Six Keys For An Ohio State Title Run

So many things go into a championship season. The ball must bounce your way more often than not, you have to avoid major injuries to key personnel, and you have to have some help. Even if you take care of your own business, sometimes that’s not enough to get you into the national championship game (see: Auburn, circa 2004).

In just about 24 hours, Ohio State begins its quest for a third consecutive appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. Since college football switched from the Bowl Coalition to the Bowl Alliance and finally to the current Bowl Championship Series, only one other team has gone to the title game three straight times. Florida State played in the game following the 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons, winning only the 2000 Sugar Bowl with a 46-29 win over Virginia Tech.

Two years ago, the Buckeyes didn’t need anyone’s help to get to the title game – they were the only undefeated team from a BCS conference. Last year was a different story. After losing to Illinois in its next-to-last game of the season, OSU fell to No.7 in the polls. Three weeks later, the Buckeyes were No. 1 and headed to New Orleans.

Whether or not they will be in North Miami at Dolphin Stadium next January is anyone’s guess. They certainly appear to be one of the favorites, and they certainly appear to be one of the strongest teams – from the top of the roster to the bottom – that Jim Tressel has had since he arrived in Columbus.

There are virtually thousands of components for Ohio State this season if it is to make another run at the national championship, but I have narrowed that list down to just six. IMHO, these half-dozen pieces of the puzzle will be the key factors toward determining whether the Buckeyes can finally bring home the crystal football or spend another offseason filled with “what-ifs.”

1. Boeckman’s Relaxation – If Ohio State is to accomplish its goals this season, it must get a great deal of leadership from its senior quarterback. In public settings, Todd Boeckman is about as bland as they come. Not so in the huddle, at least according to his teammates, and Boeckman must continually be ready to lead vocally as well as by example.

Two years ago, the Buckeyes fell into place as an offense because Troy Smith took the team by the hand and led it where it needed to go. When he took his eye off the ball between the end of the regular season and the bowl game against Florida, you know what happened.

Boeckman is now in his sixth year in the program and his second as a starter. He has been a quarterback almost from the time he could walk. He doesn’t need to think about his mechanics or his footwork or about how many snaps Terrelle Pryor is going to get. Boeckman needs to relax and let things flow. If he can do that, the problems that occurred at the end of last season will all disappear.

2. Crucial O-Line Play – Boeckman took the brunt of the criticism for the loss to LSU, and it is true that he sometimes held the ball too long waiting for receivers to come open. But if their quarterback is to be as successful as he was for the first nine games of last season, the offensive line simply must play up to its potential. It not only has to give Boeckman time to throw, it has to make him feel so comfortable in the pocket that he never wants to leave it.

For seniors like Alex Boone, Steve Rehring and Ben Person, there simply can be no excuses this year. Every opposing defensive coordinator on Ohio State’s schedule has film of Florida whipping the Buckeyes at the point of attack, and every one of them believes they can perfect that game plan.

The simple truth is this: If Ohio State’s offensive line plays to its capabilities on Sept. 13 at USC, the Buckeyes will win that game. If it doesn’t, it will likely be time to reassess the team’s goals for 2008.

3. More Interior Production – During any title run, there is always going to be that close game – the one that could go either way and comes down to who wants it more. Last year, that game was against Illinois, and in the fourth quarter, Ohio State’s vaunted defense simply couldn’t get the Illini offense off the field.

Obviously, there was plenty of blame to go around in that particular instance, but it underscored a problem the OSU defense has had for the past several years. The interior linemen – defensive tackles, if you will – have to be more active this year.

Last season, the foursome of Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Nader Abdallah and Dexter Larimore combined for just 72 tackles and five sacks. Even in the Buckeyes’ defensive scheme where tackles are sacrificed at the line so that linebackers and safeties can clean things up, those are abnormally low numbers. They need to increase those totals by at least 25 percent this season.

4. Better Execution – It’s pretty difficult to criticize a unit that has finished at or near the top of college football in nearly every defensive category for the last several years. Yet, there were glaring deficiencies last season, most of which can only be characterized as lapses in concentration.

How many potential interceptions hit OSU defenders squarely in the hands only to fall harmlessly to the ground? A dozen? Two dozen? More? It was astounding last season that a team so gifted could come up with only 11 interceptions in 13 games – and none of those were from a safety.

Also, it’s hard to fathom a defense so stout that tackles so poorly. When is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender wrap up an opposing ball-carrier and stop him in his tracks? Now, when is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender lower his shoulder in an attempt to make a big hit and bounce off an opponent? If a championship is truly going to be in the cards, there needs to be much more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

5. Special Teams Had Better Be – Tressel has always had a reputation for being a coach who pays more than his share of attention to special teams. If that is true, he must have been sorely disappointed at what transpired last year.

With the exception of Brian Hartline’s record-setting 90-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Buckeyes’ return game was practically non-existent. The team’s kickoff return average was a paltry 17.6 yards. And that average was compiled in a season when college football moved kickoffs back in order to breathe new life into the return game.

Meanwhile, whatever happened on the field-goal team had better get corrected. Four blocked field goals are simply unacceptable. Blocked kicks are killers, and if you don’t believe it, replay the LSU game beginning about midway through the second quarter.

6. Think Outside The Box – My final key is reserved for Tressel and his coaching staff. There is always something to be said for a conservative, straight-up approach to the game of football. I secretly suspect that every coach deep inside would prefer to win the same way the Buckeyes beat Michigan last year – 59 running plays, only 13 passes and a smothering defense that allowed less than 100 total yards.

That kind of game can still win a majority of football games, especially in the Big Ten. This year, Ohio State could easily give the ball to Beanie Wells 30 or more times and chalk up easy victories over the majority of its opponents.

But to win the national championship, there has to be something more. It’s not enough to recruit talent. Once you amass that talent, you have to devise ways to best utilize it. You have to be innovative, you have to go against convention, you have to think outside the box.

Fair or not, some of the criticism for losses in the last two BCS National Championships has been directed at the game plan – both offensively and defensively. Two years ago, Florida head coach Urban Meyer as much as said his team knew what was coming. Last year, LSU boss Les Miles intimated the same thing.

I’m not suggesting Tressel take his playbook to the shredder. Likewise, I don’t think it’s wise to go completely away from your comfort zone. But for heaven’s sake, why not go vertical down the middle of the field to the tight end? Why call for a play fake to the fullback when an OSU fullback hasn’t carried the ball regularly in years? Why not constantly change defensive alignments? Why not put nine men in the box when it is clear the opposing team is going to run the ball? Why take your foot off the gas in most games and risk not being able to develop a killer instinct?

These are only questions and I realize that Tressel has 208 more career victories (not to mention five more national championships) than I have. What gives me the right to criticize?

It’s just that Ohio State has one of the most talented teams it has had in recent memory. It would be a shame if in 2008 all of that talent wasn’t brought to bear on each and every opponent on each and every down of each and every game.

BULLET BOB’S BIRTHDAY

Today would have been Bob Ferguson’s 69th birthday, and if you ever wondered where legendary Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes came up with his famous “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense, look no further that “Bullet Bob.”

Beginning in 1959, Ferguson started chewing up chunks of yardage for the Buckeyes and didn’t stop until the team had bludgeoned Michigan and earned a share of the national championship during his senior year.

Born Aug. 29, 1939, in Columbus, Robert Eugene Ferguson moved with his family to Troy, Ohio, when he was a youngster and became a high school star at Troy High School, earning prep All-American honors for the Trojans. In fact, he set what were then national high school records with 5,521 yards rushing and 578 points scored.

When it came time to select a college, longtime Michigan head coach Bennie Oosterbaan thought he had a shot at landing Ferguson, but the fullback wanted nothing more than to return to his original hometown and play for Ohio State.

The Buckeyes were coming off their national championship season in 1957 and Hayes desperately wanted another powerful fullback to follow in the footsteps of Galen Cisco and Bob White.

After spending his first collegiate season on the freshman team, Ferguson immediately stepped in the starting lineup as a sophomore in ’59 and held down a position in the OSU backfield for each of the next three seasons.

During his first year with the varsity, the Buckeyes were decimated by graduation and injuries to upperclassmen and they sank to a 3-5-1 record, good enough only for a tie for eighth in the Big Ten. Playing linebacker on defense and left halfback on offense, the 6-0, 217-pound Ferguson had modest numbers with 371 yards, but averaged better than 6.0 yards per carry.

The following season, OSU rebounded to go 7-2 and rose to third place in the conference. Ferguson was a big reason for that, moving exclusively to the fullback spot and carrying 160 times for 853 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Although the Buckeyes were known for a grind-it-out offense behind Ferguson, he also exhibited excellent speed, breaking off four different runs of 50 yards or more during the season. As a result, he was a unanimous first-team All-America selection.

In 1961, the Buckeyes came all the way back. After being surprised by Texas Christian in the season opener with a 7-7 tie, Ohio State steamrolled over eight opponents in a row and averaged better than 30 points per game during that streak. The season was capped with a 50-20 rout of Michigan during which Ferguson scored four times.

The game was still close heading into the fourth quarter with OSU holding a 28-12 advantage. But Ferguson scored on a 1-yard run, an interception led to another score and a punt return by Paul Warfield set up Ferguson’s final touchdown. Then the Buckeyes went for a two-point conversion to make the score an even 50.

Later, Hayes explained that he wanted to give longtime equipment manager Ernie Godfrey a present because he was celebrating his 50th birthday that year. But years later, when the coach was quizzed about why he went for two, he simply replied, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

“Man, he wanted to take it to them,” Ferguson told Buckeye Sports Bulletin in 1996. “Woody never liked Michigan. He respected them, but he didn’t like them. If he could really beat them bad, he’d do it.”

The Buckeyes finished their season at 8-0-1 and earned the right to represent the Big Ten at the Rose Bowl. But the OSU Faculty Council, fearing that athletics was overtaking academics on the campus, voted to deny the Buckeyes a trip to Pasadena. It was a bitter pill for players on the 1961 team to take, one they continued to struggle with well after their playing days were over.

“The whole team was hurt,” Ferguson said. “The administration voted not to send us and we had to live with it. That was probably the one regret that I had – not ever getting to play in a Rose Bowl.”

The Buckeyes had to be content with the Football Writers Association of America’s national championship for ’61. Ferguson finished his career with 2,162 yards and 26 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry for his career. He was also extremely reliable, carrying 423 times and losing yardage on only one of those carries.

Ferguson was dealt another disappointment following his senior season. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting to Syracuse running back Ernie Davis even though Davis had 115 yards less than Ferguson while playing in an extra game for the Orangemen, who finished 8-3 and ranked No. 14.

Davis won the Heisman by just 53 points, edging Ferguson 824-771. It remains one of the closest votes in Heisman history.

Despite the Heisman loss, Ferguson did win his second straight unanimous selection to the All-America team.

Following his college career, Ferguson was a first-round selection in both the 1962 NFL and AFL drafts. San Diego offered more money, but he decided to stay with the more established NFL and signed with Pittsburgh. He spent two seasons there backing up Steelers legendary running back John Henry Johnson, then was traded during the 1963 season to Minnesota. Unfortunately, a chronic knee injury ended his career prematurely.

Ferguson returned to Ohio State and obtained a Master’s degree in sociology. He worked for Westinghouse for several years and then took a job with the Columbus Parks and Recreation Department.

He was inducted into the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987, then received the ultimate honor when he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

Ferguson was slowed by a stroke in 1993, but remained a fixture at many Ohio State football games until his death in December 2004 at the age of 65.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Also celebrating birthdays today: Oscar-winning director Sir Richard Attenborough (“Ghandi”); Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (“The French Connection”); film director Joel Schumacher (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Batman Forever,” “Phone Booth,” “The Number 23”); actor Elliott Gould; actress Rebecca De Mornay; TV host and habitual loud talker Robin Leach; former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin; Olympic gold medal long jumper Bob Beamon; two-time 100-meter Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus; six-time Triple Crown race winning jockey Jerry Bailey; former NFL linebacker Carl Banks; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms; New Orleans Hornets forward David West; San Francisco Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand; Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt; the inimitable King of Pop himself Michael Jackson; and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United State.

AND FINALLY

** The Nate Costa era will have to wait another year before it begins at Oregon. Costa, the sophomore quarterback who was the heir apparent to Dennis Dixon, will miss the entire 2008 season with torn knee ligaments. Costa also missed the entire 2007 season with a knee injury. Justin Roper will start Saturday night for Oregon in its opener against Washington at Autzen Stadium.

** Put Utah into the same category as Fresno State and Troy – the Utes will play anyone at any time. Utah agreed to forgo the usual home-and-home contract with Michigan so that the Mountain West Conference team will get more exposure, and it did the same with Notre Dame, agreeing to play the Irish in South Bend in 2010. Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor marks the fifth straight season the Utes have opened their season against a team from a BCS conference, and they are 2-2 in the previous four.

** If you were friends with Jason Kidd, you could the proud owner of his Olympic gold medal from Beijing. Seems that Kidd and his family had a marvelous time recently at the Wynn resort in Las Vegas – so much so that Kidd promised to give his gold medal to the wife of hotel mogul Steve Wynn. As if she couldn’t buy one herself.

** According to BaseballReference.com, one of my favorite websites, Major League Baseball is only about 300 home runs away from 250,000 in its long history. Did you know that the 24 players who have hit 500 homers or more in their careers have combined for just over 5.5 percent of that overall total?

** Remember how watching the Skins Game used to be a Thanksgiving holiday weekend tradition? This year’s lineup for the Nov. 29-30 event features Phil Mickelson, K.J. Choi, Rocco Mediate and two-time defending champion (yes, that’s right … I said two-time defending champion) Stephen Ames. Stifle the yawning as best you can.

** Remember back when Fantasy Football was cool? That was before the boss, your girlfriend’s hair stylist and the kid who serves up the lattes down at the local coffee house started getting involved. My brother-in-law recently pumped me for information about former Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall and how he may be his sleeper pick in this year’s draft. I have another friend who is so cash-strapped that he postdates checks to pay for his weekly moves. Even mainstream publications like Sports Illustrated and Sporting News employ fantasy writers. When did this nice little diversion go so far off the track?

Time For Ohio State To Prove It’s The Best

I’m not usually in the habit of posting my columns from Buckeye Sports Bulletin here on my blog. However, I have received several emails asking me to reprint the column I wrote for our Football Preview issue.

Evidently, people liked it and wanted me to share with those who may not have seen it. Here it is:

Dear Buckeyes,

This is an open letter to you and your coaching staff, one that I would think many members of the Buckeye Nation would write if they had the opportunity.

It will not be a love letter, however. It will contain the cold, hard truth and hopefully you can use it as some small piece of motivation for the upcoming 2008 season.

Most of the college football world has reduced Ohio State football to something of a water cooler joke. As difficult as it may seem for a program that has won 32 of its last 35 regular-season games, taken home three Big Ten championship trophies in a row and reached back-to-back BCS National Championship Games, much of the nation at large is laughing at you.

You are seen as big, lumbering plowboys whose coaching staff doesn’t have the first clue about how to stop spread offenses or speedy teams from the South.

Is that fair? Absolutely not. The truth of the matter is that it is incredibly unfair.

However, in this day and age of instant gratification where the lines are so blurred between perception and reality that they are often interchangeable, the reality is that you have lost back-to-back title games and didn’t look very good either time.

Therefore, the national perception is that what you have accomplished over the past couple of years is nothing more than a fluke and anything less than an undefeated Ohio State team in 2008 is undeserving of another chance to play for the national championship.

It seems to me, therefore, that you have one option and one option only – you need to win all of your games this year.

I know that task is much easier said than done. In the entire history of Ohio State football, there have been but five teams to make it through an entire season without a loss or tie, and there have been only two in the last 40 years.

Consider, however, the alternative of anything less than perfection. There are thousands upon thousands of former Buckeyes who won more than their share of games during their careers. There are only a select few, however, who earned the right to be called national champions. It’s a life-altering experience that money can’t buy.

And I’m not talking about momentary glory. I’m talking about the pride you will carry until the day you take your last breath. I’m talking about the special place where you will reside – not only today but for all time – in the hearts of fans of the scarlet and gray.

By all rights, you should be the latest team in an ongoing Ohio State football dynasty. You should be embarking upon a season for the ages. You should be playing for college football immortality. You should be playing for the school’s fifth national championship in seven years.

No one who witnessed the wild championship ride in 2002 would dispute the fact that the Buckeyes of that season overachieved themselves into a national title. Talent-wise, that team couldn’t hold a candle to you. Somehow, though, they kept finding ways to win. Maybe it was because they weren’t supposed to. The point is that they did.

The following year could have been just as magical had it not been for the Maurice Clarett circus and all of the anguish it caused the program. With a healthy and clear-headed Clarett in 2003, there is no doubt in my mind that OSU would have made a run at back-to-back national championships. Even with all of the turmoil on and off the field, the Buckeyes lost only twice – to Wisconsin and Michigan – and both times because they couldn’t muster any kind of running attack. The Badgers held them to 69 yards in a 17-10 loss at Madison, and they managed only 54 on the ground in a 35-21 loss at Ann Arbor.

I will concede that neither 2004 nor 2005 had national championship potential. But you cannot convince me that your team couldn’t have and shouldn’t have won the title in the 2006 and ’07 seasons, campaigns that were totally different in terms of personnel but remarkably similar when it came to wins and losses.

Many of you were around in 2006 when the team featured some of the most explosive players in the history of the program. Yet, somehow, some way, when it came time to step on college football’s biggest stage, the team played like some sixth-place finisher from a mid-major conference. If anyone who participated in that lame performance is not ashamed of himself, perhaps organized athletics is not your calling.

I watched Ohio State play every game of that 2006 season and I also had a pretty good working knowledge of the Florida team it played that night in Arizona. Even knowing what I know now, I would have a tough time picking the Gators to win that game if the teams were matched against one another again next week.

To be perfectly blunt, that game should have been a victory for you, that season should have ended with a national championship, and the fact that it didn’t still leaves the sourest of tastes some 20 months later.

That 2006 team was seemingly invincible but evidently didn’t have the will to finish what would have been a season Buckeye fans would have continued talking about for decades.

Then there is last season. Most of you guys who made up the nucleus of that team overachieved your way to the national championship game – much like the 2002 squad did. As the victories began to pile up, most people quickly forgot all the dark clouds that hung over the program this time last year. No one knew how you were going to replace a Heisman Trophy quarterback, two receivers that were first-round NFL draft picks, a 1,000-yard rusher and eight other starters.

Also, that schedule the so-called experts enjoyed bashing later on didn’t seem so easy at the start of the season. You had potential landmines including a road test at Washington, a dangerous team that had beaten OSU each of the previous two times the Buckeyes had visited Husky Stadium.

The Big Ten schedule-makers didn’t do you any favors, either. They had given you back-to-back road assignments beginning in late September with contests at Minnesota and Purdue, and heaped on the added task of making both of those games night-time affairs. You also had to make a trip to Penn State for another prime-time game under the lights, knowing full well that Happy Valley was the site of a 17-10 loss in 2005 that ended any hopes of your rematch with Texas in the national championship game that season.

And there was the season finale in Ann Arbor against a team with a bunch of talented seniors who wanted nothing more than to beat you in the final game of their careers at Michigan Stadium.

Yet with the one hiccup at home against Illinois, you found yourselves in the championship game again, this time against a two-loss LSU team whose defense had been exposed by the likes of Kentucky and Arkansas. Those were the same Kentucky and Arkansas teams that finished last year with five losses apiece.

You all seemed to talk a good game before the title contest – the requisite indignation about the criticism-filled DVD compiled by the coaching staff, staying away from the party scene on Bourbon Street and insisting that going to New Orleans was nothing but a business trip.

Then adversity popped you in the mouth in the first half and LSU somehow managed to score 31 points in a row against a defense that hadn’t allowed more than 28 points in any of its previous games. Not that the offense was much help. While the Tigers were piling up all of those points, the offense was stuck in neutral. And I haven’t forgotten special teams. A blocked field goal and a roughing penalty on an LSU punt just poured gas on the fire.

The rest, as they say, is history and there is nothing you can do about it now. The only thing that remains within your control is your future, and despite what the babbling bobble heads on ESPN may say, your future is an extremely bright one.

No team in college football in 2008 has more talent than you. No team has more experience than you. No team has more returning starters than you. No team has more candidates for postseason awards than you. And no team has the chance to make more history than you.

I know that you have already made the sacrifices necessary to go for a national championship. I know about the countless hours in the weight room since late January, the gallons of sweat you’ve spent on the practice field during 7-on-7 drills this summer, the hours upon hours of film study.

But listen up, guys. Every young man who plays major college football makes those sacrifices. Those things alone don’t make national champions. You have to want it. You can’t just talk about wanting it. You have to want it – you have to want it so deep within your bone marrow that you’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to get it.

If you don’t want it that badly, you can resign yourself to personal glory and soothe yourself with a nice, fat NFL contract next year. After all, only one of Ohio State’s six Heisman Trophy winners ever won a national championship ring. Most of them came close, of course, but no one gets a trophy for getting close.

If you want it – truly want it – go out and get it. No team on your schedule – not even supposedly mighty USC – is as good as you are.

On paper, you are the best team in college football. All you have to do is go out and prove it.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to Don Grate, a star on the OSU basketball and baseball teams during the mid-1940s. Born Aug. 27, 1923, in Greenfield, Ohio, Grate was a two-time All-Big Ten performer in basketball and earned All-America honors in 1945. On the diamond, Grate was a storm-armed pitcher who logged 95 strikeouts in 89 career innings. Nicknamed “Buckeye,” Grate later appeared in seven games over two seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945 and ’46, and played two games in the NBA with the Sheboygan Redskins during the 1949-50 season. Grate also holds the world record for longest throw of a baseball – an incredible 445 feet, 1 inch, accomplished in August 1953.

Also celebrating birthdays today: keyboardist Daryl Dragon (the Captain half of Seventies hitmakers The Captain & Tennille); former Bond girl Barbara Bach (and Mrs. Ringo Starr); veteran character actor G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Rizzo on “M*A*S*H,” Lt. Harris in the “Police Academy” movies, and currently Detective Lt. Provenza on “The Closer”); Alabama guitarist and fiddle player Jeff Cook; former MLB third baseman and manager Buddy Bell; Texas football coach Mack Brown; actor Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman); tennis player John Lloyd (and ex-Mr. Chris Evert); two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer; actress Chandra Wilson (Dr. Miranda Bailey on “Grey’s Anatomy”); No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal; rapper Mase (born Mason Durrell Betha); Chicago White Sox slugger Jim Thome; and Olympic gold medal skier Jonny Moseley.

Today also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, born Aug. 27, 1908, near Stonewall, Texas, on the Perdernales River.

AND FINALLY

** Despite what you have heard, the NCAA has not ruled against Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk in his quest for a sixth year of eligibility. Mauk is going to get to plead his own case to the NCAA committee on Thursday, but when the governing body will rule is anyone’s guess. Even if he is granted a sixth season, it will be difficult for Mauk to be of much use to UC right away. He hasn’t been allowed to practice with the Bearcats, who open their season Thursday night against Eastern Kentucky.

** Jack Nicklaus believes that the U.S. will regain the Ryder Cup this year even without Tiger Woods. Quoted in the September issue of Golf Digest, Nicklaus said, “Tiger won’t be playing in the matches this year, of course. If he were, I’d consider the Americans big favorites. I still think they’ll win. I just believe we have better players. Europe has a lot of good players and a host of very promising young guys. But who among them has a great record?”

** Sorry to disagree with the Golden Bear, but I think the Americans get beat again. They put too much pressure on themselves during Ryder Cup week, pressure they are not accustomed to while cruising from fat paycheck to fat paycheck on the overly-cushy PGA Tour.

** If you like your spreads thick, check out the Kansas-Florida International contest during opening weekend of the college football season. The Jayhawks are as much as 37-point favorites over FIU, which went 1-11 last year and has lost 23 of its last 24 games. If there was ever a 37-point spread that was safe, it would be this one.

** Speaking of odds, Bodog.com is allowing fans to place wagers on the next NFL player to be arrested. Not surprisingly, re-signed Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Henry is the prohibitive favorite at 4-to-6. Others include Pacman Jones of Dallas (1-to-1), Tank Johnson of Dallas (2-to-1), Ray Lewis of Baltimore (5-to-1), Steve Smith of Carolina (5-to-1) and Kellen Winslow of Cleveland (6-to-1).

** When Bronson Arroyo went all nine innings last night in a 2-1 victory over Houston, the Cincinnati Reds became the last major league team to notch a complete game in 2008. It was the sixth complete game of Arroyo’s career. As a point of reference, Greg Maddux is the active leader in complete games with 109. The all-time leader is Cy Young with 749 … and, no, that’s not a misprint.

** Got an email this week from the National Baseball Hall of Fame about the 10 players, whose careers began in 1942 or earlier, who will be considered for election in December by the Veterans Committee. Among the names of the list are Vern Stephens, a slugging shortstop whose 15-year career between 1941 and 1955 was spent mainly with the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox. Stephens finished in the top 10 in the American League MVP voting six times over an eight-year span, was an eight-time All-Star and had three seasons when he drove in 137 runs or more. He led the Browns to their only AL pennant in 1944, and for the three-year period between 1948 and 1950, he averaged 33 homers, 147 RBI and hit .285 for the Red Sox. My only question: How is Vern Stephens not already in the Hall of Fame?

Happy Birthday, Archie!

In honor of Archie Griffin, who celebrates his 54th birthday today, here is another excerpt of my book, “When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.”

The book, which should be in bookstores next month, contains 20 chapters each devoted a player or coach and the one game that transformed him into a Buckeye legend. Archie’s chapter deals with his breakout performance as a freshman in 1972 against North Carolina.

That Archie Griffin became a star in only his second game at Ohio State may not be all that surprising to fans who have come to believe the two-time Heisman Trophy winner is the greatest player ever to wear the Scarlet and Gray.

It’s a minor miracle that Griffin was playing at all against North Carolina much less gaining a then single-game record 239 yards.

Griffin was one of the most highly-sought-after high school running backs in the nation after finishing a superlative prep career at Columbus Eastmoor. He gained 1,737 yards and scored 170 points during his senior year alone. The 5-10, 184-pound speedster quickly narrowed his choices from an estimated 150 scholarship offers to just three – the U.S. Naval Academy, Northwestern and Ohio State.

An appointment to the Naval Academy and the prestigious it carried made the Midshipmen an early favorite, but Griffin’s desire to play Big Ten football eliminated Rick Forzano’s Middies.

Northwestern head coach Alex Agase felt he had an excellent chance to get the star running back, but when longtime head coach Woody Hayes visited the Griffin home and discussed nothing but academics with Griffin’s parents, James and Margaret, as well as what Ohio State could do for their son – not the other way around – the Buckeyes had themselves a new running back.

Things didn’t go quite according to plan, however. During OSU’s 21-0 victory over Iowa in the 1972 season opener, Griffin was reduced to mop-up duty behind veterans Morris Bradshaw, Elmer Lippert, Rick Gales and Joe DeFillipo, and didn’t get into the game until late in the fourth quarter.

When the play “18 Sweep” was called in the huddle, Griffin was raring to go. He knew that he would get the ball on a pitchout and his thoughts quickly turned to breaking a long run and perhaps even scoring a touchdown on his first college carry.

It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Griffin couldn’t handle a low pitch from backup quarterback Dave Purdy, a fumble that Purdy eventually had to smother himself for a 5-yard loss. Hayes, who hated putting any emphasis whatsoever on untested players, watched film of the play over and over later that night and decided Griffin should have made the play. On the official stat sheet of the game, the coach personally crossed out the fumble and lost yardage that were charged to Purdy and credited them to Griffin.

At the team’s next practice, the freshman was so far down the running back depth chart that he wasn’t even on the depth chart. Griffin was listed on the freshman roster only and he began to wonder if he would ever get in another varsity game over the next four years.

He needn’t have worried.

The Buckeyes took a week off after their opening victory over Iowa and prepared to take on nonconference foe North Carolina. Thanks to an early start to their season, the Tar Heels already had three victories under their belts, including an emotional 34-33 win over instate rival North Carolina State the previous week. North Carolina had a talent-laden-roster in 1972 that included a pair of All-America offensive linemen in guard Ron Rusnak and Jerry Sain as well as five defenders who were first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference performers.

UNC was coached that year by Bill Dooley, who was in the sixth season of an 11-year tenure in Chapel Hill. Dooley, the brother of legendary Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, went on to coach at Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before retiring after the 1992 season with a career record of 161-127-5.

It was an uncharacteristically raw late September day in the Horseshoe. The crowd of 86,180 squeezed into the stadium and huddled together as the thermometer struggled to get to the 50-degree mark. A stiff northwesterly breeze added to the chill in the air.

Things didn’t exactly warm up when Ohio State took the opening kickoff and did absolutely nothing with it. Bradshaw took a pitch around left end for 5 yards and got 3 more up the middle on second down. But the drive stalled when fullback Randy Keith was stopped after a 1-yard gain on third down and the Buckeyes were forced to punt.

North Carolina didn’t do any better on its first possession. In fact, the Tar Heels went in the wrong direction thanks to three illegal motion penalties before quickly punting the ball back to the Buckeyes.

But OSU was still stuck in first gear. A first-down run by Bradshaw netted only 1 yard, quarterback Greg Hare misfired on a long second-down pass and Bradshaw was stopped on third down after a short 3-yard gain.

The tempo of the game suddenly changed, however, on the next play. UNC’s Jimmy DeRatt broke through the Ohio State defense and blocked punter Gary Lago’s kick. The loose ball tumbled end over end back toward the OSU goal line where North Carolina co-captain Gene Brown was able to make a sliding recovery in the end zone. Ellis Alexander kicked the extra point and a suddenly silent Ohio Stadium crowd looked on as the Tar Heels had taken a 7-0 lead at the 9:37 mark of the first quarter.

To say Hayes was displeased would be akin to saying there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It would have been a gross understatement. The coach stomped his way up and down the sideline, jaw set, eyes narrowing into tiny slits, fists clenched. Then to emphasize his displeasure with the way his first-teamers were performing, he decided to send them a message.

Jumping all the way down the depth chart to the fifth-string halfback, thanks to more than a little cajoling from running backs coach Rudy Hubbard, Hayes barked, “Griffin! Get in there!”

The freshman was stunned. He had no preconceived notions about playing against the Tar Heels so soon after his miscue against Iowa. He hadn’t even stayed at the team hotel the night before, a privilege reserved only for those who were certain to play the following day. But as the initial shock of hearing Hayes yell his name gradually wore off, Griffin began to sprint onto the field. Only when an assistant coach stopped him did the freshman realize he was headed into battle without his helmet. That was quickly retrieved, the chinstrap buckled, and Griffin took his place in the offensive huddle.

He was eager atone for his mistake of two weeks earlier and didn’t waste time doing so.

Griffin’s first carry was infinitely better than the fumbled pitch in the season opener and resulted in a 6-yard sweep around left end. His second was a 6-yard burst over left guard Jim Kregel, and his third was another sweep around left end for 6 more yards. In his first three carries, Griffin had surpassed the team’s yardage total for its first two possessions combined.

But on a fourth straight carry, North Carolina managed to finally corral Griffin for no gain. On third-and-4, Hayes decided to change things up and called for an option pitch to wingback Rick Galbos, but it fell a yard shy of the first down and the Buckeyes were forced to punt again.

Still, the legendary Ohio State coach had finally stumbled upon a strategy that was working. It just so happened that it was an attack that Hayes held dear: a good, old-fashioned, run-the-ball-down-their-throats attack designed to give the ball to Griffin and keep giving it to him. Once the Buckeyes got the ball back, Hayes did exactly that.

The freshman quickly repaid his coach’s faith in him by breaking off a 32-yard scamper on the first play of OSU’s next drive. After a couple of short bursts on his first few carries, Griffin showcased his explosiveness by gliding through a hole between Kregel and left tackle Doug France, picking up a block from Galbos and breaking into the North Carolina secondary. That pushed the Buckeyes into enemy territory for the first time in the game, and they pushed even further when Hare faked a handoff to Griffin and completed his first pass of the afternoon, a quick toss to Galbos that the OSU wingback turned into a 17-yard gain.

Back Ohio State came with Griffin, who carried on each of the next six plays. First it was over left tackle for 2, then a cutback inside right guard for 8 followed by a slash over left guard for 4. Like a heavyweight boxer with his opponent on the ropes, Griffin continued to hit the Tar Heels from all angles, going over right guard for 3 yards, back to the left for 4 and then around left tackle for 4 more.

By the time the freshman running back was through, North Carolina’s defense was reeling back at its own 7-yard line. Griffin finally came out of the game for a short rest and the Buckeyes immediately seemed to slow down again. After a short 2-yard gain by Randy Keith and a third-down incompletion by Hare who overshot intended receiver Mike Bartoszek, the Buckeyes had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from kicker Blair Conway. Still, the kick finally got OSU on the scoreboard at 7-3 with just six seconds left before the end of the first period.

The team’s second score came much quicker. North Carolina took the ensuing kickoff and had good starting position at its own 36 before quickly moving out to near midfield. But on the fifth play of the drive, Ohio State linebacker Randy Gradishar tracked UNC quarterback Nick Vidnovic as he rolled out of the pocket to his right. Vidnovic evidently did not see Gradishar, however, because when he tried to get a pass to favorite target Ken Taylor in the flat, the Buckeye linebacker stepped in front of the would-be receiver to make the interception. Better still for OSU, Gradishar returned the pick 10 yards back inside Tar Heel territory at the 47.

Hare’s first-down swing pass to Griffin was too wide, but the Buckeyes came right back with their freshman sensation on second down and he followed blocks from sophomore fullback Harold “Champ” Henson and right guard Chuck Bonica for a 22-yard bolt. Two plays later, Griffin took another pitch and swept around left end for 8 more yards, setting up a third-and-2 at the UNC 17-yard line.

On the next play, the Tar Heels sniffed out a counter play and stopped Griffin for no gain. But this time Hayes didn’t want to settle for another field goal. He called for Hare to run the option, but rather than going left as the Buckeyes had so often during the possession, this time the play was going to the right. The Buckeye QB strung out the North Carolina defense to perfection, then after a quick faked option pitch to Griffin, Hare turned upfield, dodged a couple of would-be tacklers and danced into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown.

Conway hooked his PAT attempt outside the left upright of the goal post, but Ohio State still enjoyed its first lead of the day with a 9-7 advantage at the 11:50 mark of the second quarter.

The Buckeyes had another scoring opportunity midway through the quarter and Griffin had a hand in it, gathering in a 17-yard pass reception on a third-and-9 play and adding a couple of carries for modest yardage. But on second-and-goal from the 5, Keith fumbled as he hit the line and the loose ball was recovered by North Carolina’s Ronnie Robinson to end the threat.

Meanwhile, the OSU defense had gotten itself untracked after some rough early going. The unit had limited the Tar Heels to just three first downs and only 81 total yards. Griffin had already surpassed those numbers all by himself by tallying six first downs and rushing for 111 yards on 16 first-half carries.

And he was just getting warmed up.

The hardcover book is scheduled to be released by the end of next month, but you can pre-order it right now (and for less money than you can buy it in bookstores). Amazon.com is also offering a special price when you buy it in tandem with Coach Tressel’s book, “The Winner’s Manual.

Click here for the details: When Legends Were Made: Ohio State Buckeyes.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Birthday shout-outs also go out today to actor Clarence Williams III (he’s played everything from Lincoln Hayes in the original “The Mod Squad” to Prince’s father in “Purple Rain”); TV producer and movie director Hugh Wilson (creator of “WKRP In Cincinnati” and director of the first film in the “Police Academy” series); would-be assassin Arthur Bremer; King Mohammed VI of Morocco; “The Early Show” co-anchor Harry Smith; former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon; Chicago Cubs righthander Jason Marquis; Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton; actress Kim Cattrall (man-hungry Samantha Jones in “Sex and the City”); actress Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity in “The “Matrix” movie trilogy); actress Hayden Panettiere (cheerleader Claire Bennet on “Heroes”); Google co-founder Sergey Brin; and country singer (and some would say Mark Rea lookalike) Kenny Rogers.

Several other luminaries who have passed into history also shared Aug. 21 birthdays. They include jazz pianist and bandleader William “Count” Basie; “Looney Toons” director Friz Freleng; sportscasters Jack Buck and Chris Schenkel; Princess Margaret of Great Britain; The Clash lead singer and guitarist Joe Strummer; and basketball great Wilt Chamberlain.

AND FINALLY

** Apparently Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has picked the least of his three evils by naming senior transfer Allan Evridge as his starting quarterback over junior Dustin Sherer and sophomore Scott Tolzien. The lefty-throwing Evridge won the starting nod despite a shaky scrimmage performance last Saturday, and despite the fact that dating back to his days as a starter at Kansas State, he has completed only 12 of his last 49 pass attempts. That’s a less-than robust 24.5 percent.

** Texas Tech is getting a lot of love from the preseason forecasters, and the Red Raiders rooters are buying into the hype – literally. The school recently announced it has set a new season ticket record with sales already exceeding 41,100.

** I’ve gotten a surprising number of comments about putting LSU at No. 20 in my preseason top 25. Obviously, the commentary is that I have the Tigers way too low. Here’s my reasoning: The SEC is much too tough a conference to expect to win consistently with a first-year starting quarterback. I see at least three losses for LSU this year – maybe more.

** How popular is Alabama head coach Nick Saban? Popular enough that Forbes magazine has reprinted 10,000 copies of its issue featuring him on the cover as college football’s “most powerful coach.” Copies of the issue reportedly sold out in 10 minutes at Books-A-Million’s Alabama stores last Friday.

** In the wake of the sudden death of NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, it will be interesting to see if the players association can get a successor who is as iron-willed. It will also be interesting to see if the association can resolve its contentious relationship with old-time players who have been seeking additional disability benefits, something Upshaw seemed consistently against doing.

** It could be the end of the line for Boston Red Sox righthander Curt Schilling. He wrote in his blog late last week that “the pendulum is swinging very heavily in the direction of it just being over.” Schilling underwent right shoulder surgery earlier this year and said while he is considering retirement, he could decide to rehab and make a comeback in 2009. If Schilling’s career is over, it will begin debate on whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. His career numbers: 20 seasons, a 216-146 record (.597 winning percentage), 3.46 ERA, 3,116 strikeouts in 3,261 innings, and a postseason record of 10-2 with a 2.23 ERA, including 3-1 and a 2.06 ERA in seven World Series starts. That postseason mark is really the only reason Schilling is the discussion for Cooperstown. IMHO, he had a fine career but not quite Hall-worthy.

Snell Fondly Remembered By Two Fan Bases

Before he ran to fame as a member of the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, Matt Snell was a battering-ram of a fullback at Ohio State in the early 1960s.

Snell, who celebrates his 67th birthday today, was born Aug. 18, 1941, in Garfield, Ga., and spent most of the first part of his life as a wrecking ball, tearing down opposing defenses with his straight-ahead, run-right-over-the-top-of-you style.

After football, Snell turned his attention from the destruction of would-be tacklers to the construction of office space as the owner of a construction company in New York.

Despite the fact he played his final down of football more than 35 years ago, Snell is fondly remembered by two of the most loyal alumni bases in the sport: Ohio State and the New York Jets.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Snell said with a laugh about the way he is remembered. “I was pretty fortunate to play on some pretty good teams with some pretty good players in my time. But that’s been a long time ago. I haven’t even been around a football since 1972.”

Despite Snell’s contention that he gave up thinking about football when he retired from the game, his memory about certain aspects of his career remain vivid. For instance, he can still remember the impact of being recruited by and playing for Woody Hayes.

“It wasn’t always this way, but when I got to Ohio State in 1960, Woody was under a tremendous amount of pressure,” Snell said. “He had won a national championship a couple of years before that, but then people got to expecting that every year. The year before I got there, they had a losing season and that was just unheard of. So it was very tough playing for Woody in those days because he was really pressing.

“But I can also tell you that he wanted every one of his players to do the work that was necessary in the classroom. He always said that if you go to Ohio State and don’t get a degree, you’ve cheated yourself.

“Now, in my family, I was the first to go to college. I was the first one to graduate from high school, but I didn’t have good study habits. I guess I was like most football players in that I just wanted to do enough to get by so I could play football.

“Woody wouldn’t have that. He placed a tremendous emphasis on education and it was tough for me in the early going. But that education meant everything to me after football, and after me, all of my family has gone to college. I like to think that I set that standard for them and I’m proud of that. But part of that was because Woody challenged me to get that education.”

Snell was one of the first out-of-state recruits lured to Columbus by Hayes. He moved with his family at a young age from Georgia to Locust Valley, N.Y., where he became the 1959 winner of the prestigious Tom Thorp Award, given annually to the outstanding prep football player in Nassau County, N.Y. Former winners of the award include NFL Hall of Fame legends John Mackey and Jim Brown.

After spending the 1960 season on the OSU freshman squad, Snell got his first taste of varsity action as a sophomore the following season. Playing in a loaded backfield that featured All-America fullback Bob Ferguson and fellow sophomore Paul Warfield, Snell got only occasional carries but proved himself to be a valuable blocking back, often leading Ferguson into the line.

Ferguson won All-America honors for a second straight season in 1961 after rushing for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns. Four of those TDs came in the final game of the season as the Buckeyes rolled to a 50-20 victory over archrival Michigan.

In 1962, Snell switched to defensive end and was a member of the defensive unit that shut out Michigan 28-0 in Columbus that year. That is the last time the Buckeyes blanked the Wolverines.

The following year, he was back on offense and became a focal point of the backfield. Snell led the team in rushing that season and was voted the team’s most valuable player by his teammates. And he topped off his college career with a 14-10 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Of course, in those days there was no bowl if you weren’t going to the Rose Bowl,” Snell said. “But I guess beating Michigan three times and beating them in your last game is a pretty good way to go out.”

Following his college career, Snell was drafted in the third round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants, the team he had followed as a boy. But the New York Jets of the upstart American Football League also selected him – in the first round. It was before the proliferation of television money and bidding wars between the two leagues for talent, so Snell’s decision ultimately came down to which team provided the best chance to play.

“The Giants had taken another running back – Joe Don Looney – in the first round,” Snell said. “They also still had Frank Gifford and Alex Webster and they wanted me to come in, sit behind them and learn for a year or two. I didn’t want to do that. I think you learn by doing and I saw the Jets as an opportunity to play right away.”

He joined the Jets for the 1964 season and earned AFL Rookie of the Year honors after rushing for 948 yards and five touchdowns. One year later, the team drafted a brash, young quarterback out of Alabama. Four years later, Joe Namath would lead New York to victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and change the face of professional football forever.

“We really had no fear of Baltimore in that game,” said Snell, who rushed 30 times for a game-high 121 yards while scoring the Jets’ lone touchdown in the 16-7 victory. “Baltimore played a zone defense in the secondary that we knew we could beat. We really thought very early in the week that we were going to win that game.”

In fact, Snell remembered that Namath’s famous guarantee of victory stemmed from something he’d heard from a teammate earlier in the week.

“We’d been watching film for a couple of days,” he said, “when (tight end) Pete Lammons stood up and told (Jets head coach) Weeb (Ewbank), ‘Don’t show us any more of that. We’re going to get overconfident. I guarantee we’ll beat those guys.’

“A day later, Joe is out at some function and says the same thing. Of course, he said it in public and that’s when it hit the newspapers.”

Namath, Snell and the rest of the Jets backed up the guarantee with the AFL’s first Super Bowl victory. A year later, Kansas City defeated Minnesota in Super Bowl IV and hastened the merger between the two leagues.

Earning the Super Bowl championship ring was the pinnacle of Snell’s NFL career and he made the Pro Bowl three times. But injuries became to take their toll. One year after the Super Bowl win, he injured a knee and had to have reconstructive surgery. Then he tore the Achilles tendon in his other leg the following year. After rehabbing that injury, he returned only to suffer a ruptured spleen.

“That made three years in a row that I would have had to rehab the entire offseason,” Snell said. “In those days, we had to have other jobs in the offseason to supplement our incomes. I just figured I was 32 years old and tired of rehabbing. I just decided to hang it up.”

Snell left Shea Stadium for Wall Street, and in 1973 became one of the partners for new stock issues for Defco Securities Inc. That same year, he was approached by an advertising firm to cash in on his football fame. He agreed and became the first television pitch man in the long-running “Tastes Great, Less Filling” ads for Miller Lite beer.

He remained with Defco throughout the 1970s before switching to construction after sitting on the board of directors for a construction company. In the early 1980s, he formed SCI Construction Ltd., headquartered in Jersey City, N.J.

Despite the fact he has not been back to Columbus for several years, Snell still remembers his alma mater with fondness.

“I haven’t been back since about 1995,” he said. “That’s when I bought my daughter there to look at the campus. She was getting ready to go to college and she was talking about all the places she was interested in. I told her she had to at least go look at Ohio State, and she did.

“It was a really nice visit and I enjoyed it very much. I’m usually not one to look back, but that was real nice.”

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s other Buckeye birthdays belongs to former defensive lineman and current linebackers coach Luke Fickell as well as former wide receiver Jimmy Redmond.

Lucas Fickell was born Aug. 18, 1973, in Columbus, and became a standout football player and wrestler at St. Francis DeSales High School. He was a four-year starter at Ohio State from 1993-96 and established a school record of 50 consecutive starts, a mark that still stands. After graduation, Fickell spent a year on injured reserve with the New Orleans Saints before beginning his coaching career as an OSU graduate assistant. He got his first full-time position at Akron in 2000 before returning to his alma mater in 2002 as special teams coordinator. Fickell was named linebackers coach in 2004 and co-defensive coordinator in 2005 … and some opine that he will eventually succeed Jim Tressel whenever the head coach decides to retire.

James Louis Redmond III was born Aug. 18, 1977, in Kansas City, and was an excellent receiver and state long champion out of Blue Springs South High School in Lee’s Summit, Mo. He signed with Ohio State in 1995 and spent much of his career as a backup to David Boston and Dee Miller. Unfortunately, his time as a Buckeye was also marred by leg injuries and run-ins with the law. Redmond missed all of the 1997 season with a broken leg, an injury that continued to plague him for two years. He also was cited four times for a variety of driving violations over a five-month period between September 1998 and January 1999. Redmond eventually left the Buckeyes and completed his college career at McNeese State in 2001. He played two NFL seasons with Jacksonville, mostly on special teams, finishing his career after the 2003 season with three receptions for 67 yards.

Also celebrating birthdays today: former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter; Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski; attorney/best-selling author Vincent Bugliosi; 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Rafer Johnson; former Cleveland Browns running back Greg Pruitt; New Orleans Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey; iconic film actor and Oscar-winning director Robert Redford; comic actor Martin Mull; actor Patrick Swayze; actor/comedian Dennis Leary; actor/director Edward Norton; actress Madeleine Stowe; actor Christian Slater; actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner (Theo Huxtable on “The Cosby Show”); Saturday Night Live funnyman Andy Samberg (who actually won a creative arts Emmy for “Dick in a Box”); ABC newsman Bob Woodruff; rapper and former House of Pain frontman Everlast (born Erik Schrody); and BSB staffer Jeff Svoboda.

Today would also have been the 74th birthday of baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Born Aug. 18, 1934, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Clemente became the first Latin American superstar in Major League Baseball, collecting 3,000 hits and carrying a .317 lifetime average over 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a 12-time All-Star, won a dozen Gold Gloves as a sleek right fielder, and was voted the 1966 National League MVP. Clemente was killed on New Year’s Eve 1972 when the airplane in which he was riding crashed while delivering medical supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. The following year, MLB waved its normal waiting period and Clemente was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

AND FINALLY

** I am pretty sure that I have no clue how to judge a gymnastics routine. But I am absolutely sure the sport’s point system ought to be scrapped with its convoluted tiebreaker system. In case you didn’t stay up late last night, China’s He Kexin and Nastia Liukin of the United States had identical scores on the uneven bars, but because something called execution marks were closer to perfect for the Chinese gymnast, she got the gold medal and Liukin had to settle for the silver. Meanwhile, there was a dead heat for second place over in the women’s 100-meter dash and the medals were not dispersed according to running style. Each competitor was awarded a silver.

** Earlier in the evening, U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone finished behind another Chinese gymnast in the vault competition despite the fact the Chinese woman fell to her knees on her second dismount. Again, the difference was supposedly in degree of difficult. But at least Liukin got a silver medal in her event. Sacramone went home with no medal, getting bumped to fourth place.

** Before yesterday’s rare win over St. Louis, Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker told reporters, “We’re going to get this together. I’m convinced of that. We’re going to do it.” Look, I’m not as down on Baker as a manager as some others, but the dude is out of touch with reality. The team has no left fielder, no center fielder, no shortstop, no catcher, no bona fide leadoff hitter and no real cleanup hitter. Add to those holes the fact that the Reds’ supposed ace is 3-13 with a 5.59 ERA, and the fact that there is no real help on the way from the minor leagues. I have no idea how this team is going to be able to contend in 2009 and I suspect Baker doesn’t either.

** Apparently, the European economy is good. Six-time NBA all-star Shawn Kemp is making a comeback in Italy. The 38-year-old, who last played in the NBA during the 2002-03 season, will be suiting up this season for Premiata Montegranaro team in Italy. Contract terms were not disclosed but it is assumed the money is real good. You may remember Kemp as the guy who by 1998 had fathered at least seven children by several different women.

** CBS must really like its partnership with the Southeastern Conference and vice versa. The network recently signed a new 15-year contract for the rights to SEC football and basketball, marrying the two through 2023.

** Did you know that when former manager Dick Williams was recently inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at the age of 79, he was only the 11th oldest inductee? The oldest enshrine was former Philadelphia and Cleveland outfielder Elmer Flick, who was inducted in 1963 at the age of 87. Flick, a native of Bedford, Ohio, got to enjoy his Hall of Fame status for another eight years before dying in 1971 just two days shy of his 95th birthday.

** I’m not sure who decided this, but Friday, Aug. 29, has been designated as National College Colors Day, encouraging football fans nationwide to wear their favorite college’s colors all day. Not sure how that will jibe with Casual Friday, so best to check with the boss before painting your face.

Ranking OSU’s All-Time Tight Ends

Everyone over at the Ohio State training camp is busy getting ready for the 2008 season opener, now only 15 days away. (Seems like we were in New Orleans only a couple of weeks ago, but I digress.)

The buzz of camp, of course, is the arrival of freshman quarterbacking whiz Terrelle Pryor, a 6-6, 235-pound version of the second coming. Fans are anxious to see what the OSU coaching staff has cooked up for the talented Pryor, wondering how his talent will mesh with incumbent QB Todd Boeckman, the punishing running style of Beanie Wells and the fluid grace of such receivers as Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.

Over the past several years – starting in 2005 when Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Antonio Pittman were coming into their own – the Buckeyes morphed into a more streamlined offensive attack, utilizing team speed to go for an opponent’s jugular. It has made for a ton of excitement – would you rather see a 75-yard touchdown bomb or an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown march? – but it has also signaled a near phasing-out of two positions that helped make Ohio State a traditional college football powerhouse.

As crazy at it may sound, when Dionte Johnson was thrown for a 1-yard loss against Northwestern last season, it marked the first time a Buckeye fullback had recorded a carry since the 2005 season. Likewise, the tight end position isn’t what it once was as the Ohio State coaching staff prefers to use its tight ends as extra blockers in the running game and for maximum protection in the passing attack. Only one OSU tight end has caught more than 20 passes in a season since Jim Tressel took over in 2001 – Ben Hartsock had 33 catches in 2003 – and no tight end has led the Buckeyes in receiving in 20 years.

Nevertheless, the Buckeyes have churned out some top-flight tight ends over the years, and here are my 10 top of all-time.

1. John Frank (1980-83) – Frank is far and away the best pass-catching tight end in the history of the Ohio State program. A three-year starter, he ran precise patterns, had soft hands and could block with the best of them. He led the Buckeyes in receiving in 1983, and finished his career with 121 receptions for 1,421 yards. The catch total ranks eighth on the school’s all-time list.

2. Jan White (1968-70) – White is one of the “Super Sophomores” of 1968 who rarely gets mentioned, but he was every bit as talented as some of his more recognizable teammates. White was a punishing blocker who delighting in blocking down on opposing defensive ends or picking off blitzing outside linebackers. He was also an excellent receiver, tying wideout Bruce Jankowski for the team lead in 1969 and then leading the Buckeyes all by himself in 1970.

3. Jim Houston (1957-59) – Using his rangy frame and blend of power and quickness, Houston was a two-way performer for Woody Hayes in the late Fifties. He earned most of his accolades on defense – he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005 primarily as a defensive end – but Houston was also a prime target when Hayes decided to throw the ball. He tied for the team lead in 1959 with a modest 11 receptions, but he averaged 19.5 yards per catch.

4. Ben Hartsock (2000-03) – Hartsock was one of the unsung heroes of the 2002 national championship run, providing several key blocks and recording important receptions throughout that season. He had only two TD catches that year but made them count – a 20-yarder in the narrow 23-19 win over Cincinnati and a 3-yard fourth-quarter nab that provided for the winning points in a 19-14 win at Wisconsin. The following year, Hartsock became the most prolific pass-catching tight end in the Tressel era to date with 33 receptions for 290 yards and two touchdowns.

5. Fred Pagac (1971-73) – Perhaps you only remember the Pugman as architect of those Silver Bullet defenses in the late 1990s. Before that – way before that – he was a solid tight end for the Buckeyes in the early Seventies. During his senior season in 1973, Ohio State punished opponents with a talented backfield of Cornelius Greene, Archie Griffin, Champ Henson and Brian Baschnagel. But it was Pagac who led the team in receiving – albeit with only nine catches for 159 yards. He was also the guy leading the way downfield when Griffin broke through the line of scrimmage on his way to a then-record 1,577 yards.

6. Rickey Dudley (1994-95) – Lured to Ohio State from Henderson, Texas, on a basketball scholarship, Dudley decided to go out for football in the spring of 1993 and made an immediate impact on the tight end position even though he hadn’t played the sport in nearly five years. His 6-7, 240-pound frame and long, loping strides more than made up for his strange way of catching balls away from his body, and he was one of several weapons on the 1995 squad that scored a school-record 475 points.

7. Ed Taggart (1983-86) – Taggert was a 6-3, 220-pounder out of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, a team he had helped lead to back-to-back state championships. Despite his relative lack of size, Taggart became a fixture in the OSU lineup, starting three years at tight end for the Buckeyes in the mid-1980s. He caught as many as 14 passes in one season and also helped block for guys like Keith Byars, John Wooldridge and Vince Workman.

8. D.J. Jones (1992-94, ’96) – Jones was a hard-nosed kid who belied his 6-4, 260-pound frame by making several acrobatic catches during his career. He started at least three games during all four seasons he was a Buckeye, and proved his toughness in 1995. After starting 11 games in ’94, Jones underwent offseason heart surgery and missed the entire ’95 season. The following year, he was back to reclaim his job and started all 12 games for OSU as a senior, recording 10 catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

9. Darnell Sanders (1999-2001) – An excellent tight end out of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, Saunders was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes in 2000 and ’01. He played in 36 games with 23 starts during his career, and tallied 42 catches for 474 yards and nine touchdowns. Sanders could have been ranked higher on this list had he stuck around for the 2002 national championship season rather than leaving school early to turn pro.

10. Cedric Saunders (1990-93) – Saunders came to the Buckeyes out of Tallahassee, Fla., and proceeded to become a three-year starter. As a senior, he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 27 receptions for 290 yards. He finished his career with 68 catches for 853 yards, and caught at least one pass in 22 of the final 25 games he played for the Buckeyes.

Honorable mention – Did you know that Rufus Mayes began his Ohio State career as a tight end? Can you imagine that 6-5, 280-pound freight train coming at you from the tight end position? After two years as the starting tight end, Mayes was switched to an offensive tackle position for the 1968 season and he helped lead the Buckeyes to the national championship. The switch also helped make Mayes a first-round draft pick by Chicago in the 1969 draft, and he played 11 seasons in the NFL, mostly for Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Mayes died in January 1990 at the age of 42 after contracting bacterial meningitis.

If you would to see my all-time top 10 Buckeyes at other positions, here are the links:

Top 10 OSU Quarterbacks

Top 10 OSU Running Backs

Top 10 OSU Fullbacks

Top 10 OSU Wide Receivers

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs, ironically enough, to former tight end D.J. Jones. Born Aug. 15, 1974, in Lebanon, Ohio, Darrell J. Jones was a two-way starter in high school, earning all-state and All-America honors for the Warriors. During his senior year, he caught 22 passes for 306 yards and two touchdowns at tight end, and added 107 tackles on defense at outside linebacker. He was also a legacy Buckeye – both of his parents were Ohio State grads.

Other luminaries celebrating birthdays today: actress Rose Marie (Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”); actor Mike Connors (“Mannix”); game show host Jim Lange (“The Dating Game”); voice actor Jim Dale (he’s the narrator of “Pushing Daisies”); actress Debra Messing (the Grace half of “Will & Grace”); lawyer and presidential advisor Vernon Jordan; U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.); Pro Football Hall of Fame lineman and NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw; former Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly; Grammy-winning composer Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up, and Away,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “MacArthur Park”); philanthropist Melinda Gates; actor and Grammy-winning screenwriter Ben Affleck (also Mr. Jennifer Garner); beach volleyball superstar Kerri Walsh; defending Nationwide Series driver Carl Edwards; singer Joe Jonas (one-third of eponymous boy group The Jonas Brothers); and Princess Anne of Great Britain.

Also on this date in 1040, King Duncan I is killed in battle against his first cousin and rival Macbeth, who becomes King of Scotland. Seventeen years later on this same date, Macbeth was killed in the Battle of Lumphanan. What? Did you think Shakespeare made that stuff up?

AND FINALLY

** I know I’m not the first one to say or think this, but Michael Phelps is a freak of nature and totally entertaining to watch. Now, if the guy just wasn’t from Michigan ….

** If you thought you saw a familiar guy in the dugout for the Chinese baseball team at the Olympics, your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you. Former major league player and manager Jim Lefebvre began developing the Chinese national team five years ago, and has so far sent four players to the Yankees and Mariners organizations.

** Want a little Fantasy Football draft tip? Go after Saints running back Reggie Bush early. He stands to benefit as much as anyone with New Orleans’ acquisition of tight end Jeremy Shockey, who blocks every bit as well as he catches passes.

** You probably know that statue-like Detroit QB Jon Kitna has absorbed the most sacks of any NFL quarterback over the past two seasons. It might surprise you, though, to know who ranks second: Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh. OK, Steelers fans – that didn’t surprise you, did it?

** Despite the apparent acrimony with which Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers severed their relationship, the team still plans to offer their erstwhile quarterback a multimillion-dollar post-retirement package similar to the $20 million deal it offered in July. Seems that Packers management wants everyone to think of Favre only as a Packer – now and forever.

** Expansion of the so-called Big House in Ann Arbor is nearly ready to shut down for the fall. The $226 million renovation product at Michigan Stadium won’t be complete until 2010, but the work completed so far has evidently had an impact on the look of the facility that first opened in 1927. One local woman said the structure now casts such a huge presence that residents have taken to called it “The Shade-ium.”

Woody’s Take On Recruiting

There is a school of thought these days that college football recruiting began in earnest just a few years ago. Some of those same people believe legendary head coach Woody Hayes had no sense of humor.

Both accepted principles are actually fiction.

While it is true that recruiting has experienced a huge explosion in popularity with the advent of the Internet, the practice of enticing high school players to matriculate to one college or another is as old as the game itself.

Likewise, Hayes not only had a sense of humor, he was proud of his ability to tell a joke. He carefully cultivated his public persona as an ill-tempered curmudgeon, apt to go off about anything at any time. But in private – and especially with his good friends and former players – Hayes let his hair down.

One clear example was the coach’s so-called “Guide To Recruiting.” He always gave credit to a sportswriter for coming up with the tenets of the guide, but Hayes repeated them so often through the years, the words became his own.

He analyzed each prospect’s abilities in different categories and then gave a rating to each player – Superstar (far exceeds expectations), Star (exceeds expectations), Starter (meets expectations), Substitute (hope this player doesn’t have to be a starter) and Not A Prospect.

Here are Hayes’ criteria for each category:

JUMPING ABILITY

Superstar – Leaps tall buildings with a single bound.

Star – Must take running start to leap over tall buildings.

Starter — Can leap over short buildings only.

Substitute – Crashes into buildings when attempting to jump over them.

Not A Prospect – Cannot recognize buildings at all.

QUICKNESS and SPEED

Superstar – Faster than a speeding bullet.

Star – Fast as a speeding bullet.

Starter – Not quite as fast as a speeding bullet.

Substitute – Would you believe a slow bullet?

Not A Prospect – Wounds self with bullets when attempting to shoot.

STRENGTH

Superstar – Stronger than a locomotive.

Star – Stronger than a bull elephant.

Starter – Stronger than a bull.

Substitute – Shoots the bull.

Not A Prospect – Smells like a bull.

ADAPTABILITY and LEADERSHIP

Superstar – Walks on water consistently.

Star – Walks on water in emergencies.

Starter – Washes with water.

Substitute – Drinks water.

Not A Prospect – Passes water under stress.

COMMUNICATION and STABILITY

Superstar – Talks with God.

Star – Talks with the angels.

Starter – Talks to himself.

Substitute – Argues with himself.

Not A Prospect – Loses those arguments.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthdays belong to former linebacker Orlando Lowry and defensive end Mike Vrabel.

Orlando Dewey Lowry was born Aug. 14, 1961, in Cleveland, and played his high school ball at Shaker Heights, where he was a two-time All-Ohio performer. He lettered with the Buckeyes from 1981-83 and was a starter at one of the outside linebacker spots during his senior season. Lowry finished with a career-high 90 tackles in ’83, a campaign that saw the Buckeyes go 9-3 with all three losses by six points or less. Lowry signed with Indianapolis as an undrafted free agent prior to the 1985 season and embarked upon a five-year career in the NFL. He appeared in 67 games, including four starts for the Colts between 1986 and ’88.

Michael George Vrabel was born Aug. 14, 1975, in Akron, and was a star player at Walsh Jesuit High School before becoming one of the most feared defensive ends in college football. During his OSU career, he set more than a half-dozen new school defensive records including most career tackles for loss (66) and most sacks (36). Vrabel was a third-round selection by Pittsburgh in the 1997 NFL draft, but his pro career didn’t blossom until he was traded to New England in 2001. Since that time, he has been one of the anchors of a defense that has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories. Heading into the 2008 season, Vrabel has 51 sacks for his career as well as 542 tackles and 10 interceptions. He also has eight career pass receptions in the regular season – all for touchdowns. He has also caught two more TD passes in the postseason – one each in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX

It is also a big day in the celebrity world for birthdays. Here are just a few of those celebrating today: former Baltimore Orioles manager and Hall of Famer Earl Weaver; former NFL quarterback John Brodie; Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre; Dallas Cowboys cornerback Roy Williams; Seattle Seahawks running back Julius Jones; Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz; Florida quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer/songwriter David Crosby; football coach-turned-commentator Jimmy Johnson; NASCAR champion-turned commentator Rusty Wallace; actor Antonio Fargas (he played Huggy Bear on the original “Starsky and Hutch”); Seventies and Eighties television actress Susan Saint James (“McMillan and Wife,” “Kate & Allie”); TV actress Susan Olsen (Cindy on “The Brady Bunch”); TV actress Catherine Bell (Lt. Col. Sarah MacKenzie on “JAG”); actress Mila Kunis (Jackie on “That ’70s Show” and the voice on Meg on “Family Guy”); prolific romance novelist Danielle Steele; cartoonist Gary Larson (“The Far Side”); Oscar-winning composer James Horner (“Titanic”); Oscar-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden (“Pollock”); Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”); Irish golfer Darren Clarke; comedian Steve Martin; and Basketball Hall of Fame guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

AND FINALLY

** Sporting News believes Georgia will win this year’s national championship despite its myriad offseason legal problems and the fact the Bulldogs just lost starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant for the season with a knee injury. SN does, however, hedge its bet by offering five other choices “who could win it all.” Those teams: USC, Ohio State, Missouri, Clemson and BYU.

** Remember Josh Jarboe? He’s the highly-rated receiver prospect that Bob Stoops kicked off his Oklahoma team between signing day and fall camp. Jarboe pleaded guilty in May to a couple of gun possession charges, but Stoops decided to let him keep his scholarship. That was until an Internet video of Jarboe rapping about guns and shooting people surfaced in early August. Jarboe has re-surfaced at Troy, although there is some question whether or not he will be eligible to play in 2008. The 6-3, 195-pound Jarboe caught more than 100 passes for better than 2,000 yards in his final two seasons at Ellenwood (Ga.) Cedar Grove.

** Things just got a little tougher for Illinois to repeat last season’s success. The Illini have lost starting defensive tackle Sirod Williams to a season-ending knee injury.

** Seattle can’t keep its NBA franchise but it wants another shot at a college football bowl game. The city’s sports commission said Tuesday that it is in the early stages of trying to bring a bowl game back to Seattle, hoping to develop a relationship with the Pac-10 as one of its anchor tenants for a game that could begin in 2010. Seattle staged bowl games in 2001 and 2002 before sponsorship money dried up. If the Emerald City gets its wish, that would make 35 (and counting) bowl games.

** Major League Baseball appears to be on the verge of employing instant replay for close calls such as home runs. My only question: What took them so long?

** The national media’s love affair with Brett Favre isn’t quite over. Favre is set to make his first start for the New York Jets on Saturday night against Washington and the game wasn’t originally scheduled for national TV. That was until the NFL Network decided to intervene. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Eastern in case you’re interested.

** Care to guess the final holdout of the NFL draft’s first-round selections? That would be Florida defensive end Derrick Harvey, who was taken with the eighth overall pick by Jacksonville. (The Jags traded up from No. 28 to get Harvey.) Today marks the 20th day of Harvey’s holdout, and that breaks a dubious franchise record. Quarterback Byron Leftwich held out for 19 days before signing in 2003.

** What the deuce is it about the Olympic Games that is so compelling? I mean, I found myself staying up past midnight last night to watch swimming and men’s gymnastics – two sports I wouldn’t be caught dead watching any other time.

Top 10 College Football Coaches

While on vacation last week, I visited one of my favorite Southwest Florida establishments and overhead a discussion about college football coaches. Being in SEC country, most of the argument centered on coaches from the conference that has won the last two national championships.

One guy was absolutely convinced that Florida head coach Urban Meyer was the best in the entire country. His buddy argued that while Meyer was very good, he wasn’t even the best coach in his own conference. That distinction, he argued, was reserved for former Florida boss and current South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.

Neither could agree on much with one notable exception – their mutual hatred for Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer despite 147 wins over the last 15 seasons including the 1998 national championship.

Naturally, the discussion got me to thinking about the best college coaches in the country. Here is my top 10. See how it compares with yours.

1. Pete Carroll, USC – Most people forget that Carroll was damaged goods when he surfaced in L.A. in 2001. He was basically run out of the NFL, fired by the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. But the Trojans couldn’t exactly afford to be choosy at the time they hired Carroll. They were coming off a five-year stretch during which they were 31-29, and Carroll’s first season in 2001 produced a 6-6 record and tie for sixth place in the Pac-10. Since then, the Men of Troy have had six straight seasons with 11 or more victories, have never finished lower than No. 4 in the final AP poll during that stretch and won back-to-back national titles in 2003 and ’04. All that plus the top winning percentage among all active I-A coaches at .844 – throw out that first season and it’s a stratospheric .897.

2. Jim Tressel, Ohio State – Let’s forget for a second that Tressel’s team has lost consecutive BCS title games. Let’s also forget that he doesn’t court media attention, making him less than desirable for the national outlets like ESPN and more susceptible to their potshots. Despite all of that, it is the black and white of Tressel’s résumé that sets him apart from most of his contemporaries. He is one of a handful of Division I-A coaches with 60 or more wins over the past six seasons. His team is shooting for a historic third straight outright Big Ten championship. And he has beaten his archrival six out of seven times, and that hadn’t happened in nearly 50 years. Then throw in the fact that his teams have played for the national championship nine times over the past 17 seasons – winning five titles – and you begin to see why Tressel belongs near the top of this list.

3. Urban Meyer, Florida You may not like his smug demeanor, and you may not like it that he always seems to looking for an opportunity to fatten his wallet. But make no mistake – Meyer is a bona fide winner. So far, he has turned around the fortunes at three different schools. He was 17-6 in two seasons at Bowling Green after the Falcons had gone 24-42 in the preceding six years. He was 22-2 at Utah after the Utes were 17-17 in their previous three seasons. And after the three-year Ron Zook experiment produced a mediocre 23-15 record at Florida, Meyer has won 31 of 39 games in three seasons while producing the 2006 national championship and 2007 Heisman Trophy quarterback Tim Tebow, the first sophomore ever to win the award.

4. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma You think Tressel and his team have had a rough go lately in the postseason? After winning his first three BCS bowl games, Stoops is now working on a four-game losing streak, the most recent a particularly ugly 48-28 loss to West Virginia in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Nevertheless, Oklahoma annually seems to be a player in the national championship story. Maybe that’s because Stoops has led his team to 90 victories since the start of the 2000 season, the most at the Division I-A level during that span. Of course, his résumé also boasts the 2000 national title as well as a career winning percentage of .815 that is second among active coaches only to Carroll.

5. Mark Richt, Georgia Fourth among active I-A coaches with a .791 winning percentage, Richt is one of only six coaches to win a pair of SEC crowns in his first five seasons. His Georgia teams have won nine or more games in each of the past six years, won five of their last six bowl games and finished among the country’s top 10 teams five of the past six seasons. One other thing about Richt – he was the architect of Florida State’s potent offensive attacks throughout the 1990s. When he was QBs coach and offensive coordinator with the Seminoles, they went 120-15-1 (.886) with two national titles. Since he left, FSU has a combined record of 58-32 (.644) including 3-5 in bowl games.

6. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech – Has anyone done more with less over the past two decades than Beamer? Blacksburg is nice enough, but when you have to contend with the likes of conference foes such as Florida State, Clemson, Boston College and Miami (Fla.) – not mention all of the SEC rivals in the area – recruiting players to Virginia Tech isn’t exactly easy. Yet, Beamer has managed to post 164 victories at his alma mater, including 10 wins or more in seven of the past nine seasons. He is also acknowledged as one of the top special teams coaches in the game, and his 208 career wins rank him 12th all-time and third among active I-A coaches behind Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno.

7. Jim Leavitt, South Florida While offense usually gets the headlines, defense is typically what wins football games and Leavitt understands that concept perfectly. He was a successful defensive coordinator, most notably at Kansas State in the early 1990s, before taking over South Florida’s brand new football program in 1997. Playing four seasons as a I-AA independent before making the leap to I-A in 2001, Leavitt is the only coach the Bulls have ever known. The team took a major step last year, rising to No. 2 in the polls before losing three straight games. But Leavitt has said that was a learning experience and you get the feeling USF may come back even stronger in 2008.

8. Greg Schiano, Rutgers You to be doing something right to make Rutgers one of the must-see teams in the nation. Thanks to a couple of excellent recruiting classes – not to mention an agreement to play several games in front of a Thursday night national television audience – the Scarlet Knights have become one of the most entertaining acts in college football. After beginning his career in Piscataway with a dismal four-year record of 12-34, Schiano has turned things around these past three seasons. Since 2005, the Knights have gone 26-12, including a pair of impressive bowl wins the last two years. If Schiano continues to win at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey is going to find it difficult to keep him under contract.

9. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech – The proof is how good Johnson really is will become clearer starting this year when he takes over the Yellow Jackets, a team that has won more than seven games only once in the past seven seasons. But it’s not like Tech is going way out on a limb with Johnson, who turns 51 on Aug. 20. His throwback triple-option offense got Navy to five straight bowls and captured back-to-back Division I-AA national titles at Georgia Southern. The first of those championships came in 1999 against Youngstown State, then coached by Tressel.

10. Jeff Tedford, Cal Some of the shine may be off the 46-year-old Tedford after the Bears stumbled to a 7-6 season last year. But there is every indication that was a one-year aberration. Before Tedford got to Berkeley, the Bears hadn’t had a winning season in eight year. Since he arrived in 2002, Cal is 50-26 with four bowl victories and the program’s first Pac-10 championship in 31 years. Among the coach’s many attributes is churning out NFL quarterbacks. Trent Dilfer, Joey Harrington, Billy Volek, A.J. Feeley, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers are all Tedford protégés.

Honorable mention – Pat Hill, Fresno State; Gary Patterson, TCU; Brian Kelly, Cincinnati; Tom O’Brien, North Carolina State.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to one of the most underrated receivers in Ohio State history. Bruce Jankowski was born Aug. 12, 1949, in Patterson, N.J., and was a star running back at Fairview High School. He was converted to receiver when he got to Columbus and became a member of the Super Sophomores, who helped carry OSU to the 1968 national championship. That season, Jankowski led the Buckeyes with 31 catches for 328 yards and three TDs, and finished his three-year career with 66 receptions for 968 and nine touchdowns. After graduation, Jankowski played two seasons in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 1972. He currently lives in Kansas about a half-hour south of Kansas City.

Also celebrating birthdays today: two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “All The President’s Men”); race car driver and owner Parnelli Jones; overly tanned actor George Hamilton; guitarist extraordinaire and Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler; self-proclaimed psychic Miss Cleo (born Youree Dell Harris); rapper Sir Mix A Lot (born Anthony Ray); comedian/actor/writer Michael Ian Black (born Michael Schwartz); actor Casey Affleck (Ben’s little brother); Wheel of Fortune announcer Charlie O’Donnell; Memphis Grizzlies forward Antoine Walker; New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress; San Diego Chargers receiver Chris Chambers; and 14-time Grand Slam tennis champion Pete Sampras.

Today would also have marked the 73rd birthday of character actor John Cazale. You may not recognize the name, but Cazale played supporting roles in several classic films of the 1970s. In addition to portraying, Stan in “The Conversation,” Stosh in “The Deer Hunter” and Al Pacino’s bank robber accomplice Sal in “Dog Day Afternoon,” Cazale was hang-dog older brother Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather” trilogy. Sadly, Cazale died of bone cancer in 1978 at the age of 42 just as his career was taking off. Each of the five films in which he appeared during his lifetime – as well as “The Godfather: Part III,” which used archival footage of Cazale’s performance as Fredo – were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

AND FINALLY

** If you see yesterday’s trade by Cincinnati of outfielder Adam Dunn to Arizona as anything more than a salary dump, better check your eyesight. I have been a Reds fan all my life, but the last few years of listening to fans and their constant whining about Dunn and future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. is about all I can stand. Maybe it’s simple karma that Cincinnati fans haven’t been able to cheer for a World Series champion since 1990. They don’t deserve it.

** When the 2008 baseball season comes to a close, and the last game has been played in historic Yankee Stadium, the team will put several items from the park up for public auction. As unbelievable as this sounds, one of the items slated to be sold is the iconic Babe Ruth Monument situated behind the centerfield fence. Noted sports memorabilia appraiser Leila Dunbar estimates the monument could bring somewhere between $250,000 and $2 million.

** Speaking of sports memorabilia, there is a “Favre Comeback Special” advertisement in the September issue of Sports Collectors Monthly. Signed items include a mini-helmet for $159.95, an authentic jersey for $389.95 and a ProLine authentic full-size helmet for $439.95. Yes, each of those items are from Green Bay.

** If this truly is Joe Paterno’s final season at Penn State, it would seem pretty much of a lock that his successor will be Greg Schiano of Rutgers. Schiano, a Bucknell grad who spent six seasons in the 1990s on Paterno’s staff in Happy Valley, won’t be that difficult to get. According to conflicting reports, Schiano either has a relatively small $500,000 buyout clause in his current contract with the Scarlet Knights or no buyout clause at all.

** ESPN recently announced that Chick-fil-A has signed on as a sponsor for the College GameDay show featuring Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit. I suppose there is some joke in there about the synergy between the eponymous show and chicken, but you can probably come up with your own.

** Jack Rockne died Sunday in South Bend, Ind., of throat cancer at the age of 82. He was the last surviving child of legendary Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne, who died in a plane crash in 1931. Jack is survived by four children, including daughter Jeanne Anne, who lives in Columbus.

Superstar In Hoops, Baseball, Medicine

One of the finest scholar-athletes in Ohio State history celebrates his 76th birthday today and chances are most of you have never heard of Paul Ebert. That is probably because he long ago stepped away from a successful athletic career to become one of the world’s foremost cardiologists.

Born Aug. 11, 1932, in Columbus, Paul Allen Ebert was a do-everything athlete at old South High School before entering Ohio State. For the Buckeyes, he became an All-America performer in two separate sports.

The 6-4, 188-pound Ebert was one of the first OSU basketball stars on the national level, leading the Buckeyes in scoring each of the three seasons he was a varsity player. From 1952-54, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was voted MVP by his teammates all three of those seasons.

By the time he had finished his college career, Ebert had established the school career scoring record with 1,436 points. During his senior year in 1954, he also became the first Buckeye ever to top the 500-point mark in a single season when he tallied 516, and he earned a third-team All-America selection from United Press International.

As good as he was in basketball, Ebert may have been even better in baseball.

He fashioned a career record of 21-8 as a pitcher, leading the Buckeyes in victories and strikeouts in each of the years he played. A consensus first-team All-American as a senior, Ebert set new OSU records for single-season and career strikeouts, marks that stayed on the books until Steve Arlin broke them in the mid-1960s.

After college, the Milwaukee Hawks made Ebert their fifth-round selection in the 1954 NBA draft – the 38th overall pick in that draft. (That same year, the Hawks took LSU star and future Hall of Famer Bob Pettit with their first-round pick.) Meanwhile, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates offered Ebert lucrative pro baseball contracts. But the money wasn’t very good in the NBA, and under Major League Baseball rules then in force, Ebert would have been required to play for the club with which he signed for a minimum of two years. Also by that time, he had already married his wife, Louise, and began medical school at Ohio State.

He turned down the pro sports offers and concentrated on finishing his studies, embarking upon a distinguished and decorated medical career.

Ebert graduated from the Ohio State Medical School in 1958, and then interned and served his residency at prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Later, he spent two years as a senior assistant surgeon at the National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Md., where he specialized in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery and became one of the world’s top pediatric heart surgeons.

Ebert has also served as professor of surgery at Duke University Medical Center, chairman of the department of surgery at Cornell University Medical College and a similar position at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center.

In 1986, he became director of the American College of Surgeons in Chicago, and three years later was awarded the Theodore Roosevelt Award, considered the highest honor given by the NCAA. It is awarded to a distinguished citizen of national reputation based on outstanding life accomplishment.

Ebert, who resides in the Chicago area, has returned to Ohio State several times over the years, including 1977 when he was a member of the inaugural class of the university’s athletic hall of fame. He joined an illustrious slate of first-year inductees including Chic Harley, Jerry Lucas, Jack Nicklaus, Lynn St. John and Jesse Owens.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Also celebrating a birthday today is former Ohio State quarterback Joe Germaine. Born Aug. 11, 1975, in Denver, Joe Berton Germaine moved with his family at a young age to Mesa, Ariz., where he became a high school star quarterback and defensive back. He later became a record-setting QB at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College before joining the Buckeyes in 1995. Germaine would go on to earn MVP honors for rallying Ohio State to a victory over Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl, and then have the most productive single season any Ohio State QB has ever had in 1998. As one of the team captains, he set 11 different school records on his way to throwing for 3,330 yards and 25 touchdowns. After a brief stint in the NFL, Germaine has become one of the top passers in the Arena Football League, throwing for more than 14,000 yards and 290 TDs in five seasons.

Among the worldwide celebrities marking their birthdays today: Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf; FedEx founder, chairman, president and CEO Fred Smith; country singer John Conlee (“Rose Colored Glasses”); singer, former Raspberries frontman and Cleveland native Eric Carmen; Oasis bassist Andy Bell; singer Joe Jackson (“Steppin’ Out”); Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; video game designer Shinji Mikami (“Resident Evil”); poker player Erick Lindgren; former middleweight boxing champion Jermain Taylor; reality show maven Amber Brkich; Fear Factor host Joe Rogan; New York Yankees outfielder Melky Cabrera; and professional wrestler Terry Bollea. You probably know him a little better as Hulk Hogan.

Also on this date in 1929, Babe Ruth became the first major leaguer to hit 500 career home runs. Ruth connected off Cleveland Indians righthander Willis Hudlin at League Park, the Tribe’s home park from 1901 to 1932 and their on-and-off home base until 1946. The Indians moved into cavernous Cleveland Stadium in 1932, but still played most weekday games at League Park, the last stadium used in Major League Baseball that never installed lights. League Park closed at the end of the 1946 season and stood at the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street until it was torn down in 1951.

THE FINE ART OF COMEDY

My wife and I went to the historic Palace Theater in Columbus last night to catch comedian Lewis Black’s performance.

Black was his usual sardonic self – his tour is called “Let Them Eat Cake” – with riffs on the anticipation of losing one’s virginity, golf and, of course, politics and current affairs. He was his usual equal opportunity offender, too, saying things such as, “Anyone who’s still a Democrat or a Republican after the past 20 years – you’re hallucinating without the drugs.”

The entire 90-minute set – along with a 20-minute warmup from fellow comic Lynne Koplitz – was equal parts provocative and side-splittingly funny.

But Black showed why he is so good at what he does when late in his set during some musings on the price of gas, a heckler from the balcony yelled, “I didn’t come here for the news.”

Black stopped, walked over to the side of the stage and without aid of a microphone shot back, “I give you my take on these things. If we don’t laugh at this (bleep), we’re all (bleeping) gonna end up like you.”

That line got the biggest pop of the night and rightfully so.

Later, Black admitted the exchange bothered him but that it came with the territory.

“Over the last 20 years, I have really enjoyed performing for my fans,” he said. “But then they bring their friends and, well …”

AND FINALLY

** Forgive me while I clean out some stuff that accumulated during my vacation such as the cover of my college football preview issue of Sports Illustrated. The magazine renowned for its spectacular photography gave me a hackneyed posed shot of spread-legged Todd Boeckman flanked by James Laurinaitis and Beanie Wells? I expected a little more creativity from SI, especially on one of their best-selling issues of the year. Olan Mills could have done better.

** How many more players have to be arrested before Georgia head coach Mark Richt starts feeling some heat from the national press? If you’re scoring at home, at least eight Bulldogs have run afoul of the law since the end of the 2007 season.

** Those who continue to complain about the lack of excitement in horse racing obviously didn’t see Big Brown’s come-from-behind victory Aug. 3 in the Haskell Invitational.

** Another great race occurred the day before that when undefeated Deweycheatumnhowe held off a late charge to win the prestigious Hambletonian, the top prize in harness racing. Even if you don’t like the Standardbreds, you have to root for a horse whose name pays homage to the Three Stooges.

** Watching snippets of the lengthy Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies made me wonder why Chris Berman continues to be hell-bent on continuing a shtick that got old about 10 years ago.

** Also about those Hall of Fame ceremonies: When is the committee going to wise up and enshrine NFL Films founder Ed Sabol? As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times put it, “Sabol shouldn’t just be in the Hall of Fame, there should be a whole wing devoted to him and his work.”

** If Erin Andrews doesn’t understand that the way she dresses on assignment has an impact on the way others perceive her, she’s dumber than I thought.

** Hey, Phil Mickelson. These past two Tiger-less major championships were there for your taking. Instead, Pádraig Harrington is now the toast of the golfing word with his victories at the British Open and the PGA Championship. You’re 38 now, Lefty. Just how many more legitimate chances at major championships do you think you’re going to have? Or maybe you’re content with not quite realizing your vast potential. Of course, I know you have 51 million reasons why my opinion doesn’t matter. That’s how much money you made last year alone – 47 mil of it from endorsements.

** And that attitude is precisely why I look for the Americans to get waxed again in the Ryder Cup competition, set for Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.

** Speaking of Harrington, did you know he is a distant cousin of 1995 World Series of Poker champion Dan Harrington as well as Atlanta Falcons quarterback Joey Harrington?

** USA Today’s website staged a reader poll to determine college football fans’ choice for the top two teams this preseason. Georgia was No. 1 and Ohio State finished No. 2. Of course, that started a whole new round of posts from the dunderheads trying to wish the Buckeyes out of a third straight appearance in the BCS title game. Several of them referred to OSU as “the Buffalo Bills of college football.” First of all, that comparison is getting stale. Secondly, it’s not even accurate. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s and came away winless. The Buckeyes may have lost back-to-back BCS games, but most of their critics have evidently forgotten the 2002 national championship.

My Preseason Top 25 College Football Teams

 

’Tis  the season for preseason prognostications and I guess I’m no different.  

 After some careful analysis – not to mention some serious soul-searching – I have come up with my preseason top 25 for college football.

 

The most popular picks du jour come from the Southeastern Conference, of course. That is because the SEC is working on back-to-back national championships – both at the expense of Ohio State.

 

If you truly take a look at the teams that should have the best shot at playing in Dolphin Stadium for the BCS title next January, however, you cannot overlook the Buckeyes. They were overachievers last year when they made the national championship game, and despite what most of the so-called experts would have you believe, they did not get run out of the Superdome by LSU.

 

Based on that experience, the fact that nearly every vital starter from last year’s team has returned, and a schedule that spreads out all of the toughest road games, it seems Ohio State would have to be the team to beat.

 

It won’t be easy, of course. The Buckeyes probably have to go undefeated just to play in Miami. And if they go undefeated, that will mean they have beaten USC in the Coliseum for the first time since 1946, they will have notched an unprecedented fifth straight win over archrival Michigan, and they will have won a third straight undisputed Big Ten championship – and that has never been accomplished by any conference football team.

 

But you know what the old coach said: “Anything easy ain’t worth a damn.” With that, here’s my preseason top 25.

 

1. Ohio State – Go ahead and call me a homer if you want to, but any team with 20 starters back from the squad that went to the title game a year ago simply must be the favorites to win it all this season. If the Buckeyes are truly interested in shutting the mouths of their critics once and for all, they’ll never have a better chance than 2008.

 

2. Florida – This is the team to beat in SEC, not Georgia. The Gators are likely to have a more potent running game this year to protect Heisman winner Tim Tebow, and their offense will be lights-out if WR/RB Percy Harvin returns healthy. All Urban Meyer’s team needs to do is play better on defense, and they could be headed for a rematch with the Buckeyes in Miami.

 

3. Oklahoma – Consistency is the key for the Sooners, who sometimes go into midseason funks when you least expect it. They should be the class of the Big 12 this year, especially with an offense that boasts the precision passing attack of QB Sam Bradford couple with the one-two punch of running backs DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown.

 

4. Southern California – There is no doubt that Pete Carroll has again amassed a roster so full of talent that many NFL teams are envious. But for all of their obvious strengths, USC hasn’t won a national title since 2004. The Trojans are experienced everywhere but quarterback and receiver, and it will be interesting to see how those players respond to the early-season task on Sept. 13 when Ohio State comes to town.

 

5. Georgia – Any other year, I would pick the Bulldogs as one of the favorites to go to the BCS title game. But I don’t think they even get to their own conference championship game. Their schedule is brutal with a non-league trip to Arizona State and SEC road games at South Carolina, LSU and Auburn, not to mention playing Florida in Jacksonville.

 

6. Auburn – Here is your sleeper team in the SEC, especially if the Tigers embrace their new spread offense. If Auburn can avoid its annual stumble at the beginning of the season, it could be the conference team making BCS title noise down the stretch because it gets LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia all at home.

 

7. Missouri – If you think the Big Ten has gotten weaker in the recent past, you haven’t been paying attention to the once-mighty Big 12. Not to besmirch the job Gary Pinkel did last year at Mizzou, getting within a game of playing for the national championship. But the Tigers are pretty much a one-trick pony with quarterback Chase Daniel at the control of a high-octane offense. Stop Daniel and you stop Missouri.

 

8. Wisconsin – All the Badgers need to do is find a serviceable quarterback and they will be in the hunt for another 10-win season. Former Kansas State starter Allan Evridge appears to be the favorite to win that job, but there is a reason why he transferred and has not been able to win the starting job in Madison before now. Try a completion ratio way south of 50 percent. Yikes.

 

9. West Virginia – The Mountaineers would appear to have one more year left in the tank despite the loss of their head coach to Michigan. New boss Bill Stewart isn’t expected to change much, meaning the spread attack led by quarterback Pat White will remain the most potent offense in the Big East. Stewart’s only problem would seem to be keeping White healthy.

 

10. Clemson – This is the year Tommy Bowden has been waiting for. He arguably has his best team ever, featuring an offense led by the backfield duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller along with quarterback Cullen Davis, the top-rated passer in the ACC last season. Pile on a talented defense, including all four returning starters in the secondary, and you begin to realize why the Tigers are so excited for the 2008 season to get under way.

 

11. Virginia Tech – Something always seems to happen to the Hokies to prevent them from playing for a national championship. Nevertheless, Frank Beamer’s team annually flirts with the top of the polls and this year should be no different.

 

12. South Florida – Remember the Bulls? They got all the way up to No. 2 in the nation last year before slipping at the end of the season. But what happened along the way was a learning experience for a relatively young program, and no opponent had better go to sleep on USF this year. The defense is led by DE George Selvie, one of a handful of players who could be considered the top defender in college football.

 

13. Texas – If the light finally goes on at full wattage for quarterback Colt McCoy, they’ll be a top-5 contender. If, however, McCoy meanders through the season as he did in 2007, Texas has too many other holes to fill to be a serious threat, especially with back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Missouri in mid-October.

 

14. Wake Forest – Here is another team for which opponents had better keep their focus. The Deacons finished 9-4 last season and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see them better than mark in ’08. You may have never heard of such players as QB Riley Skinner, RB Josh Adams, LB Aaron Curry and K Sam Swank, but they are some of the best at their positions in the ACC.

 

15. BYU – It shouldn’t be too much of a shock to see the Cougars back among college football’s best teams. When they hired innovative defensive whiz Bronco Mendenhall a couple of years ago, you figured it would be only a matter of time before BYU was back. The team finished 11-2 last season and has set a goal of crashing the BCS party this season.

 

16. Penn State – If this is going to be Joe Paterno’s final season in Happy Valley, you know he want to go out with a bang. In that vein, he has switched back to the spread offense that garnered his team a Big Ten championship a couple of years ago. If he can find the right quarterback to engineer that attack, Paterno definitely has the horses on defense to compete for the conference title.

 

17. Texas Tech – Some experts are picking the Red Raiders to win the Big 12 title this season, but I just can’t see it. It sure is fun to watch Double-T throw the ball all over the lot, and WR Michael Crabtree had perhaps the finest season any freshman receiver has ever had last year. But until Tech head coach Mike Leach invests at least one-quarter of his time to defense, the Raiders are never going to be a serious contender for their conference much less the BCS race.

 

18. Illinois – Call me crazy but I think the Illini are hard-pressed to match last season’s 9-4 showing. I think they caught a couple of opponents napping and the so-called experts are downplaying the effect of the loss of running back Rashard Mendenhall. If quarterback Juice Williams cannot be more consistent, the offense will be without an identity and I don’t think Ron Zook can rely solely on his defense.

 

19. Tennessee – A new starting quarterback and a tough road schedule makes the Volunteers nothing more than a dark horse candidate in the SEC. Tennessee struggled the past two years in games when QB Erik Ainge was hurting, and now that Ainge is gone, they will have to rely on untested Jonathan Crompton. Add in away games at UCLA, Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina, and the Vols are going to be fighting for their lives in 2008.

 

20. LSU – The coaches poll has the defending champs all the way up at No. 6. I just don’t see that. The Tigers lost a barrel full of talent from 2007, including all-everything defender Glenn Dorsey. They’re also starting over on offense after starting QB Matt Flynn graduated and heir apparent Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team. No way do I envision a conference title repeat much less another trip to the national championship game.

 

21. Utah – I don’t know why the Utes aren’t getting more love from the prognosticators. They won eight of their last nine games in ’07, return eight starters on an offense including QB Brian Johnson and RB Darrell Mack, and return the bulk of a unit that led the pass-crazy Mountain West in scoring defense last year. We’ll get to see early just how good Utah can be. They travel to Ann Arbor for opening day Aug. 30.

 

22. Boise State – What’s not to like about a team that is worth its weight in gold as far as raw entertainment value is concerned? Yes, the Broncos are facing wholesale changes in personnel but they’ve faced that before. Over the last 10 seasons, Boise State is one of only three schools to post 100 wins or more. The others are Oklahoma and Texas. That stat alone makes them worthy of anyone’s preseason rankings.

 

23. Cincinnati – The Bearcats were one of the surprise teams of 2007, but you need only look at head coach Brian Kelly’s résumé to know he’s a winner. This year, Kelly welcomes back a bunch of defensive stars from last year. And if he can find a suitable replacement for quarterback Ben Mauk – former starter Dustin Grutza is still around as is Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones – Kelly could steer Cincinnati right back into the Big East title picture.

 

24. Fresno State – The only thing stopping the Bulldogs from being ranked higher is their mentality for playing anyone at any time. That is surely to be commended, especially in this day and age when most of the big boys are stuffing themselves on any many cupcakes as the schedule will allow. Fresno’s non-conference slate takes the Bulldogs to Rutgers, Toledo and UCLA – all before September ends. And that doesn’t even count a home contest against Wisconsin.

 

25. Nebraska – The cupboard in Lincoln may not be quite as bare as some would have you believe. If Bill Callahan’s leftovers buy into the kind of defensive scheme new head coach Bo Pelini has installed, there is no reason why the Blackshirts shouldn’t re-emerge. If the Cornhuskers can turn the corner on D, they can begin the long road back to prominence … perhaps as early as this season.

 

You will notice some noteworthy teams not in my rankings, including Arizona State, Oregon, Michigan and Notre Dame.

 

The Sun Devils, ranked No. 16 in the preseason coaches poll, did it with mirrors last season. I don’t see them sneaking up on anyone in 2008. Likewise, the Ducks are going to see what life is like without QB Dennis Dixon and RB Jonathan Stewart. They got a taste of that last year when Dixon was sidelined and they were a completely different team.

 

Meanwhile, the Wolverines may experience some excruciating growing pains as they completely overhaul the program under first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez. Eight or nine wins is not totally out of the question, but then again a losing season isn’t either.

 

As for the Irish, how about you show me something – anything – before you start complaining about not getting any love? You were 3-9 last year and it was a particularly ugly 3-9. Get to .500 and then we can talk.

 

ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE

 

Ohio State fans obviously remember Maurice Clarett and the mess he made of his young life. Part of that, of course, was due to the tremendous amount of poor advice he received from family members and handlers, including the ill-fated attempt to challenge the NFL for early entry into the draft.

 

You may also recall the year that Clarett was initially ruled eligible to join the draft – a decision that was later overturned in court – USC wide receiver Mike Williams joined Clarett as sophomores declaring for the draft. When the case was thrown out, Williams sat out a season and then returned to the Trojans in 2004.

 

Detroit made him the No. 10 overall pick in the 2005 draft, and he spent two nondescript seasons with the Lions, catching 37 passes for 449 yards and two touchdowns.

 

Williams was traded to Oakland on draft day in 2007, but the Raiders released him in October. He latched on with Tennessee last November, but by then was a shadow of his former self. His weight had ballooned to about 270 pounds, and the Titans told him to get his weight and conditioning under control.

 

Williams lost about 30 pounds in the offseason, but his conditioning was still suspect when the Titans released him just before practice on July 31.

 

HAPPY! HAPPY!

 

Born this day were such luminaries as longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas; Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland; actor/comic Richard Belzer (Detective John Munch on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”); Hall of Fame running back John Riggins; actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton; former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; former U.S. world-class distance runner Mary Decker; former MLB pitcher Roger Clemens; four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon; 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch; actors Dylan and Cole Sprouse (“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”); and U.S. Senator and presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Barack Obama.

 

Today also marks the 50th birthday of actress Kym Karath. The name may not ring a bell but I’ll bet you have seen her work. Her most famous role was that of Gretl, the youngest member of the Von Trapp family in the 1965 Oscar-winning “The Sound of Music.”

 

AND FINALLY

 

** I am blogging from beautiful, sun-drenched Marco Island in southwest Florida. And while I’m trying to squeeze in the last days of vacation before football season, I am left with one thought: Why does basic cable in Marco Island, Fla., offer the Big Ten Network when it is not available in Columbus, Ohio?

 

** In any event, I am having some fun checking out the BTN while I’m here. Like other sports-only networks, there is a lot of repetition. But it was fun to watch some of the Michigan-Appalachian State game from last year. Not so much for the replay of the Minnesota-Penn State contest. But there is supposedly a special report from Ohio State practice on Tuesday, so I’ll be eager to check that out.

 

** Congratulations to Brian Kelly and his University of Cincinnati football program. The school recently announced that season ticket sales had reached 11,000, the highest mark in program history.

 

** Maybe there are a few too many bowl games. The ACC just announced that it has entered an agreement with the new Congressional Bowl to send its ninth-place team to that game. I don’t care how competitive your league may be – a ninth-place team has no business going to the postseason.

 

** On Saturday night in Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed six new members. It seems unbelievable that Randy Gradishar, Jim Lachey and Cris Carter were not in that group.

 

** It’s a shame that the Ken Griffey Jr. era in Cincinnati ended with such a whimper. Junior’s myriad injuries and a long streak of losing seasons robbed Reds fans from being able to enjoy watching a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in action.

 

** After weeks of being bombarded by endless attack ads and mindless drivel from each campaign, I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my candidacy for President of the United States. I think I can be just as viable as the major party candidates because I, too, can be consistently vague on all the issues and I have no problem making promises that I will be unable to fulfill.

 

 

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