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Commentary: Date in the Desert

The Horns aren’t in the national championship game, but Inside Texas’ Mike Blackwell expresses his relief that, if Texas is playing anyone, it’s the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Two years ago, my daughter Abbie and I attended a birthday party for a friend on Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake), and part of the festivities included peddling on the water in a big goofy “boat” shaped like a swan. Yes, you do strange things when you have kids.

After an hour or so, we “docked” the swan at a location near the Hyatt Regency, and decided to walk into the hotel and hit the restroom before heading home. It was the Friday night before Texas would host Ohio State in Austin, and the Buckeyes were staying in the Hyatt.

As we walked toward the hotel, I told Abbie that Ohio State was here, and that we might get to see some football players. Sure enough, there were Buckeyes and Buckeyes’ fans everywhere in the lobby. I told Abbie I’d meet her right outside the restroom doors in a couple of minutes.

When I emerged, Abbie was having a conversation with an Ohio State player in the lobby. Her back was to me, and the player was smiling and looking down at her, but he wasn’t saying anything. Abbie – then 7 – was doing all of the talking. Shy she is not.

As I approached them, it was obvious that she was talking to Troy Smith, the outstanding Buckeye quarterback. I shook his hand and said, “Well, you’ve already met Abbie…”

Smith said, “Yep, she just said ‘hi’ when I walked by, and asked me if I was a football player. She said Vince Young was her favorite football player, and I told her I can understand why.”

I wished him good luck and said, “I hope you enjoy Austin. Take it easy on us tomorrow.” Smith replied, “Thank you…bye, Abbie.”

The encounter made the loss the next night a little more palatable. Smith carved the Texas defense with precision and ruined the first big game of Colt McCoy’s career. Prior to the brief exchange with Smith, I hadn’t felt strongly about the Buckeyes one way or another. When I was a kid, I always rooted for Michigan in the storied Michigan-Ohio State series simply because the Wolverines had much cooler helmets.

Since the Smith encounter, though, I’ve been much more of an Ohio State fan. At the risk of sounding like my dad, they play regular, old-school football. Run the ball, stop the run, don’t screw up the kicking game. This season I’ve grown weary of the spread offenses, the quarterback rushing to the line of scrimmage, then standing behind his line waiting for the call to be flashed to him. After getting the call, the signal caller then walks up and down behind his line, barking orders. Being slowly drained of your blood has to be much like watching 20 seconds of this prior to each and every snap. Finally, mercifully, the ball is snapped.

Perhaps I’m bitter with the knowledge that I should be happier that the Longhorns are 11-1 and headed to a BCS bowl game against the Buckeyes. Prior to the season, I would’ve gladly accepted this fate. Circumstances change, though, along with expectations. So Texas now sits 11-1 with a fan base that is equal parts angry and disappointed.

Luckily, there is more than a month for Texas and Texas fans to emerge from their funk. For Mack Brown and his team, they’ll be able to emerge more quickly because they will be forced to accept their fate. Brown and Will Muschamp and the rest of the coaches will not allow them to wallow, and the players are young and resilient. I suspect the players are already much further along in this “recovery” stage than fans.

Which brings us to this: Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl could prove to be a perfect salve for Texas’ wounds. As a fan, I’m drained from facing teams the Longhorns despise: Oklahoma, Texas A&M and, yes, Texas Tech. Hate, after all, is unhealthy. Mix in huge games this year with Missouri and Oklahoma State – and the added pressure that comes with a top-ranked team – and you have a year that was both exhilarating an exhausting for fans.

In Ohio State, the Longhorns are facing a team that is among the elite in the country. It’s a team a mother – and a 7-year-old daughter – can love. There is no hate here, and not even dislike. Texas fans can spend the next month recovering, and frankly, a month might not be long enough to get over the blow struck by the BCS and the Big 12 that allows OU to play for the national championship. And there’s something also comforting about Las Vegas making Texas an early 10-point favorite against the Buckeyes. Expect that number to fall between now and Jan. 5.

No one will have to expend any energy hating the upcoming opponent for the next five weeks. You don’t have to worry about the other team flooding the field with fans…three times. You don’t have to fret that the other team will go for it on 4th and 4 from their own 31 yard-line. You don’t have to wonder if the other team’s quarterback is going to woof at your defensive back when his team is trailing by three touchdowns. And if you play like dogs and are getting blown out in the fourth period, you don’t have to wonder if the other team’s coach will keep piling up the points with his first stringers. Some do. He won’t.

In short, now the next five weeks can just be about football. Luckily for all involved, the BCS gods have spoken for the last time this season. With a win, Texas will likely be ranked number two at the end of the season. Lose to the Buckeyes, and Texas is unlikely to fall out of the top 10.

So use the next five weeks wisely and recharge your football batteries. Exhale. Maybe you can find a ticket to the game and lock down a hotel room in the desert. Glance at next year’s schedule just to kill time. Hang your Christmas lights. Talk to your wife. Talk to your husband. Talk to yourself. Give the dog a bath. And if you go to Phoenix and bump into Terrelle Pryor, wish him good luck, and tell him that a sportswriter and his daughter say hello.