When the Ohio State Buckeyes board their charter flight for Arizona on Saturday, the airplane ought to know where to go on its own.
If it's bowl season, just point that thing west and flip on the autopilot.
When top-ranked Ohio State departs for the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game, it will be the Buckeyes' fourth postseason trip to Phoenix in the last five years. Ohio State is a frequent flier in this air corridor.
Ohio State has closed the 2002, 2003 and 2005 football seasons by playing in the Fiesta Bowl in nearby Tempe - all victories. The Buckeyes won the national title under coach Jim Tressel in the first of those three trips to the desert.
This year Ohio State pursues another national championship, and it does so with a certain degree of familiarity with the surroundings, the setting and life on center stage. The Buckeyes, who face No. 2 Florida this time, are acclimated to the Southwest and the scrutiny that comes with a high-profile bowl game.
"There's always the butterflies and the excitement that surrounds a bowl game, especially one like this where you're playing for the national championship," Ohio State senior center Doug Datish said recently.
"But Phoenix is someplace we feel real comfortable. Having been there so much in recent years, we go in knowing a lot about what to expect."
The site of this year's game will be different. The recent Fiesta Bowl games were played at Sun Devil Stadium on the campus of Arizona State University, and this year's title game will be played in the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, the new NFL home of the Arizona Cardinals.
But a whole lot of other things on this trip will be the same.
The Ohio State football team and the official travel party will stay at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel - the same as last year when the Buckeyes thumped Notre Dame to win the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State will practice at Pinnacle High School, just like last year. The daily routine will be very similar to previous trips, with a mix of community appearances, practices and media obligations.
For Datish and most of the other fifth-year players on the Ohio State roster who were part of the program in 2002, a final game in the Phoenix area has essentially become a part of the schedule. They didn't play in the 2002 title game, but they were an integral part of the preparation.
"Our fifth-year seniors, for the most part, spent time on the scout team in 2002," Tressel said. "One thing I recall as that team was getting ready for the 2003 Fiesta Bowl was them being a team that really had great preparation habits. Part of that was what they expected of and demanded of their scout teams. A lot of these kids were on the scout team."
Those seniors participated in the Fiesta Bowl wins over Kansas State and the Fighting Irish, and Tressel expects them to use that firsthand data to their advantage on this trip.
"Any experiences you have help you in your future," he said. "Some of your setbacks help you learn what you could do better. Some of your successes you can point to and see what you did to be successful. I think all of those experiences certainly help us."
Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said the Buckeyes have the right collective demeanor to sort through the media buzz and stay on task, and he also credited Tressel with establishing an efficient agenda.
"This team has great chemistry, and regardless of the situation, they've been pretty even-keeled and do a pretty good job of doing what needs to be done," Bollman said.
"And through the years I think coach Tressel has always done a great job, especially in bowl games, with timing and moving things along. When we get into our normal game situation out in Arizona, it will be like getting ready for a normal game. When I think back, it's a matter of trying to be prepared ahead of time and do whatever we need to do to utilize our players to the best of their ability."
Ohio State senior quarterback Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, said the 2002 national championship team taught the current group a great deal about the preparation and performance necessary to come out on top in a national title game. Ohio State was an underdog to No. 1-ranked Miami, but prevailed 31-24 in two overtimes.
"They taught us a lot of things," Smith said. "Like the incredible need to win as a group, as a whole. About endless leadership skills and leadership qualities. Also, a focus to understand and know that it's going to take every phase of the team to win a national championship."
Despite all of the familiarity with the area and the intense spotlight, Tressel said he won't be surprised if there are a few nerves in the moments before the title game begins.
"I'm sure we'll have jitters," Tressel said. "As much preparation you put in and as much hype as a game like this gets, you can't help but be excited. Once you get hit a few times, the jitters will go away and you'll be in a good, hard-fought football game."
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