore how hard it is to win a national title, particularly in the age of the CFP.
The reality is this team, special in many ways and filled with tremendous ambassadors to The Ohio State University and its football program, will likely fall somewhere in the middle.
More so than the other great Ohio State teams that fell just short of a national title, the 2019 Buckeyes will last through the ages for mostly the right reasons. But the incomplete feeling that many felt following the Clemson loss will always be associated with the season, a byproduct of just how close the team was to separating itself from all the ones that came before it.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.