COLUMBUS - Three weeks after their unbeaten season, No. 1 ranking and dreams of redemption in the BCS title game seemed to turn to ashes, OhioÂ State is headed back to the ultimate game in college football.
Thank you, Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Buckeyes, No. 3 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings going into Saturday`s final regular-season and conference title games, will make a return trip to the national championship game to meet a yet-to-be determined opponent on Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. in the Sugar Bowl.
"After a college football season filled with intriguing results, we are extremely proud to be the outright champions of the Big Ten," coach Jim Tressel said in a statement late on Saturday night.
"We would be honored to represent OhioÂ State and the Big Ten in the national championship game. We know we will be up against a tremendous challenge whomever the final standings present as our opponent."
Having waited two weeks since beating Michigan in their last game, the Buckeyes will have to wait a little longer to find out who they`ll play. The possibilities include Georgia, Kansas, Virginia Tech, LSU and USC - the teams ranked Nos. 4 through 8 in the most recent rankings.
Georgia is next in line but did not win its division of the Southeastern Conference and did not play this weekend in the SEC title game. Is it possible to allow Georgia to play in the national championship game and exclude LSU, the team which won the SEC title game, when both have two losses on the season?
"I`m sure we`ll be the underdog against whoever we play," center Jim Cordle said earlier this week. "Hopefully that can help us out. That plus, we`ve got to defend ourselves from last year, rebound from that and show the nation how good this team is. That`s going to drive us this bowl practice season."
OhioÂ State appears to be a lock for the game. A combination of human and computer polls will decide the final rankings this afternoon, making the 1-2 matchup official.
West Virginia, No. 2 in the BCS rankings, played at home against Pittsburgh in its regular-season finale on Saturday night. Quarterback Pat White was hurt, crippling the Mountaineers` hopes, as they fell 13-9 in a colossal upset.
That was enough to punch the Buckeyes` ticket for the BCS title game.
Missouri, No. 1 in the latest BCS rankings, played Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game in San Antonio later on Saturday night. The Sooners pounded the top-ranked Tigers 38-17, but OhioÂ State was already all but assured of being in the top two even as that game was being played out.
The Buckeyes (11-1) had resumed workouts this week, waiting to find out who they would draw. As it has worked out almost every week this season, at least one of the teams ahead of them lost to open the gate wide for OhioÂ State to make it into the title game.
All week, they said they weren`t going to be disappointed if both Missouri and West Virginia won and they had to "settle" for playing Southern California in the Rose Bowl.
"The Rose Bowl`s not a bad place to be," defensive lineman Todd Denlinger said. "If we can get into the national championship, that`d be great. But we`re just focused on winning whatever bowl we go to."
A year ago, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 from the preseason through the bowl games. In the BCS title game against Florida, which had to finagle its way into the title game after losing to Auburn in the regular season, Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff and it appeared OhioÂ State would back up its lofty ranking.
However, the Gators dominated the rest of the night in Glendale, Ariz., winning 41-14 and saddling the Buckeyes with a defeat that still rankles.
They have said all season they want another shot at the title to avenge the humiliation from last year`s lopsided loss.
OhioÂ State was No. 11 in preseason media poll and slowly worked its way up the ladder while winning against a schedule that impressed few. Meanwhile, teams like LSU, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Southern California lost games.
The Buckeyes spent a month at No. 1 in the rankings until falling to Illinois 28-21 at home on Nov. 17. That defeat dropped them all the way to seventh in the BCS rankings, seemingly out of the national championship picture unless they got a lot of help.
But that`s exactly what happened.
First, the Buckeyes jumped up and dusted themselves off before dusting off rival Michigan 14-3 in their regular-season finale on Nov. 17 at The Big House in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Since then, they have spent the past two weeks watching all six teams ahead of them lose at least once, an incredible string of surprising defeats in a season that will be remembered for all the upsets.
OhioÂ State will be playing in its third BCS national title game. The Buckeyes stunned unbeaten and top-ranked Miami 31-24 in double-overtime at the Fiesta Bowl to capture the 2002 national title, its first in 34 years.