COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State is too good to be finished after 12 games. There are two more teams to be played, two more trophies to be won, which is why the Buckeyes' 26-21 victory against Michigan on Saturday was so bittersweet.
Or should have been bittersweet.
It didn't feel bittersweet. It didn't feel bitter at all -- not on the Ohio Stadium field, where thousands of OSU students gathered after the game. It didn't feel bitter in a tunnel leading out of the stadium, where OSU fans heading for the exits were delighted to see E. Gordon Gee coming the other way, an attention-loving salmon swimming upstream. OSU fans reached out to touch him, and Gee was beaming and thanking them as if this was one of his finest moments.
"That's one for the good guys," Gee yelled as fans within earshot squealed.
Gee is the Ohio State school president who oversaw the Jim Tressel scandal and its botched aftermath. Had the school done the right thing a year ago and self-imposed a bowl ban on its 6-6 team of 2011, the NCAA's eventual one-year postseason penalty would have been served last season.
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Instead Gee and OSU athletic director Gene Smith rolled the dice and lost, participating in a 2011 bowl game -- anyone remember which bowl? -- but losing out on this one. Forever, Ohio State fans will remember which bowl game was missed from the 2012 season:
The BCS title game.
That's where the Buckeyes should be headed, but instead they are headed nowhere. They are done at 12-0, the sixth Ohio State team to finish a season unbeaten and untied, and surely the most unfulfilled Ohio State team in the program's 123-year history.
How good is this team?
"Ohio State can go play with anybody in America," coach Urban Meyer said, and correctly at that.
This team has a physical defense that held Michigan's offense, led by two-quarterback terror Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson, to 279 yards for the game -- and zero points in the second half. It has solid special teams. And it has plenty of offensive weaponry.
Quarterback Braxton Miller, who was 14 of 18 for 189 yards Saturday against the country's stingiest pass defense, deserves an invite to New York City as a Heisman finalist. Tailback Carlos Hyde ran for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns in 10 games. One receiver, Devin Smith, is an NFL talent -- while another, Corey Brown, led the team with 58 catches.
Meyer has a fancy offensive system that posts big numbers, but his team manhandled Michigan on Saturday. On offense the Buckeyes controlled the clock behind Hyde, who ran for 146 yards on 26 carries, most of them into the heart of the Michigan defense. On defense the Buckeyes controlled the line of scrimmage just as effectively, making stand after stand on third and even fourth down. The Wolverines kept running various players into the middle of the line, and Ohio State kept stuffing them.
Dumb decisions were being made by both sides. Michigan had its offensive play-calling in the second half. Ohio State had its brain-locked decision in the first half to honor the 2002 national championship team, coached by Tressel, who showed up to absorb the love -- the cheering hit a crescendo when the scoreboard video screen showed Tressel -- while being carried on his players' shoulders.
It was a senseless scene. The guy who lied about NCAA violations in 2010, then built a Big Ten-winning team around players who should have been ineligible, being feted on the same field where Ohio State was about to end its season two games too early.
We'll never know if Ohio State was the team to solve the riddle of Notre Dame, because Gee and Smith guessed what the NCAA would do last year -- and they guessed wrong. And so this season is over. And after the game, on the final question of Urban Meyer's final postgame press conference of 2012, someone wanted to know this:
"Urban, if Ohio State is the last unbeaten team at the end of this season ..."
"Here we go," Meyer said.
The question continued ... "should Ohio State be No. 1 in the Associated Press poll?"
Meyer was silent for a few seconds.
"I'm just trying to picture the headline here," he said. "Enough headlines. I don't need any more. They got me all excited at a pep rally the other day, and that was a headline."
Meyer was referring to his appearance Friday morning at the Earle Bruce Beat Michigan Tailgate to benefit Alzheimer's research -- when he said, "Let's beat the s--- out of Michigan," before walking off the stage to roars.
And now this. If Ohio State is the last unbeaten team at the end of this season, should it be No. 1 in the AP poll?
Meyer made his decision.
"Like I said," he said, "I think this team could play and compete with any team in the United States."
Yes, it probably could. But it won't get the chance to prove it.
This was a bittersweet day in the history of Ohio State football, though Meyer found another way to sum it up:
"This is as good as it gets," he said.