By Todd Jones
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A victory bell's chimes rang from the southeast corner of ancient Ohio Stadium. The sound cut through a late afternoon sky so appropriately grey it seemed specially ordered by a mythical curator of the football series between Ohio State and Michigan.
Thousands of delirious Ohio State fans were swarming on the field, swaying in a tribal victory dance that had erupted when the hated Wolverines from That School Up North were sent home choking on a bile of bitter defeat.
All heaven had broken loose in Ohio, for the Buckeyes had not only defeated Michigan 26-21, they had become only the sixth team in Ohio State's 123 years of football to finish a season unbeaten and untied.
Amid the glorious sights and sounds capping an unexpected 12-0 season for the Buckeyes arose a thought that must terrorize the rest of the Big Ten: What kind of hell will Urban Meyer unleash upon the league now?
Ohio State's first-year coach has already proven to be the Alpha Dog in a Big Ten slogging through a horrendous season that was torpedoed in the first month by widespread ineptitude during non-conference play. Good luck naming a signature Big Ten win in 2012. Ten of its 12 teams have at least three losses.
Meyer won two national championships at Florida before burning out with a health crisis, re-charged in a year of self-imposed exile from coaching, inherited a 6-7 team scarred by scandal, and transformed a beleaguered bunch into the school's first perfect record since the Buckeyes won the 2002 national title.
"Wait until he gets his guys in here and does what he wants to do," said Jim Lachey, a former Ohio State and NFL lineman who serves as a radio color commentator for Buckeyes games.
Meyer must be salivating for the future in a league that hasn't won a national championship in 10 years, hasn't had a Heisman Trophy winner in six years and hasn't produced a quarterback (with apologies to Tom Brady) selected in the first round of the NFL draft since 1995.
You think Meyer is worried about Maryland and Rutgers joining the Big Ten, which had no team in the top 13 of the Bowl Championship Series rankings (probation-strapped Ohio State is ineligible) heading into Saturday?
The coach with a vampire's lust for blood has already blasted through the league's current makeup with a perfect 8-0 conference record, led by a quarterback in Braxton Miller who is on the fringe of Heisman talk as a sophomore.
Ohio State, ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, won in overtime at Wisconsin a week earlier and whipped Nebraska 63-38 last month. Now the Buckeyes, ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA sanctions, must watch the vanquished Badgers and Cornhuskers play in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis next Saturday as representatives of the Leaders and Legends divisions.
"I feel like we should be there, so I'm probably not going to watch it," said Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde, who plowed through Michigan for 146 yards on 26 carries.
Ohio State, champions of the Big Ten's Leaders Division, will be remembered as a flawed team -- two of its victories came in overtime and another by one point -- in a town that recalls past seasons with religious ferocity. The unshakeable devotion to the past made for an odd moment Saturday when the first quarter of play ended in the 109th meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
On cue, as planned, members of Ohio State's 2002 national championship team walked arm-in-arm onto the field's north end to receive a salute from the Ohio Stadium crowd of 105,988 -- the largest crowd to ever see Ohio State play Michigan in Columbus.
Among the honorees was the coach of that 2002 team, the very man whose program erupted in scandal two years ago, causing the NCAA sanctions that meant the current Buckeyes' season ended prematurely.
Jim Tressel, cloaked in an Ohio State jacket, was lifted up by his former players.
The fans cheered for the coach who was forced out under pressure in May 2011 after he lied to the NCAA during an investigation into players receiving impermissible benefits, including trading merchandise for tattoos.
Forgiveness sounded like the roar of 100,000-plus.
"Thank you, Coach Tress," a fan's sign read in the frigid 90-year-old stadium.
Hours later, the past collided hard with the frustrating present for Ohio State's current players.
"That was our championship," Hyde said after beating Michigan. "It feels great, but I believe we deserve to be (ranked) No. 1."
Hyde, at least, has another season of eligibility. There were 21 seniors for Ohio State who had to accept Saturday as the end of their careers, although even they found extra satisfaction in knowing they had righted a program that fell into disarray last year under interim coach Luke Fickell, now the team's co-defensive coordinator.
"We've set the bar pretty high," said senior receiver Jake Stoneburner. "Coach Meyer has got a great head start. We got the ball rolling for them. Who doesn't want to come here now? The Buckeyes are undefeated. We're back. Coach Meyer couldn't have started any better foundation."
Meyer credits those seniors for helping him tie Carroll Widdoes -- who won his first 12 games in 1943 and 1944 -- for the best start by a coach in Ohio State history.
Those seniors provided the leadership and toughness demanded by Meyer, and those attributes covered up the team's poor tackling, sputtering passing game, and occasional special-teams blunders.
Defensive lineman John Simon set the tone with his maniacal work ethic and selflessness.
"The heart and soul of who we are as the 2012 football team is John Simon," Meyer said.
Yet Simon didn't play a down against Michigan. He suffered a right knee injury a week earlier in a 21-14 win at Wisconsin. Despite rehabilitation efforts, Simon had to watch the game out of uniform after walking in during senior pre-game introductions to an on-field hug from Meyer.
The absence of Simon didn't show in the second half when Ohio State shut out the Wolverines, who juggled senior Denard Robinson and junior Devin Gardner at quarterback all day, after trailing the visitors 21-20 at the half.
Michigan suffered three of its four turnovers and totaled only 60 total yards of offense in the second half against a defense spearheaded by senior Zach Boren, who had moved from fullback over to linebacker during the season's seventh week.
Boren, a Columbus native whose father, Mike, ranks second all-time in tackles at Michigan, led the Buckeyes in tackles with nine. The five Buckeyes who finished behind Boren with the next highest total of tackles all return next season.
So, of course, does Miller, who completed 14 of 18 passes for 189 yards and one touchdown against the nation's No. 1-ranked passing defense. He also ran for 57 yards. Miller ended his sophomore season with an Ohio State-record 3,310 total yards of offense.
Hyde, a load at 6-feet and 235 pounds, also returns next year after missing two games with injuries but still bashing his way to 970 yards on the ground in 10 games.
"Carlos Hyde is developing into one of the best backs in the nation," Meyer said. "He's a powerful guy."
Ohio State also returns junior wide receiver Corey Brown, who caught eight passes for a career-high 95 yards and one score against Michigan. Still, more is expected from an offense that won despite scoring only six points in the second half and had to rely on four field goals by junior kicker Drew Basil.
"We're not where we want to be offensively," Meyer said. "We will, and with a lot of hard work. I don't want to get into that now, but we'll be where we need to be soon."
Spoken by the new coach who just led Ohio State to its ninth victory in the past 11 meetings with Michigan. The coach who had a host of recruits in Ohio Stadium to see the Buckeyes whip the Wolverines again. The coach who has won everywhere in his previous 10 seasons at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green.
"We start a new journey, but our foundation is really strong," Meyer said.
The rest of the Big Ten might want to take cover. Perfection looks to be only the beginning in Columbus.
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Todd Jones is a senior reporter for the Columbus Dispatch.