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Rob Oller: Finishing second not first thing Ohio State fans will recall about 2020

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State safety Marcus Hooker leaves the field after a loss to Alabama in the national championship game brought an end to a season full of upheaval due to COVID-19.
  • Buckeyes played fewest games since 1941

Approaching a week removed from the end of the college football season, the truth finally can be told. America’s autumn felt like a Siberian winter, a stretch of calendar understandably short on comfort and interest.

My 92-year-old mother paid less attention to Ohio State upon learning TBDBITL was not performing live during games. My 72-year-old neighbor, whose neon scarlet leather couch can be spotted from outer space, was subdued to the point of indifference, especially after the Michigan game was canceled. 

And that was just in the Buckeye State. Nationally, TV ratings took a downturn, most strikingly for the College Football Playoff national championship between Ohio State and Alabama. The game, won by ’Bama in a 52-24 blowout, drew the smallest television audience for a national title game since at least 1999.

Several factors contributed to the dismal ratings on ESPN, including the continued fallout from the Capitol attack, which sucked the air out of everything not attached to political moorings. Social media and cord cutting also sliced into the numbers. But it was more than that, and more than the game being played on a Monday night; the 2015 national championship game, won by Ohio State over Oregon on a Monday night, drew nearly double the viewers (34.1 million to 18.7 million.)

At the heart of it, fewer fans cared about college football this fall because fewer fans thought college football important enough to care about. COVID-19 placed a psychological mask over football passion, acting as a constant reminder that things were different.

The 2020 season still mattered — as much as ever to players and coaches — but for fans the highs were not as high and lows not as low, largely due to the virus diverting attention and diffusing interest. It feels artificial, and to some just plain wrong, to obsess over sports outcomes when for months the world has been consumed with matters of life and death.  

With COVID-19 as a backdrop, Dispatch beat reporter Joey Kaufman accurately described Monday’s title game defeat: “It was sort of the ideal loss; not enough of a blowout to prompt an existential crisis, not close enough to lead to months of heartbreak.”

Ohio State’s reduced number of games also contributed to fan apathy. Interest typically increases as a season builds from September through November, then continues during the extra month of bowl preparation. By Thanksgiving week, when the Buckeyes annually beat up on Michigan, not only has there been a full season to reflect upon but also amped anticipation for The Game. Family members foment their conversations by stirring the pot over such topics as Jim Harbaugh’s future, whether Clemson or Michigan is the bigger rival and if the Wolverines will ever find a quarterback. 

This season? Not only was Thanksgiving celebrated virtually in many cases, but Michigan socially distanced from Ohio Stadium, canceling the game as a COVID outbreak swept through the UM roster. For many older OSU fans, a season without Michigan is turkey without gravy. What’s the point?

Then there is this: a fair number of fans never thought the season should have happened in the first place. While many among Buckeye Nation argued against the Big Ten postponing play on Aug. 11 — the conference reversed course and resumed the season on Oct. 23 — there also were many who wondered why football should be played in a pandemic. They pointed to the danger of community spread associated with watch parties and bar gatherings, to say nothing of putting athletes’ health at risk. 

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it follows that overall interest diminishes when one’s conscience is not cleared for takeoff. And when interest wanes, the energy of the community gets grounded as well.

That does not mean the season was a waste. In getting their college football fix, many fans found relief from the boredom and in some cases depression associated with being sealed in a COVID-19 isolation chamber. The Buckeyes enjoyed a sterling season, even if a start-stop schedule made it challenging for them, and fans, to find a rhythm.

With a week to reflect on it all, I return to Kaufman’s comment, and provide my own twist. Certainly, Ohio State fans would have loved the Buckeyes to win a national title. Few wearing the scarlet and gray would apologize for collecting another championship trophy. Alabama sure isn’t.

But at the risk of dabbling in revisionist history, losing to the Crimson Tide may well have been a “perfect loss” for the program. In a season burdened by pandemic, where winning a championship despite playing only eight games would have taken on historical odor, I’m not so sure finishing second is the worst thing in the world.

In a season when fans cared less, when the pageantry that fuels college football evaporated in empty stadiums with piped in crowd noise, it is not sour grapes to say you couldn’t care less whether your team won it all.

roller@dispatch.com

@rollerCD