COLUMBUS — Barry Switzer was once smacked with the same question now facing Ohio State.
With his 1974 Oklahoma Sooners ineligible for the postseason, the second-year coach wondered if the banished goals would undermine the year.
There would be no bowl game or recognition in the United Press International coaches poll. OU could not even play on television.
Switzer, though, learned there were two incentives the NCAA could not take away. No one could stop the Sooners from, as the bootlegger’s son said, “kicking your ass,” and no one said they could not win the Associated Press national championship.
“You might be going to a bowl game,” said Switzer, now 75, of OU’s opponents that season in a phone interview with The Blade. “But everybody’s going to know you got your ass kicked by Oklahoma when you got there, and that’s what we did.”
By the end of the year, after the Buckeyes endured a controversial upset loss at Michigan State and Alabama fell to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, the Sooners stood as the nation’s only undefeated team. A taxi driver shuttling Switzer from the airport in Honolulu to the Hula Bowl soon passed along the news: Oklahoma was No. 1.
Nearly four decades later, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer finds himself channeling the same motivation.
As the Buckeyes (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) begin the second half of the season still unbeaten, whispers of the elephant in the room are starting to circulate.
“We’re trying to get that AP No. 1,” cornerback Bradley Roby said after OSU’s 63-38 win over Nebraska on Saturday.
The Buckeyes are barred from the postseason and a place in the coaches poll but not the Associated Press Top 25. In that poll, they are ranked eighth and — in theory — chasing the same mythical national title as the Sooners won in 1974. (OU remains the only bowl-banned team to earn that distinction.)
While most coaches profess to wear blinders and insist they pay no attention to the rankings, Meyer narrowed his eyes this week and said, “Not this coach.”
Each Sunday, Meyer said he discusses the team’s poll position with his players.
“They're going to talk about it when they go home, when they walk to class,” he said. “They're going to talk about it. Why not [talk about], ‘Here’s really where we’re at.’”
Meyer is not thinking about a poll title. Even if the Buckeyes finish the season without a loss, such a goal may not be realistic. There are seven unbeaten teams ranked ahead of OSU — many of which have played more difficult schedules — while the winner of the BCS national championship game in January will almost certainly earn the top billing.
Yet in a season stripped of the usual aims, Meyer views the poll as a needed guidepost.
“Like coach Meyer said, if you don’t think statistics are important, you’re kind of lying,” center Corey Linsley said. “That’s what we play for. We play for these polls. We play to be No. 1 in the country.”
That was Switzer’s message in 1974.
The Sooners were in the second season of a two-year bowl and television ban because of recruiting violations committed under former coach Chuck Fairbanks, who bolted after the 1972 season to coach the New England Patriots. But while invisible to the rest of the nation, they had no plans to go away.
“My first press conference that season, I went on television,” Switzer said, “and I said, if you’re listening out there, to our fans and our players, our goal is this: they have penalized us, and they said we couldn’t be on TV, we can’t go to bowl games. But they didn’t say we couldn’t beat those that are going to be champions.”
And so they did. Linebacker Rod Shoate and linemen LeRoy and Dewey Selmon terrorized on a defense that wielded four All-Americans, while Heisman-contending tailback Joe Washington and quarterback Steve Davis — a licensed Baptist minister — ran the wishbone to perfection. The Sooners won all 11 games, including a 28-14 victory at sixth-ranked Nebraska.
“Shed no tears for Oklahoma,” wrote Ray Kennedy of Sports Illustrated in a story headlined, “The Best Team You’ll Never See.” “The Sooners are making their presence felt this season the same compelling way that Red China did when it was barred from the United Nations. They keep menacing people.”
By the end, it did not matter that few had seen them play. Voters were left with no choice but to vote the Sooners No. 1.
Switzer’s only disappointment from that season is sure to roil Buckeyes fans. He is convinced the TV ban cost Washington the Heisman. Washington, who finished his OU career with 4,071 rushing yards, placed third in the voting behind Southern California’s Anthony Davis and OSU running back Archie Griffin.
“If people had gotten to see visuals, then they would have known this cat is different than Archie,” said Switzer, who went 157-29-4 in 16 seasons at OU and later won a Super Bowl with the Cowboys. “Archie was a great player. I’m not taking away from Archie. I’m just saying Joe Washington, he was like Barry Sanders. He was like smoke through a keyhole.”
This year, the Buckeyes face no such concerns. They are on TV, and from his Oklahoma home, Switzer likes what he sees.
“Ohio State’s going to be ranked up in the top three or four teams if they keep on winning,” Switzer said. “You never know what’s going to happen. It’s still too early yet.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.