Friday, January 01, 1999

Sugar Bowl not so sweet




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW ORLEANS — John Cooper would settle for a decisive safety in the closing seconds. He would be content with a clinching field goal at the final gun. The Ohio State football coach is too much of a pragmatist to concern himself with point spreads, and too much of a football coach to openly aim at annihilation.

        “I'd take a one-point victory right now, and be happy with it,” Cooper said Thursday. “You don't play an easy team in a Jan. 1 bowl game.”

        Cooper's Buckeyes need a blowout of Texas A&M in tonight's Sugar Bowl if their tenuous case for a national championship is to be taken seriously. But they need a lot more than that. They also need Florida State to beat Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl, but only by a narrow margin.

        They would then need the nation's sporting press, omniscient though it is, to sort out the sensory overload of college football's bowl season and anoint OSU No. 1 from a crowded field of worthy contenders.

        This is an awful lot to ask for only a week after Christmas. John Cooper is wise to confine his worrying to the task immediately at hand.

Cooper's bowl record: 2-7
        “There's nothing wrong with the players going in thinking about winning the national championship,” Cooper said. “(But) we've put ourselves in the situation where it's a long shot. We not only have to win, but win enough to impress the Associated Press writers. We have to get help from Florida State. We talk to the players about worrying about the things you can control, like beating Texas A&M.”

        Should the Buckeyes succeed tonight in the Superdome — which is contingent on most of them making it back from Bourbon Street in time for the kickoff — they can probably count on finishing no worse than No.2 in the final polls. If, instead, they are ambushed by the Aggies, their season would be remembered not as a near-miss but as a meltdown.

        Cooper is 2-7 in bowl games since he came to Columbus, a record only marginally better than his 2-8-1 mark against Michigan. The prudent man in this position sets modest goals rather than raising expectations to an unrealistic level. John Cooper is prudence personified.

        “You all want to gamble,” he once told reporters in a postgame news conference. “But you want to gamble with my chips.”

        The football coach at Ohio State is naturally inclined to be conservative because the odds are so frequently in his favor. He has more talent; he has more depth; and he has better resources than nearly any other coach in the country. In Cooper's first decade at OSU, 12 of his players were selected in the first round of the National Football League draft.

        That he has yet to win a national championship reflects the random nature of college football and, perhaps, a certain susceptibility to blowing the big game. Bobby Bowden went through similar stuff before he finally broke through at Florida State. Tennessee couldn't win the big ones with Peyton Manning, and now it can't seem to lose without him.

        Funny game. Had Ohio State lost early, and Florida State lost late, their berths in the Bowl Championship Series might have been reversed. Both teams finished the regular season with one defeat, but the Seminoles will be playing for at least the coaches' share of the national title in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes are playing to preserve a fantasy.

What could have been
        “Maybe we'd be in the Fiesta Bowl if we had one loss with Texas A&M's schedule,” said Rob Murphy, the OSU guard from Moeller High School. “But we're dealt these cards. I personally followed the BCS a lot. I told myself I wasn't going to, but I did because so much was at stake. I watched the conference championship games. When Mississippi State got ahead of Tennessee, I got on my knees in front of my television clenching my fists.”

        Tennessee's comeback deprived Ohio State of a reprieve, and forced the Buckeyes to face some facts: 1) If Tennessee wins the Fiesta Bowl, the Volunteers will finish the season undefeated and largely undisputed; 2) If Florida State beats Tennessee, it will likely land most of the first-place votes; 3) If Ohio State wins the Sugar Bowl, it may not count for much.

        E-mail Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Complete bowl coverage from Associated Press



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