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COLUMBUS - The reality in the era of the Bowl Championship Series is one loss can knock you off the invitation list for the big party in January.
Teams have made it to the National Championship game after a stumble during the season, but your chances certainly get reduced by some kind of intricate mathematical factor if you happen to lose along the way.
That makes Saturday night's No. 1 vs. No. 5 game between Southern California and Ohio State all the weightier. Somebody could play great against a premium opponent, come up a tad short and kiss good-bye any shot at holding the crystal football trophy.
Ohio State, which charged into the title game two years ago as the season-long No. 1 and then nuanced its way in last year as No. 2 when a series of events cleared the deck in front of the Buckeyes, is aware of the stakes it has exposed by going to Los Angeles to play the Trojans.
"I think we go into every year expecting to win every game and knowing that if we lose we might not make the championship game," Ohio State senior quarterback Todd Boeckman said. "I guess you never know - you just have to go out there and play your games and hope you get a shot."
Boeckman is part of a senior-heavy Ohio State team that has won three straight Big Ten Conference titles, and members of that group have made no secret of their final agenda as Buckeyes. They also know it would be so much easier for the Buckeyes to play Temple this week and USC to play Azusa Pacific and leave it at that.
"You could schedule a bunch of teams early just to make it easy on yourself, but I don't think most guys come to Ohio State thinking they'll be playing in those kinds of games," senior offensive tackle Alex Boone said as the Buckeyes readied themselves in August.
"You come here expecting to play big-time opponents and play in a lot of big games. The USC game is in line with that way of thinking."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who took his team to Texas two years ago and has games scheduled with Miami, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, Tennessee and California in the coming years, said he prefers to get major programs on the Buckeyes docket every year.
"I love the fact we get out on the national stage and our guys get to go to California, and we've been to Austin, and we'll go to Miami in a couple of years," Tressel said. "You could feel the tension level raised a bit over at our facility this week."
Senior wide receiver Brian Robiskie said showdowns like the Texas game and this meeting with the top-ranked Trojans take on the same feel as a bowl game, or one of those title games.
"This does have a lot of hype and a lot of talk surrounding it, so we know that yes, it's a big game," Robiskie said. "But I think both teams know there is an awful lot on the line, and we're preparing for it like it is a national championship game. Everything we have is going into this game."
Ohio State senior linebacker James Laurinaitis said the extensive history at both schools, plus the tradition of their meetings over the years, gives Saturday's game a different feel.
"I think it's a huge game, and something people are very excited about because you think USC and Ohio State and you think Rose Bowl," Laurinaitis said. "It's the most important game on the schedule right now. People have been talking about it all year, and it's finally here."
Boeckman, who is in his sixth year in the Ohio State program, got his first taste of the national profile games early last season when the Buckeyes traveled to Seattle to face Washington. He said the build-up, the rankings, the history between the two schools and the high stakes make it something special.
"This is one of the biggest games we'll ever be a part of, and we've been looking forward to it for some time," Boeckman said. "We knew it was on the schedule, but watching the film got us even more fired up. This is one of those games you look forward to, on the national stage, eight o'clock, with the great tradition they have and the great tradition we have."
Tressel said the bulk of the season comes after this showdown, so he is hesitant to call it a make-or-break event.
"Whether you'd like to make it out to be a national championship game or not, it is September, and there's still a lot of football to be played," he said.
Contact Matt Markey at
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