NEW ORLEANS -- Buckeyes, beware.
Before No. 3 Ohio State figures out what must happen to win a share of the national championship, perhaps it should consider what awaits Friday night in the Sugar Bowl.
Texas A&M (11-2), which once had a reputation of not being able to win the big one, has become very good lately at derailing other teams' national title aspirations -- first previously undefeated Nebraska, then Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship.
"We were supposed to lose to Nebraska by three touchdowns, to Kansas State by three touchdowns," Aggies strong safety Rich Coady said. "We will not be in shock playing Ohio State."
Even more daunting for the Buckeyes (11-1) is their own bowl record -- 2-7 under coach John Cooper -- and the fact it has been 16 years since they beat Michigan and won a bowl game in the same season, and 30 years since they beat Michigan and then won New Year's Day bowl game.
"I didn't know it's been that long," Cooper said Wednesday. "Any time you have a losing record in anything you're bothered by it."
Then there's the Kansas State factor.
The Wildcats, brooding over being left out of a major bowl after the overtime loss to the eighth-ranked Aggies, went through the motions Tuesday night in a 37-34 loss to unranked Purdue in the Alamo Bowl.
Ohio State is not exactly thrilled to be in the Big Easy for the second straight year. The Buckeyes want to know why Florida State, which also has one loss, was ranked higher and given the shot at No. 1 Tennessee in next week's Fiesta Bowl.
"In this current system, someone is always going to get shafted," left tackle Tyson Walter said. "I'm a 20-year-old kid, and I can't do anything except sit here with you guys and gripe, and make my coaches angry because I'm doing it."
Still, the Buckeyes are 12-point favorites, and it's easy to see why. They won all 10 of their games by at least two touchdowns and were sixth in the country in offense at 503.5 yards a game. The defense was ranked No. 2 in the country and features one of the best linebackers in Andy Katzenmoyer and the Thorpe Award winner in cornerback Antoine Winfield.
"You can make every argument this team is as fine a team as any in college football this year," Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum said. "The numbers back that up."
For Ohio State to salvage a split of the national title, the numbers that matter most will be on the scoreboard.
The coaches already have agreed that the winner of the Fiesta Bowl will be their national champion. The Buckeyes' only hope is for No. 2 Florida State to look bad but still beat Tennessee, and for Ohio State to blow the Aggies through the roof of the Superdome.
"Obviously, we would like to be as impressive as we can," Cooper said. "I think it's going to be a close game, a hard-fought game. Certainly, we'll try to score as many points as we can. When it's over, I hope you vote for the most impressive team."
Of course, the Buckeyes could have avoided this mess by beating Michigan State at home in their ninth game of the season. Ohio State was up 24-9 midway through the third quarter before it watched another perfect season go down the drain against a team from Michigan.
Asked if Purdue's victory in the Alamo Bowl was any kind of a wakeup call for the Buckeyes to stay focused against a team they're favored to beat, backup tailback Joe Montgomery replied, "We already know that. Remember the Michigan State game?"
Still, the Buckeyes say that game is no longer an issue. Cornerback Ahmed Plummer says the only time he thinks about Michigan State is "when I see an advertisement about Tennessee or the Fiesta Bowl."
The big concern this week is Aggies quarterback Branndon Stewart, who threw for 324 yards and three TDs in the 36-33 victory over Kansas State, and linebacker Dat Nguyen, the Butkus Award winner.
Texas A&M will be playing a top-5 team for the sixth time in 16 games, dating to the Big 12 game a year ago. Along with beating Kansas State and Nebraska this year, the Aggies gave Florida State a scare in the Kickoff Classic.
"We've proved all we have to prove," Stewart said. "All we have to do is go out and win the games. And that's what we've done."
For the Buckeyes, the task is not only to win, but win big. And as they have shown of late, even winning at all on New Year's Day is no guarantee.
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