How a season is viewed is all a matter of perspective. Regardless of achievement or outcome, if expectations are not met, it is viewed as a disappointment. Conversely, if the result exceeds expectations, it is viewed as a success.
More importantly, when those successes and failures happen is just as relevant to their perception as whether or not they happen at all.
For last year’s title game participants, the season began with similarly lofty expectations. Ohio State’s season has been governed by a “title-or-bust” mentality from the start; which will happen when a team is the first-ever unanimously ranked preseason No. 1.
For Oregon, a national title wasn’t expected, but contending for one was. While fans acknowledged the turnover in Oregon’s personnel, including the loss of the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history, the expectation of “reloading, not rebuilding” that has existed in years past was present going into this season.
While Ohio State was out front for title contention for the first half of the season, Oregon faded from the national conversation early. Wounded after a loss to Michigan State, the Ducks were finished off from national title possibilities in their conference opener against Utah.
A loss to Washington State two weeks later led fans to wonder where the wins would come from the remainder of the season. Expectations were adjusted quickly: From hoping to a national title, to hoping for a conference title, to simply hoping for a bowl game.
As Oregon was facing its challenges in the first half of the season, the Buckeyes stayed undefeated, only reinforcing the expectations that had been placed on them this season.
When Ohio State looked underwhelming against marginal opponents, the excuse was made they were unmotivated, but when they faced tougher challenges towards the end of the season, they would rise to meet them.
Then came Ohio State’s matchup against Michigan State, just their second game against a team with a winning record, and their first against a ranked opponent all season. The result was the Buckeyes managing just 132 yards of total offense, had the ball for less than 22 minutes, and following the loss saw Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott announce their exits before the season had even ended.
Elliott in particular was highly critical of his coaches, saying:
“I’m disappointed in the play-calling. I’m disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently, it is very disappointing. I feel like we just weren’t put in the right opportunity to win this game. We weren’t put in the right situations to win this game.”
This loss and the resulting decay of Ohio State are consistent with the Urban Meyer template.
About four or five years into Meyer’s tenure, in the year following a national championship, his team will start the season No. 1, hold that ranking for the majority of the season, lose a late-season game, leading to the unraveling of his team.
Don’t be surprised if Meyer resigns at the end of this season or next.
Meanwhile, for the Ducks, the mid-season readjustment has led to a renewed enthusiasm amidst their current winning streak. In past seasons, wins over teams like Cal and Arizona State would be an expectation rather than a point of celebration.
Matchups against Stanford and USC would take on diamond-forming levels of pressure; an entire season hinging on a single game. Instead, the Ducks found themselves able to play loose against the conference’s two likely division winners, and with five straight wins are now the hottest team in the conference, and possibly the country.
Consider the perspectives of how Oregon and Ohio State fans feel this morning: Oregon fans find themselves optimistic about the potential finish of the Ducks’ season and how that momentum could carry into 2016 has buoyed them away from the concern and disappointment of mid-season.
Meanwhile, Ohio State fans view their season as a failure; wondering about what happened to a team with such high expectations this year, and where they go from here.
They are two different perspectives for two teams who have had the same season. Both began the year with title contention expectations, yet neither will win its division. Both could beat anyone in their conference, yet neither will play for the conference title.
Both teams even had their first loss of the season to Michigan State. And while Oregon could finish 10-3 with wins over Oregon State and its bowl opponent, Ohio State could also finish 10-3 with losses to Michigan and its bowl opponent. The possibility of both happening seems completely plausible.
While Ohio State can only be left to wonder what their season could have been, the Ducks can wonder what their season will be. The Ducks are now ranked higher than any three-loss team in the country. Last year, three three-loss teams (Ole Miss, Arizona, and Georgia Tech) played in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
If the results break right the last two weeks, Oregon could find itself in one of those games. If chaos really breaks out, and Stanford finds a way into the playoff, Oregon could theoretically find its way to the Rose Bowl. After all, it’s an exhibition, and the bowls pick their participants.
An absurd possibility? Of course. But a far more likely possibility than it was at mid-season. Few would have believed the Ducks would have a shot at keeping the 10-win season streak alive, now it is attainable. Perspective and timing is everything, the key to whether a season is a success or a failure.
How it unfolded is what made the difference for both teams.
Top image by John Sperry