Two important games continue to play out after NCAA sanctions against Ohio State that include a bowl ban next season.

Two important games continue to play out after NCAA sanctions against Ohio State that include a bowl ban next season.

First, there is the "what if" game, which looks at the past with an "if only" perspective on time and change and wonders uneasily about the future. What if instead of lying to NCAA investigators, coach Jim Tressel had come forward with information that Buckeyes players had traded tattoos for merchandise?

The "what if" game is mostly unhealthy, serving to frustrate and embitter. Its only redeeming quality? Asking what if can positively affect the second game: "what is." You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it.

The "what is" game deals in reality, not retrospect and rumor. It involves answers, not questions. But both games are necessary to the process of moving forward.

Time to play.

What if … Ohio State had never recruited quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other players involved in the scandal?

What is: Recruiting is not the issue. It's how a coach handles a recruit once he arrives on campus that matters. Many 18-year-olds have the potential to become knuckleheads, but that doesn't mean a coach should enable the behavior, as Tressel did with Pryor. Urban Meyer does not apologize for treating his players like family, but it will be up to him to make sure certain members of his family abide by the rules set forth for all.

What if … athletic director Gene Smith had better calculated the entire situation?

What is: Many assumed Smith was dialed in to the inner workings of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, having previously served on that committee. It is now clear that his view on how the committee conducts business was outdated. After saying more than once since March that Ohio State had found the "sweet spot" as it pertains to estimating the amount of punishment needed to appease the NCAA, Smith said on Tuesday he might have underestimated how much weight the committee placed on the repeat-violator portion of the Ohio State case. What Smith missed was that the NCAA has adjusted its punishment philosophy. Rather than give penalties in a specific area of concern, as was the case when Smith served on the committee, it now appears to be examining the gravity of a case in total. And the totality of the Ohio State case was more than just about tattoos and gold pants. It included a coach who lied to the NCAA, a booster (Bobby DiGeronimo) providing extra benefits and the repeat-violator issue dating to 2006, when the men's basketball program was tagged for multiple offenses.

What if … Ohio State had imposed a bowl ban for this season, before the NCAA issued its ban for 2012?

What is: There is no way of knowing whether wiping out a bowl game this season - Ohio State plays Florida on Jan. 2 in the Gator Bowl - would have convinced the Committee on Infractions to spare a ban for next year. All that is certain is Michigan becomes the 2012 de facto bowl game, which makes The Game extra enticing. Not since 1971 has Ohio State entered a season knowing it would not play in a bowl; the Buckeyes played in the Rose Bowl during the 1970 season, and the Big Ten's no-repeat bowl rule was not repealed until 1972. The lack of a bowl next season also means Meyer faces less pressure to lead Ohio State to a national championship game in his first year, probably good for him considering he thinks - but cannot be sure - he has learned how to better manage his life around football.

What if … recruits who have pledged to Ohio State suddenly opt to leave because of the sanctions, which include three years of probation, a penalty affecting a recruit's decision-making process more than does an immediate bowl ban. Some freshmen will redshirt anyway next year, making moot the bowl ban. But some recruits might be wary of joining a program that could crumble over one more misstep.

What is: Do not fear too much. Several top-tier recruits, including defensive ends Noah Spence and

Se'Von Pittman, already have assured the coaching staff they remain on board. That doesn't cement their commitment, but Smith managed to do at least one thing right by hiring Meyer. The one antidote to entering next season knowing a national title is off the board is Meyer. His offense. His straight talk. His resume.

What if … Ohio State had not hired Urban?

What is: Forget the ban, because with Meyer in charge, next season's opponents are about to get bowled over.

Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.