COLUMBUS — With a new decade right around the corner and another massively important postseason looming, it felt like it would be a good point in time to rank the bowl and playoff games for Ohio State this century. Before getting to it, a few things.
No. 1: This list does not include Big Ten Championship games
No. 2: I am omitting the 2001 Outback Bowl as it predates my enrollment at Ohio State. As an out-of-state student from 2,000 miles away, I don’t believe I have the proper context nor memory of the game. Plus Ohio State lost.
30 percent: What it meant for the program
30 percent: What it meant for fans
40 percent: Enjoyability/rewatchability of the game
With that in mind, let’s get to it.
No. 18: 2007 BCS National Championship Game vs. Florida
What happened: Ohio State took a 7-0 lead on the opening kickoff, but the celebration ended Ted Ginn career with the Buckeyes. Subsequently the Buckeyes were crushed in a Gator tsunami in which they gave up 41 of the next 48 points and played equally awful on both sides of the ball. Heisman winner Troy Smith had 35 yards total passing with only four completions. The Buckeyes were 1 of 10 on third and fourth downs, and were minus-3 on turnovers. It was three hours of unexpected brutality.
Why ranked at this spot: Ohio State had played consistently well on both sides of the ball all season and notched two wins against No. 2-ranked teams in the country. For the most part, the matchup was thought to be a relatively stress-free win and the minting of Jim Tressel and Ohio State as the top program in the country along with USC. It was like going into a conference room thinking you were going to get a raise and a promotion and instead you were fired. The end result of this game set in motion a national media narrative that dragged the Big Ten while anointing the SEC as college football’s best conference.
No. 17: 2016 CFP Semifinal Fiesta Bowl vs. Clemson
What happened: Ohio State came in a small favorite but was outgained by a two-to-one margin as Clemson’s defense suffocated the Buckeyes. The eventual national champions didn’t give up a point and handily won despite a sneakily strong defensive effort that failed to jumpstart the Buckeye offense.
Why ranked at this spot: Unlike the 2007 Title game, there were a few positive moments to point to especially on defense as the Buckeyes forced two DeShaun Watson interceptions.This one lands here because while the performance was cringeworthy, a win was far from a forgone conclusion and Ohio State and the program was in generally a good spot prestige wise in the middle of a five game bowl/playoff stretch with this being the only loss. It certainly stung, but wasn’t a major setback long term for the program.
No. 16: 2012 Gator Bowl vs. Florida
What happened: This was an incredibly boring game between two 6-6 teams that saw five turnovers and both teams failing to gain 300 yards. The game was competitive in the same way a 100-yard dash would be with both people on crutches.
Why ranked at this spot: This one didn’t sting much as the Buckeyes had already experienced six losses. That said, the football was so bland that it’s really the only game in which a sharp fan would have a tough time recalling anything that happened in this game. This was basically the football version of the Buckeyes losing a boring NIT game. It didn’t hurt, but it was an uncomfortable lowpoint for the program this century.
No. 15: 2008 BCS National Championship game vs. LSU
What happened: Ohio State got a surprise shot at redemption after the 2007 Championship loss thanks to a handful of unexpected late-season losses to other top-ranked teams. The Buckeyes got out of the gate quickly and seemed on their way until a disastrous second quarter that saw them outscored 21-3. A false start, two Todd Boeckman picks, a roughing the punter and just an uncharacteristic flat defensive performance sank the Buckeyes title chances and put fuel on the fire that the Big Ten couldn’t compete with the SEC.
Why ranked at this spot: Even the most optimistic fans viewed this as a coin flip, so the loss wasn’t all too surprising. This was a tough one to swallow, but it avoids the bottom of this list as there were some enjoyable moments such as Beanie Wells ripping off a long touchdown run and Malcom Jenkins nearly returning an interception to the house. While the game got out of hand in the second quarter, this is one still stings today as the Buckeyes were up 10-0 (and nearly 14-0) and had moments where they seemed to be reeling in the runaway Tigers.
No. 14: 2002 Outback Bowl vs. South Carolina
What happened: Coming off the high of an upset win against Michigan, Jim Tressel’s first bowl game was a bit of a roller coaster as the Buckeyes went down 28-0 only to tie it late in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes were stifled on the ground with only 64 yards rushing but were able to pass for 320 yards. It wasn’t to be as South Carolina hit a last-second field goal to end the Buckeyes dramatic upset effort.
Why ranked at this spot: It seems like a lifetime ago, but this was a bit of a bummer at the time as Tressel wasn’t able to exercise the John Cooper demons by winning the last two games of the year. This game was a disappointment, a thrill and finally a tease that didn’t fully reassure that the program was going to takeoff under Jim Tressel.
No. 13: 2014 Orange Bowl vs. Clemson
What happened: Urban Meyer’s first bowl game at Ohio State saw the program drop their second game in a row in a back-and-forth, high-scoring game that painfully slipped away in the fourth quarter. The Buckeyes held a nine-point lead in the third quarter and were in good shape with the lead and receiving a punt around midfield midway through the fourth quarter. A muffed punt and a late interception tilted the contest Clemson’s way and put a rather dour note on the season.
Why ranked at this spot: The air from the 2013 season was already let out after a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game that kept the Buckeyes out of the BCS Championship game. This game was a heartbreaker, but regardless fans were left with the feeling that the program was beginning to hit its stride under Urban Meyer. A win here would have put it on equal footing as other classic BCS bowl wins, but Clemson was a game opponent who squeaked out a gritty win in a classic game.
No. 12: 2009 Fiesta Bowl vs. Texas
What happened: Ohio State was a heavy underdog against a Texas team that many thought should have been playing in the BCS Championship. The Buckeyes dominated defensively in the first half but only had a 6-3 lead to show for it. Colt McCoy threw 58 times compared to Ohio State’s 25 attempts (split between Todd Boeckman and Terrelle Pryor) and finally broke through with two third-quarter touchdowns. The Buckeyes took the lead with two minutes left, but McCoy and the Longhorns converted a pair of fourth downs on the final drive on their way to a last-minute, game-winning touchdown.
Why ranked at this spot: This was a bit of a bumpy time for the program coming off of two embarrassing title game losses. Terelle Pryor had yet to turn the corner as the Buckeyes next signal caller, and there was a strong thought that this game A) wouldn’t be competitive and B) Ohio State and the Big Ten would continue to be mocked as a conference in decline. The Buckeyes strong first-half performance and fourth-quarter comeback were unexpected and reaffirming and slowed down the festering narrative about the program under Tressel and the conference as a whole.
No. 11: 2004 Alamo Bowl vs. Oklahoma State
What happened: Congrats! You’ve survived the Ohio State losses component of this article. Despite being an underdog, the Buckeyes scored the first 33 points of a mostly forgettable game that saw Mike Nugent boot four field goals. The Buckeyes rushing attack was powered by Lydell Ross and Brandon Joe while Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn gave Justin Zwick ample help in the passing game. This game is most memorable for Troy Smith’s suspension along with the media backlash that ensued. Oklahoma State just never got going, and Tressel was fine running the ball and kicking field goals as the Buckeyes coasted to a comfortable, albeit forgettable win.
Why ranked at this spot: You can actually argue this one to be higher given 2004 was a rough year that saw the Buckeyes almost lose to Marshall, lose three consecutive conference games and flip flop at quarterbacks a few times. After a November loss to Purdue, Ohio State went into their Michigan game and bowl game as an underdog but won both games handedly. 2004 was a transition year for the program, and this win was an important one that sent the Buckeyes into 2005 as a legitimate contender and an elite program. If the game itself was a bit more exciting or had higher stakes, you’d certainly see it higher on this list.
No. 10: 2017 Cotton Bowl vs. USC
What happened: The Buckeyes raced out to a 24-0 second-quarter lead thanks to a Damon Webb pick six. USC scored before the end of the first half — and then nothing happened as neither team scored in the second half. J.T Barrett barely threw for over 100 yards and no running back rushed for over 40 yards, so this game was not exactly memorable and one I imagine most folks have mostly erased from their memories.
Why ranked at this spot: It’s the Cotton Bowl and it was against USC, so there is some pedigree here. Bonus points for sending J.T. Barrett out with a win that helped remove the foul taste of the 2016 Clemson loss out for the program. Putting that aside, I’m not sure you could pay me to watch the second half of that game.
No. 9: 2019 Rose Bowl vs. Washington
What happened: Ohio State had a dominant first half and extended their lead to 28-3 in the third quarter. Those who bet on the Buckeyes will remember this game as Washington went onto score the last 20 points against a team that didn’t seem motivated to land a knockout blow. The game was the continuation of a trend that had persisted all year in which the Ohio State defense couldn’t be counted on to close out games, forcing the offense to do most of the heavy lifting.
Why ranked at this spot: It’s hard to knock a Rose Bowl win which doubled as Urban Meyer’s final game at Ohio State. That said, Ohio State is still thirsty for some type of redemption from the Clemson loss whether that be a playoff game or against a more esteemed opponent than Washington. While this would be towards the top of most other program’s list, the reality is that this falls towards the middle of the wins list without much of a narrative going into the game and the game being one-sided for the majority of the game.
No. 8: 2015/2016 Fiesta bowl vs Notre Dame
What happened: One of the better Ohio State teams this century, or perhaps ever, shook off the disappointment of being left out of the playoff and mostly had their way with an inferior Notre Dame team. Zeke had four touchdowns in his final game as a Buckeye with Michael Thomas getting into the endzone as well in his final game. JT Barrett had a stellar day rushing for nearly 100 yards and throwing for over 200 yards. Notre Dame did it’s best to hang around but ultimately couldn’t keep pace despite the aid of a Joey Bosa ejection in his last game for the Buckeyes.
Why ranked at this spot: This is another game in which the stakes and the opponent were relatively high, but didn’t match the season expectations for the team and the fans. Coming off a national championship and returning one of the most talented rosters in program history, the disappointment of not getting to defend the championship in the playoff made this generally engaging and fulfilling bowl game just seem a bit flatter than it really was. Still though, this was an enjoyable game against another blue chip program that saw the program send a wave of Buckeye stars to the NFL on a very positive note.
No. 7: 2004 Fiesta Bowl vs. Kansas State
What happened: Ohio State played some classic Tressel Ball to go up 35-14 before Kansas State mounted a late comeback. The Buckeyes held the Ell Roberson to under 40 percent passing with the normally explosive Wildcats rushing attack held to under 85 yards. The offense didn’t settle for any field goals and was aided by a special teams touchdown on a blocked punt.
Why ranked at this spot: It would have been a bit of an ominous point in time if Tressel showed a flash of Cooper in his third year by dropping the last two games of the season. Such a loss would have made him 3-3 against Michigan plus the bowl games at that point in time. This win sent a lot of the key cogs in the national title team to the NFL on a high note and offered reassurance that the 2002 National Championship team was no fluke. This was also Tressel’s second win of five as underdog in bowl games while at Ohio State, which was welcomed change for fans after a decade plus of seeing seasons implode in the final two games.
No. 6: 2006 Fiesta Bowl vs. Notre Dame
What happened: Notre Dame did its best to hang around but ultimately got no help from the defense. Ohio State punted once, sacked Brady Quinn five times and had four touchdowns over 50 yards in a thorough and fulfilling win over a fellow midwest blue-chip program. Ted Ginn had nearly 250 scrimmage yards with Santonio Holmes and Antonio Pittman both going for over 120 yards as well. This was a fun one that saw all of the Buckeye stars have big days.
Why ranked at this spot: Expectations were very high in 2005, but the title aspirations evaporated by early October. While it was hard to stir Buckeye excitement given two early-season losses, memorable wins against Michigan and Notre Dame redeemed the 2005 season. This was a really fun team to watch and a BCS bowl win against Notre Dame is always an enjoyable time.
No. 5: 2010 Rose Bowl vs. Oregon
What happened: The usual run-heavy Buckeyes took the favored Ducks by surprise, passing the majority of their first few drives and taking a 10-0 lead. The Ducks would battle back, taking a 17-16 lead in the third quarter before the Buckeyes closed the game out scoring the final 10 points. The Buckeye defense stifled Oregon’s passing attack, holding the Ducks to under 100 yards and one interception. Terelle Pryor threw for 266 yards and ran for another 72 yards in a virtuoso performance that saw him close the book on a rocky season in which there were many calls for him to be replaced and moved to wide receiver.
Why ranked at this spot: It’s crazy to think about now, but this would have been Ohio State’s fourth high-profile bowl loss in a row. Add in two regular-season losses to USC, and the perception of Ohio State (and by extension the Big Ten) was significantly eroding nationally (aided extensively by Michigan’s collapse). This win began to turn the page for that narrative and gave the Buckeyes a bit of a third wind under Tressel’s tenure.
No. 4: 2011 Sugar Bowl vs. Arkansas
What happened: The Buckeye roared to a 31-13 lead with Terelle Pryor leading the way. In his final game with the Buckeyes, the heralded junior threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions while also rushing for over 100 yards. The last 16 minutes ended up being a heart attack for the Buckeyes as the Razorbacks scored three consecutive times aided by a questionable safety and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery. Arkansas look poised to complete the comeback, blocking a punt in the final two minutes. But a Solomon Thomas pick iced what was a too close for comfort game for the Buckeyes.
Why ranked at this spot: This win came in the middle a stretch in which the SEC won seven consecutive national championships. Meanwhile Ohio State had lost its last nine bowl games against SEC opponents, including two consecutive national championship games a few years prior. Ohio State was never going to be able to dig out from the SEC’s shadow without a signature win on a big stage. This win helped to reestablish Ohio State’s image as a national power, but more importantly gave Tressel a memorable win in his final game. It also gets bonus points for making Mark May very sad.
No. 3: 2015 CFP National Championship vs. Oregon
What happened: Ohio State gashed Oregon with nearly 300 rushing yards, allowing the Buckeyes to dominate time of possession by over 15 minutes. Ezekiel Elliott outscored the Ducks himself with four touchdowns and almost 250 yards. Cardale Jones also had himself a day by averaging more than 15 yards per completion while throwing for 242 yards. This game would have been an even bigger blowout if it wasn’t for four self-inflicted turnovers by the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s defense contained Marcus Mariota and kept the Ducks off the field by stopping them on 10 of 12 third downs and forcing stops on both fourth-down attempts. The Buckeyes had an easier go offensively, converting 8 of 15 third downs and three fourth-down attempt. Simply put, Oregon couldn’t stop the Buckeyes.
Why ranked at this spot: The question here why is this not ranked No. 2 considering this is one of two championship wins by the Buckeyes. I’ll address this momentarily, but at a high level, the playoff game before felt more like the national championship and the bigger game. While Oregon was a heavy favorite, it had a history of losing big non-conference games. Despite most people picking Oregon, and some by comfortable margins, the amount of satisfaction of beating a west coast upstart just didn’t hold the same currency as the other games higher on this list.
No. 2: 2015 CFP Semifinal Sugar Bowl vs. Alabama
What happened: The heavy underdog Buckeyes scored first but quickly found themselves down 21-6. And then it happened. The Buckeyes converted three consecutive third downs on their first touchdown drive to make it 21-13. The Buckeyes would then score a memorable touchdown right before the end of half to pull within one point. Shellshocked Alabama would give up a deep touchdown to Devin Smith and a pick six in the third quarter, completing a 28-point run for the Buckeyes. A late 85-yard touchdown by Ezekiel Elliott lifted him over 200 yards and ended up being the dagger as Alabama ran out of time falling to the hungry, upset-minded Buckeyes.
Why ranked at this spot: Many casual sports fans believe the United State’s 1980 Olympic hockey win against Russia was for the gold medal. It was not. It just seemed like it given how Russia dominated the sport and the bad blood between the two nations. This is more or less why this lands at No. 2. The Buckeyes had been clamoring for a shot against Alabama and to strike a fatal blow into the mystique of the SEC. This was judgement day, and the result either way was going to follow the program for the next decade. The victory only was sweeter given the hole the Buckeyes dug themselves out of and the big plays that saw them knockout college football’s new found superpower. It also gets bonus points for making Mark May very sad.
No. 1: 2003 Fiesta Bowl
What happened: In what was supposed to be an absolute slaughter, Ohio State kept Miami in check early before forcing three second-quarter turnovers, which the Buckeyes cashed in for two touchdowns. Despite some opportunities to do so, Ohio State failed to pull away in the second half. Miami benefitted from a few blown calls on Ohio State’s last possession and were able to force overtime with a last second field goal. The Hurricanes nearly won twice in overtime as Ohio State converted a fourth-and-14 as well as a fourth-and-3 — yes, on the infamous pass interference. With a seven-point lead in the second overtime, the Buckeye defense stuffed Miami with four stops at the goal line.
Why ranked at this spot: Ohio State was a 13-point underdog and still most of the betting action was on Miami. The Hurricanes were absolutely bursting with NFL talent and were on the verge of being minted as a dynasty and one of the best teams of all time. Meanwhile, Ohio State had gone over 30 years with a national championship and were dying of thirst for another championship after so many close calls in the 90s. While some folks feigned confidence, many Ohio State fans secretly would have bet on Miami if given a free million-dollar wager straight up. This was the grittiest of wins with Ohio State only completing seven passes, not having a running back gain over 50 yards and forcing 5 turnovers. This win, and the whole 2002 season, was seemingly one miracle after another. The championship did wonders for the program’s perception and Tressel’s standing. The significance of this win has seemed to fade over time, but in all likelihood it will never be replicated anytime soon.