COLUMBUS – Motivated or unmotivated? That might be the biggest question about Ohio State going into its Fiesta Bowl game against Notre Dame.
It’s also one of the toughest questions to answer. The best evidence of motivation or lack of it won’t come until late afternoon on Jan. 1 when the Fiesta Bowl is over.
And even then, the answer won’t be definitive. Motivated teams can lose sometimes and teams just going through the motions can win games.
Ohio State’s players, obviously, say they are motivated to play against Notre Dame. They’re saying all the right things, all the things you’d expect them to say.
Coach Urban Meyer said a 42-13 win over Michigan a week after the loss to Michigan State crushed OSU’s national championship dreams tells him his team will be ready to play against Notre Dame.
“We had a great indicator, and that was we got on buses for three hours, we went up to a team that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of affection for Ohio State and played as hard as we possibly played and won a game against a very good team,” Meyer said. “So that’s a very good indication of what kind of human beings we have on this team. So I would anticipate that we would play our tails off.”
Defensive end Joey Bosa declared himself “pretty excited” about the match-up with Notre Dame and offensive tackle Taylor Decker said, “This is my last game, so this is a championship game for me.”
“I get that a lot of people said it was national championship or bust and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But this is a huge game,” he said.
There is no doubt some teams go to bowl games with something to prove and some go to them wishing they weren’t there.
But I’m not even sure I could tell you which Ohio State teams in the recent past and not-so-recent past who had to deal with similar disappointments were motivated and which ones didn’t want to be there.
Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship game when it thought it was going to the national championship game, then lost the Orange Bowl to Clemson.
In 1995, Ohio State went into the Michigan game undefeated with a chance to win a national championship in the polls, but lost. Then it lost the Citrus Bowl to Tennessee in a pouring rain.
The obvious call would be to say Ohio State didn’t want to be there either of those times.
But in 1993 and 1996, Ohio State teams without a loss on their record before losing to Michigan beat Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl and Arizona State in the Rose Bowl. Did they want to be there more than the 1995 and 2013 teams?
Some people have talked about the possibility of a letdown by Ohio State because so many of its players know they have one more college game before moving on to the NFL. It’s something Alabama coach Nick Saban claimed had an effect on his team last season.
But the same questions about motivation and focus that are being asked about Ohio State could also be asked about Notre Dame.
Ohio State was one loss away from returning to the College Football Playoff to defend its national championship. Notre Dame had two losses by two points and it’s possible the Fighting Irish still could have gotten into the playoff with one loss.
Like Ohio State, Notre Dame also has several players with the NFL in their future.
Another theory is that Notre Dame might be more motivated than Ohio State because it has more to prove.
While Ohio State has won two national championships, played for two more and has been in seven other major bowls since the mid-1990s, Notre Dame has not won a major bowl since the Cotton Bowl in 1994.
Notre Dame’s last two trips to major bowls did not end well. The Fighting Irish lost 42-14 to Alabama in the BCS championship game after the 2012 season and 41-14 to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl. Notre Dame’s only bowl wins since 1994 have been in the Hawaii Bowl, the Sun Bowl, the Pinstripe Bowl and the Music City Bowl.
But this seems like it would be more of an incentive for Notre Dame’s coaches, who are interested in validating the program as elite, than it would be for its players.