Close-knit Buckeyes tighter than star-filled 2006 team

NEW ORLEANS -- Ohio State stepped onto the game's biggest stage last January, took a bow, and fell into the orchestra pit. Afterward, the school announced it would disband football.

OK, that might be a slight exaggeration. But offensive coordinator Jim Bollman can't get over the surprise among the fans and the media that the Buckeyes are playing in the BCS National Championship Game for the second year in a row.

"What are you supposed to do after you get beat?" Bollman asked. "… Do you hide your head in the sand? Or do you try and get better? A bunch of guys got back to work and played football."

Players and coaches are conditioned to put a game behind them. It is to mental training what stretching is to the body. The rest of us don't forget so easily. Ohio State may be 11-1 and Big Ten champions again. But for one year, the team has had to listen to the skepticism and scorn engendered by its 41-14 loss to Florida in the BCS title game.

"We try not to use that as a motivation," linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "But that game is something that, for the rest of our lives, we'll remember. Walking off the field, looking at that scoreboard, is something we'll remember for the rest of our lives. [We're] always being reminded."

As the 2007 Buckeyes mowed down opponent after opponent, they heard the doubts. As Ohio State ascended to No. 1, lost to Illinois and got swept back to the top by the tide of upsets in this nutcase season, the rout by the Gators followed the Buckeyes like a piece of toilet paper stuck to their shoe.

"I feel very sad for our football team sometimes that everybody just remembers that game," Bollman said. "Football is a series of one-game entities."

Some entities are bigger than others. That's why Ohio State will enter the Louisiana Superdome as a team of no-name guys that nobody wanted in New Orleans.

And that's just the reason that Ohio State may beat LSU on Monday night.

"We're a bunch of nobodies and we don't amount to anything," offensive tackle Alex Boone said. "You hear that for a while and you just want to play so bad."

Actually, some of the Buckeyes call themselves nobodies, and they do so with pride in their voices.

They believe, a year after Heisman-winning quarterback Troy Smith went to the NFL, a year after wide receivers Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez went in the first round of the draft, that they are tighter without their stars.

"This group is a lot more close-knit," safety Anderson Russell said. "I don't know why that is. But that's just the way we are."

It is human nature to look to a Smith to make a play, especially when he did it game after game, series after series. It's also human nature for the attention paid to stars to come between them and their teammates.

"It's a lot different," Freeman said. "We have more team aspect this year. You don't have the Heisman Trophy winner, a first-round pick, stuff like that. A lot of guys are just playing for each other. We try to use as motivation, 'We're all we have.' We just want to play for each other."

There are fewer stars on this team than the Buckeyes of a year ago. The conference coaches named five Buckeyes to the All-Big Ten first team. In 2006, the Big Ten coaches selected nine Buckeyes to the first team, and nine more made either the second team or honorable mention.

Yet the statistical difference between the 2007 Buckeyes and the more heralded Buckeyes of a year ago is miniscule. Ohio State gained 13 more yards per game in the regular season a year ago. But this year's defense gave up nearly 50 fewer yards per game. This year's offense has shown more balance and held the ball longer, things a team must do if it scores less. And this team, though it has scored less, still scores 32 points per game.

To hear the Buckeyes talk about the personality of their team hearkens the 1998 Tennessee national championship squad, which won it all the year after All-American quarterback Peyton Manning went to the NFL. Or the 1984 Virginia basketball team that reached the Final Four a year after All-American center Ralph Sampson went to the NBA.

A year ago, with all those stars, Ohio State didn't think it would play a game so much as it would attend its coronation.

"Last year, we were like, 'Well, we're going to play,'" Boone said. "This year, I can't wait for this game. This is going to be the game. It's a great feeling this year. It's a lot better than last year."

Early Tuesday morning, Ohio State hopes to have put the loss to Florida to rest. The Buckeyes will try to emulate the 1998 Vols. If they lose, they will bring another team to mind.

The Buckeyes will be halfway to the Buffalo Bills and their four consecutive Super Bowl losses.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.