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LOS ANGELES — Plain and simple, there's no other way to label it, the choice of several Ohio State players has tainted the greatest tradition in college football.
In a disheartening move, even if it is justified, four Buckeyes have opted out of playing in the Rose Bowl against Utah on Jan. 1. The decades-long dream for players in two conferences has morphed into a worthless consolation prize.
One month ago, one-loss Ohio State had visions of making the four-team playoff for the third consecutive year. But those dreams crashed hard after Michigan crushed the Buckeyes to close the regular season, rendering them bound for Pasadena, California, as the Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl.
Skipping one last chance to play with their teammates, four Ohio State starters — receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, along with offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett — have decided not to play. All four have declared for the NFL.
In recent years, players have opted out of participating in second-tier bowls — which most bowls now are — rather than risk injury in an otherwise meaningless game. But this is the first time the trend has impacted the stature of the Rose Bowl.
"This is the Rose Bowl," perplexed ABC analyst Kirk Herbstreit said during media availability Monday.
"Are we going to pick and choose where a game has meaning? Your team is playing an (expletive) game. It matters. You go play and you go compete your ass off. I don't get meaningless and I never will."
For their part, the Utes are ecstatic to play in the program's first Rose Bowl. Not coincidentally, no Utah player has opted out even though several will forgo eligibility to pursue the NFL next season.
Beginning in 1920, Ohio State is making its 16th appearance in the Rose Bowl. The program has made the college football playoffs six times since the current format began in 2014.
"I just don't buy into this narrative of meaningless bowl games," said Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback. "The high-profile teams have always had goals to get to the championship or get to a certain bowl and it doesn't happen all that often, but you don't throw in the towel."
An otherwise apparent ho-hum win for Ohio State could end up being Utah's most significant achievement in the program's strangest season.
Crazy as it is, given the tragic deaths of running back Ty Jordan and defensive back Aaron Lowe only 10 months apart, the Utes somehow managed to work through the unimaginable emotional upheaval to win their first Pac-12 championship. And now here they are, only a few days away from securing the best win in program history.
There's no doubt beating sixth-ranked Ohio State in the Rose Bowl — the most glamorous bowl game that doesn't require some committee's approval — would go down as Utah's finest moment. The Granddaddy, as it is affectionally called, carries more prestige than any game in which Utah has participated.
Forget about comparing the New Year's Day game to any other tradition in college football. Yes, winning the national championship game carries more weight than the Rose Bowl, but getting into the playoff has morphed into something of a beauty contest that is heavily slanted toward certain programs and the Southeastern Conference, which plays by a different set of parameters than the Pac-12.
Every year, unless it has been part of a playoff, the Rose Bowl is usually played on Jan. 1 in the most exotic setting college football has to offer. As if a higher power is involved, the conditions almost always are perfect with the winter sun glistening off the crystal-clear San Gabriel mountains. Extended forecasts call for rain much of the week in Southern California before giving way to another sun-splashed kickoff.
For now, Utah's best accomplishment is beating Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl to culminate an undefeated season. But there's greater traction to winning the Rose Bowl as a Pac-12 team than going undefeated in the Mountain West.
In that era, Alabama under Nick Saban was more one dimensional on offense with a heavy emphasis on the run. With future NFL star Julio Junes at receiver, quarterback John Parker Wilson threw for only 2,243 yards with a completion rate of 57.9%.
This season, Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young passed for 4,322 yards and completed 68% of his throws. The Crimson Tide had a runner exceed 1,000 yards in the 2008 season, as they did this year, but had no receiver go over 1,000 yards compared to two receivers who did it this year.
Ohio State's offense this season is more dynamic than the Alabama team Utah beat in New Orleans. The Buckeyes still have a 1,000-yard rusher (Treveyon Henderson) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Jaxon Smith-Njigba), but losing Wilson and Olave is a huge disadvantage.