NEW ORLEANS -- All it takes to rile up Ohio State are three little letters.
Ask the Buckeyes about being underdogs and they are quick to embrace the role. Make them relive some of the adversity they’ve encountered this season, both on and off the field, and they have no problems doing so.
But bring up their speed and the how it compares to the vaunted SEC, and even the most polite Buckeyes will take some offense as they gear up for No. 1 Alabama and the chance to erase the perception that has seemingly followed them around for a decade heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night.
“Are we as fast? All right, you can flip on the film and make that decision yourself,” Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said. “You know, I hate that question, because we recruit fast guys. We can play sideline to sideline, so just take a look and see.
“I’m not sold on the whole SEC speed thing, because we’ve got teams in the Big Ten that are talented and they’ve got players who are really speedy across all conferences.”
None of them get more credit than the mighty SEC, which has parlayed its freakishly gifted athletes into a near monopoly over the national championship, even with its seven-year string having been snapped a season ago.
And no league is perhaps more criticized for falling behind in foot speed than the Big Ten, with Ohio State often taking the majority of the brunt having largely come up short in most of their marquee matchups against the SEC since it last won a national championship in 2002.
But if SEC speed is measured by breakaway tailbacks, there’s no question Ohio State has one of those in Ezekiel Elliott, who certainly didn’t look capable of being caught from behind as he dashed 81 yards for a score in the Big Ten title game.
If it’s about dynamic playmakers at linebacker, Darron Lee and the stats sheet he has stuffed in every conceivable way would seem to fit the ball.
Pass rushers who can fly around the edge? There might not be anybody in the nation more feared than Joey Bosa, with his 13.5 sacks.
Deep threats in the passing game? Devin Smith’s 29 career touchdowns have averaged an eye-popping 38 yards per catch.
From top to bottom, Ohio State has built a roster that certainly wouldn’t look out of place on Alabama’s conference schedule. And while the Buckeyes might still need a victory to erase some of the speed stigma, they don’t need it to already be considered SEC-caliber by a team that certainly knows what it takes.
“We've talked to several coaches in their league and every coach to a ‘T’ said -- these are coaches that have been in the SEC -- without a doubt, they've got an SEC team,” Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “They look on film just like one of the teams we play, if not better, because they've got big, fast receivers. Big, fast skilled guys.
“Do they look like an SEC team? Are they built like an SEC team? Yes, they're fast and big and they're physical. They've got SEC speed and SEC size. They just don't play in the SEC.”
Aside from the guys on the field, Ohio State also has a coach with an SEC pedigree, and Urban Meyer certainly knows a thing or two about recruiting elite athletes and winning on the grandest stage.
After all, it was his victory over the Buckeyes back when he was at Florida in 2006 that actually kicked off the run of dominance for the SEC while simultaneously helping forge the perception Ohio State didn’t have the physical tools to win national titles anymore.
The program hasn’t heard the end of it since then. And the Buckeyes are no longer bothering to hide their annoyance.
“I think we have great speed on our team,” Elliott said. “What exactly is SEC speed?”
However it’s defined, Ohio State clearly believes it has it. The chance to prove it is coming in a hurry as well.