Top Five Ohio State Football Stories Of 2008

Everyone has their year-end lists and I’m no different. Here are my top five stories in Ohio State football over the 2008 calendar year, offered in order of importance (at least IMHO).

1. BUCKEYES LOSE TITLE GAME … AGAIN

It was not the blowout that most of the national media continues to portray it as, but a host of mental and physical mistakes added up to a 38-24 loss for Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game.

OSU held an early 10-0 lead on LSU and looked to be the aggressor. But a blocked field goal in the second quarter caused the dam to burst as the Tigers reeled off 31 straight points. Along the way, the Buckeyes committed seven costly penalties for 83 yards – including a back-breaking, roughing-the-punter call early in the third quarter – and turned the ball over three times.

Worse yet, the outcome came just one year after Florida had pounded Ohio State in the national title game, and the loss to LSU perpetuated the notion that the Buckeyes were powerless against teams from the big, bad SEC.

The tarnished national reputation and rap that it has lost its edge in the so-called “big games” – deserved or not – continued to dog OSU throughout the 2008 season and follows the Buckeyes back to Arizona for the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.

2. PRYOR FINALLY SIGNS

Members of the Buckeye Nation held their collective breaths on Feb. 6 as Pennsylvania schoolboy phenom Terrelle Pryor got set to announce his college choice. But as National Signing Day came and went, the only decision Pryor announced was that he was going to postpone his decision.

Pryor waited another six weeks while he finished his basketball season at Jeannette, Pa., and then announced that he would attend Ohio State. The 6-6, 225-pounder, whose frame and playing style immediately evoked memories of former Texas QB Vince Young, chose the Buckeyes over Michigan.

Pryor’s decision had an almost immediate impact on the quarterback position at OSU. Backup quarterback Robby Schoenhoft had already transferred to Delaware in January, and in June, backup Antonio Henton announced he would transfer to Georgia Southern. With Schoenhoft and Henton on the roster, Pryor may have faced a little more competition for playing time. Or maybe not.

3. LOSS TO USC TRIGGERS QB SWITCH

Never in his previous 89 games as head coach of the Buckeyes had Jim Tressel ever done anything so drastic as to bench a senior starter in favor of a freshman. Nevertheless, that is what happened in the wake of Ohio State’s 35-3 loss at Southern California.

Todd Boeckman, one of four team co-captains and the reigning first-team All-Big Ten quarterback, had turned in a couple of lackluster performances in the team’s first two games against Youngstown State and Ohio. But when he threw two interceptions against USC – one of which was returned for a touchdown right before the first half ended, Tressel seemed to lose faith in Boeckman.

The following week against Troy, Pryor started under center for the Buckeyes and became the first freshman since Art Schlichter in 1978 to start at quarterback for Ohio State. Pryor helped lead the team to a fourth straight Big Ten championship and another BCS game berth. Meanwhile, Boeckman languished on the bench, throwing only 15 more passes in the team’s final nine games.

4. MOST SENIORS DECIDE TO RETURN

In this day and age, it is not only common for underclassmen to declare early for the NFL draft, it has become almost expected. That is why Buckeye fans rejoiced last January when most of Ohio State’s talented junior class opted to forgo financial gain and remain in scarlet and gray for their senior season.

James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins returned to anchor the OSU defense, and they played well enough to take home two of the top individual trophies in college football – Laurinaitis won the Lott Trophy and Jenkins captured the Thorpe Award. Meanwhile, the presence of such other seniors as Marcus Freeman, Alex Boone and Brian Robiskie helped the Buckeyes achieve another 10-win season.

Defensive end Vernon Gholston was the lone contrarian, and he cashed in on a five-year, $32.5 million deal after being selected with the sixth overall pick by the New York Jets. And while he has 32½ million arguments why he made the right decision, Gholston didn’t exactly have an easy go of it in his rookie season. Projected to make an immediate impact on the Jets defense, Gholston was relegated to mostly special teams play and made only 13 tackles in 15 games.

5. WELLS GETS HURT IN 2008 OPENER

The end of an old year is usually a time when we look back wistfully and wonder what might have been. OSU fans need go back only to Aug. 30 and the season opener against Youngstown State.

Midway through the third quarter, with the Buckeyes well in control over the Penguins, tailback Beanie Wells took a handoff and then fell to the ground as if he had been shot. The diagnosis was a torn toe ligament, an injury that sidelined the Heisman Trophy hopeful for the next three games.

That included the loss at USC, during which Ohio State totaled only 71 rushing yards. Based upon the final score, it is difficult to imagine that the presence of a healthy Wells would have made much of an impact in that game. Still, in his absence, the Buckeyes did several things early in that contest that were very much out of character. Most people forget that OSU held a 3-0 lead throughout most of the first quarter in that game, and trailed only 14-3 late in the first half. Maybe Wells wouldn’t have made a difference – but in the spirit of New Year’s Eve, maybe he would have.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** Did you know that the Sugar, Orange and Sun bowls each celebrate their 75th anniversaries this week? Congratulations to them but they are mere pups in the overall bowl picture. When USC and Penn State square off on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, it will be the 95th Rose Bowl game. No wonder they call it “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

** The Fiesta Bowl, as part of its pregame festivities, will honor the most recent inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame. Representing Ohio State will be former head coach John Cooper, who was a member of the 2008 class of inductees. Meanwhile, Texas – which did not have a member of the ’08 class – will be represented by former linebacker Tommy Nobis, who was inducted in 1981. Nobis, who won the Outland and Maxwell trophies in 1965 for the Longhorns, went on to an all-pro career in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons.

** It’s a safe bet that Charlie Weis will be glad to say goodbye to 2008. After another tough season at the helm of the Notre Dame football program, Weis underwent surgery Monday to have his right knee replaced. That was not the knee Weis injured in mid-September when he was run over on the sideline during the Michigan game. The coach had planned to undergo surgery Feb. 24 on the left knee, which has tears in all four major ligaments – anterior cruciate, medial collateral, posterior cruciate and lateral meniscus.

** Someone recently starting beating the drum for Cal running back Jahvid Best to be the frontrunner for the 2009 Heisman Trophy. That, of course, was based upon Best’s 186-yard performance in the Emerald Bowl against Miami (Fla.). While I have no doubt that Best is a great back – he played against the Hurricanes with a dislocated left elbow and sprained right wrist – we would all do well to remember that the Miami defense struggled all season against the rush, finishing No. 76 nationally in that category. If Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford and Colt McCoy all return next year, Best will have to run for at least 2,000 yards just to get an invitation to New York.

** Where are they now? Pat Sullivan, who won the 1971 Heisman Trophy as a quarterback at Auburn, just signed a five-year contract extension as head coach at Division I-AA Samford. The Bulldogs are 10-12 in two seasons under Sullivan, including a 6-5 record this year. That represents the best record since 2003 for Samford and a pretty nice personal comeback for Sullivan. In September 2003, he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He underwent a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and has now been cancer-free for 4½ years.

** There’s something to be said for old dogs. For example, Florida International head coach Howard Schnellenberger is now 6-0 lifetime in the college postseason after his team’s 24-21 win over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. The 74-year-old Schnellenberger, who played for the legendary Bear Bryant at Kentucky in the 1950s, came out of retirement in 2001 to build the FAU program from scratch and has a 41-42 record in eight seasons with the Owls.

** Speaking of old dogs, don’t be quick to count out Penn State against USC in the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions may be double-digit underdogs to the Trojans, but Joe Paterno has made a pretty nice living winning bowl games. His 23 postseason victories are an all-time NCAA record.

** As you ponder how many more victories Paterno can amass, here is a stat that can only be described as amazing. Since 1966, when JoePa was named head coach at Penn State, the rest of major college football has made 837 (and counting) coaching moves.

** One more Paterno-ism: The first All-American Joe Pa coached at Penn State was tight end Ted Kwalick, who later played nine years in the NFL with San Francisco and Oakland. Kwalick is now 61 years old.

** It seems like someone should have accomplished the feat before now, but when West Virginia beat North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, it made Pat White the first player in Division I-A history to lead his team to four consecutive bowl victories as a starting quarterback.

** Twenty-four years ago today, Virginia celebrated its first-ever postseason appearance with a come-from-behind victory in the Peach Bowl. On Dec. 31, 1984, the Cavaliers stormed back from a 24-14 halftime deficit and scored a 27-24 victory over Purdue. Virginia was led by quarterback Don “Magic Man” Majkowski and cornerback Ray Daly, who intercepted Purdue QB Jim Everett late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 29, 1997, Cincinnati tallied its first postseason victory in 46 years, taking a 35-19 win over Utah State in the inaugural Humanitarian Bowl in Boise Idaho; on Jan. 1, 1925, Notre Dame scored a 27-10 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl, capping a 10-0 season and giving head coach Knute Rockne his a fourth national championship; on Jan. 3, 2002, Miami (Fla.) claimed the national championship with a 37-14 win over Nebraska in the Rose Bowl, making Larry Coker the first coach since 1948 to win the national title in his first season as head coach; and on Jan. 4, 2005, USC put a 55-19 spanking on Oklahoma behind quarterback Matt Leinart’s Orange Bowl-record five touchdown passes. That game was the first ever to pit two Heisman Trophy winners against one another. Leinart was the 2004 winner while Oklahoma quarterback Jason White was the ’03 winner.

** This week also marks the 53rd anniversary of one of the wackiest finishes ever to a Rose Bowl. With Michigan State and UCLA tied 14-14 with time running out, legendary Spartans head coach Duffy Daugherty decided to pass up regular kicker Gerry Planutis and decided to let end Dick Kaiser attempt a 41-yard field goal. As Kaiser lined up for a practice kick, the ball was accidentally snapped. With the clock showing 0:07, Kaiser calmly split the uprights with his first career field goal and Michigan State walked off with a 17-14 victory.

** Ohio State fans will also be celebrating the sixth anniversary of their favorite team’s double-overtime upset victory over defending national champion Miami (Fla.). The Hurricanes had a 34-game winning streak and were installed as two-touchdown favorites, but they had no answer for a swarming OSU defense. Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett scored a 5-yard touchdown in the second overtime, and Miami could not answer as quarterback Ken Dorsey’s fourth-down pass attempt was batted down. The Buckeyes celebrated a 31-24 win, and the school’s first national championship since 1968.

FEARLESS FORECAST

Here is some advice for the new year: Do not – repeat do not – follow our bowl forecasts. It has gotten so bad this year that my wife, who doesn’t know diddly about college football and cares even less, is dogging me about my picks. As I turned the television off the other night on another meaningless bowl game, she asked, “Who won?” When I told her, she asked, “Did you pick them?” When I said no, she never looked up from her book as she replied, “Of course you didn’t.”

Had bad it is? Real bad. The bowl picks are a dismal 6-11 both straight-up and against the spread. Things have to get better … don’t they?

DEC. 31 GAMES

Armed Forces Bowl

Houston vs. Air Force: You couldn’t find two more divergent offensive attacks if you tried. The Cougars like to air things out while the Falcons use the triple option and stay primarily on the ground. These two faced one another earlier this season with Air Force hanging on for a 31-28 win after building a 31-7 lead late in the third quarter. In that game, the Falcons totaled every one of their 380 yards of offense on the ground while Houston QB Case Keenum threw for 326 yards and ran for 75 more. The old saying is that it’s tough to beat a good team twice in the same season, and Wake Forest already proved that this bowl season with a win over Navy in the EagleBank Bowl. Pass-happy teams are more prone to turnovers, and the Cougars are working on an eight-game postseason losing streak. Still, there’s an awful lot to like about them … Houston 34, Air Force 30. (12 noon EST, ESPN)

Sun Bowl

Oregon State vs. No. 18 Pittsburgh: With quarterbacks getting most of the attention this season, it will be a welcome respite to watch two of the nation’s top running backs square off against one another. Pitt has sophomore LeSean McCoy (1,403 yards, 21 TDs) while the Beavers have freshman Jacquizz Rodgers (1,253 yards, 11 TDs). Of course, Rodgers may not be 100 percent with an injury that has been described by some as a broken bone in his shoulder. If he can’t go, or is available for only a handful of snaps, it changes the complexion of the game. Oregon State will be without Rodgers’ main backup – his older brother James – as well as third-stringer Jeremy Francis, who will not make the bowl trip to tend to his ailing mother. The lack of a strong running attack cost the Beavers dearly in their season finale. With Jacquizz Rodgers sidelines and James knocked out early with a broken collarbone, OSU got outrushed 385-89 by instate rival Oregon, lost a 65-38 decision and missed out on its first Rose Bowl trip in 44 years. The injury situation and the mind-set of the Beavers would seem to tilt this contest in the Panthers’ favor … Pittsburgh 37, Oregon State 31. (2 p.m. EST, CBS)

Music City Bowl

Boston College vs. Vanderbilt: The Eagles specialize in close games – six of their 13 games were decided by seven points or less. Trouble is, they’re streaky. They had two separate four-game win streaks this season and still managed to lose four conference games, including a 30-12 decision to Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. Then there are the Commodores, who are simply happy to be away from home for the holidays. Not that it’s very far from home – it’s a simple bus ride across town to LP Field in Vandy’s hometown of Nashville. Still, it’s the team’s first bowl game in 26 years and virtual home contest. Unfortunately, the Commodores have had quarterback injury problems all season and that translated into scoring difficulties. Vanderbilt scored more than 14 points only once in its last eight games and ranked 113th nationally in pass offense. That doesn’t bode well against BC, which was sixth in the nation in total defense and seventh in pass efficiency defense … Boston College 21, Vanderbilt 10. (3:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Insight Bowl

Kansas vs. Minnesota: Neither of these teams sprinted to the finish this year. The Jayhawks dropped four of their final six games, surrendering 35 or more points in five of those contests. Meanwhile, the Gophers ended their regular season on a four-game losing streak punctuated by a 55-0 woodshed trip courtesy of Iowa in the finale. Aside from their late-season woes, these teams would appear to be evenly matched. They each have play-making quarterbacks, middle-of-the-road running games and average defenses. To be honest, this is a coin flip. The deciding factor may come down to the quarterbacks – senior Todd Reesing for Kansas (3,575 yards, 28 TDs) and sophomore Adam Weber for Minnesota (2,585 yards, 14 TDs) – and if that’s the case, always take experience over youth … Kansas 28, Minnesota 26. (6 p.m. EST, NFL Network)

Chick-fil-A Bowl

LSU vs. No. 14 Georgia Tech: The old Peach Bowl has a pretty good matchup of a team on the rise against one on the wane. The defending national champion Tigers were mere shadows of their former selves, losing five of their last eight games while allowing 38.4 points in those five losses. They will need to rectify their defensive problems in this one, especially since the Yellow Jackets are coming off a 45-42 win over archrival Georgia. That’s the same Georgia team that wore out the Tigers to the tune of a 52-38 decision in late October. Tech has dazzled its opponents with the triple option, and many of them have had no clue as to how to stop it. The Jackets were the No. 3 rushing team in the nation this season with an average of 282.3 yards per game. For all of their problems, the Tigers were stout against the run this season and that gives LSU fans hope for this game. Still, the Tigers’ weakness is at the quarterback position and Tech has nabbed 18 interception this year. Go for the upset … Georgia Tech 28, LSU 27. (7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

NEW YEAR’S DAY GAMES

Outback Bowl

South Carolina vs. Iowa: About all you need to know about this game can be summed up thusly: Shonn Greene and the Iowa defense. Once Greene got untracked, the Hawkeyes suddenly got to the level of a pretty good football team. He probably should have gotten a whole lot more Heisman love than he did – which was nearly none – based upon a school-record 1,729 yards and the fact he was the only Division I-A back to rush for 100 or more yards in every game he played. Over on the other side of the ball, Iowa ranked among the top 12 teams in the nation in both total and scoring defense. The Hawkeyes’ four losses were by a total of 12 points and they are the only team to have knocked off Penn State this year. For the Gamecocks, it was an up-and-down season that included two straight November losses by a combined score of 87-20. Add to that the fact that the Old Ball Coach is changing quarterbacks again and I smell a rout … Iowa 38, South Carolina 13. (11 a.m. EST, ESPN)

Capital One Bowl

No. 16 Georgia vs. No. 19 Michigan State: The classic underachiever meets the classic overachiever. The Bulldogs were a consensus preseason No. 1, but then succumbed to several serious injuries and a brutal schedule to fall to 9-3. Up in East Lansing, no one gave the Spartans much of a chance to contend for a Big Ten championship, but they managed to finish only one game out of first place and earned their first New Year’s Day bowl berth in nine years. The contest features two excellent running backs – UGA’s Knowshon Moreno (1,338 yards, 16 TDs) and Javon Ringer (1,590 yards, 21 TDs). But Ringer is pretty much the entire Sparty offense. Shut him down and you shut down Michigan State. Georgia still has quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for an SEC-leading 3,209 yards and 22 TDs, and receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi, who combined for 112 receptions for 1,861 yards and 16 TDs. Still, the difference in this one could be how each defense plays against the run. The Bulldogs have surrendered an average of 129.2 yards rushing per game to 147.6 for the Spartans. A slim margin but one that could decide the outcome … Georgia 23, Michigan State 20. (1 p.m. EST, ABC)

Gator Bowl

Nebraska vs. Clemson: Perhaps no other team in college football had a more tumultuous season than Clemson. The Tigers were picked to win the ACC, and after two straight conference losses to Maryland and Wake Forest, longtime head coach Tommy Bowden was out. But new coach Dabo Swinnney righted the ship and Clemson won four of its last five games, including three wins over bowl-bound teams. Over in Lincoln, the Cornhuskers had a pretty good season under first-year head coach Bo Pelini. They won five of their last six, stumbling only against national title hopeful Oklahoma. Along the way, Pelini developed a pretty good offensive attack behind senior QB Joe Ganz (3,332 yards, 23 TDs). But the NU coach still has some work to do on his Blackshirts defense. It ranked only 84th nationally in scoring defense, but that might have been skewed a little because of playing in the Big 12. Clemson fared much better, ranking ninth in scoring defense. But the Tigers sometimes had trouble putting points on the board all year, making this another toss-up … Nebraska 24, Clemson 21. (1 p.m. EST, CBS)

Rose Bowl

No. 6 Penn State vs. No. 5 USC: No one gives the Nittany Lions much of a chance, and that’s probably because of Ohio State. While Penn State needed to convert a crucial turnover into a 13-6 win over the Buckeyes, the Trojans pummeled OSU by a 35-3 score in mid-September. I still think this is going to be closer than some people think. USC comes into the game riding a nine-game winning streak, but Pete Carroll’s team seemed to become a bit disinterested down the stretch. They can’t afford that kind of attitude against a Penn State team that topped the 40-point mark seven times this season while displaying the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense. Joe Paterno doesn’t get much attention these days as a big-game coach, but an NCAA-record 23 bowl wins speaks for itself. This is strictly a hunch, and the Nits will have to play a spotless game, but I’m going with the upset of upsets … Penn State 24, USC 23. (4:30 p.m. EST, ABC)

Orange Bowl

No. 12 Cincinnati vs. No. 21 Virginia Tech: These two teams have met once before in a bowl – the Bearcats took an 18-6 win over the Hokies in the 1947 Sun Bowl. Since then, Tech has enjoyed much more success on the football field. But that won’t mean much in Miami because Brian Kelly is turning UC into a formidable program. He is 20-5 in two seasons with the Bearcats, and he has done it by playing a stingy defense that covers up his team’s offensive deficiencies. Kelly and his team will be taking a step up in competition, however, when they take on Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech. Beamer delights in these kinds of matchups and has probably been spending most of the holiday season devising several different trick plays – most likely to be used on special teams. For some reason, though, Beamer’s teams have trouble playing in the national spotlight. The Hokies have suffered a host of upsets in recent years during prime-time games, and have lost eight of their last 12 bowls … Cincinnati 24, Virginia Tech 21. (8:30 p.m. EST, FOX)

JAN. 2 GAMES

Cotton Bowl

No. 20 Mississippi vs. No. 8 Texas Tech: They should rename this game the Rodney Dangerfield Bowl because neither team gets any respect at all. The Rebels won nine games – including a victory over Florida – after winning only 13 games in the previous four seasons combined. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders rode to a school-record-tying 11 victories on the arm of quarterback Graham Harrell (4,747 yards, 41 TDs) and a defense that held up well until giving up 65 to Oklahoma in the penultimate game of the regular season. This game will lend itself to the current argument among football fans as to which conference – the Big 12 or SEC – was better this year. Where you come down on that particular debate more than likely depends upon whether you like offense or defense. Tech wore out the scoreboard this season, averaging 44.6 points per game, while Ole Miss gave up an average of only 17.8. Normally, I’d pick the Raiders but I just have a feeling this is the kind of game in which Tech tends to struggle. Therefore … Ole Miss 31, Texas Tech 28. (2 p.m. EST, FOX)

Liberty Bowl

Kentucky vs. East Carolina: To say it has been an uneven season for the Pirates would be stating the obvious. ECU began the year with wins over Virginia Tech and West Virginia, then lost three in a row and finally rebounded with victories in six of its last seven games. The Wildcats were a little more consistent albeit in a losing sort of way. They lost four of their last five games and are extremely lucky to have been invited to the postseason much less a January bowl. On paper, this would appear to be a mismatch. East Carolina gives up only 20.8 points per game and Kentucky ranks 87th nationally in scoring offense and 105th in total yardage. How’s that old saying go? You can’t win if you can’t score … East Carolina 23, Kentucky 17. (5 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Sugar Bowl

No. 7 Utah vs. No. 4 Alabama: Sugar Bowl officials swear this is not going to be another blowout akin to last year’s 41-10 win by Georgia over Hawaii. Maybe it won’t be that bad, but it is difficult to envision a Utah victory. I know it was way back in late August, but the Utes struggled in their season opener against Michigan. Of course all was forgotten when Utah finished the regular season undefeated. Still, it is difficult to see just how they can solve an Alabama team that spent several weeks at No. 1 and came within 15 minutes of playing for the national championship. The Tide is a blend of offensive and defensive power, scoring an average of 31.2 points per game while allowing only 13.0. Utah also that equation figured out – the Utes scored at a 37.4-point clip and surrendered only 17.3. But let’s be honest here. Can a Mountain West Conference schedule measure up to that of a team that plays in the SEC? The simple answer is no. The Utes would have to catch lightning in a bottle to beat the Tide, and lightning strikes are extremely rare inside the Superdome … Alabama 37, Utah 17. (8 p.m. EST, FOX)

JAN. 3 GAME

International Bowl

Buffalo vs. Connecticut: Buffalo has already proved it can bottle up one of the nation’s top passing threats; now it gets to test its mettle against the top running back. The Bulls got to their first-ever bowl by taking down Ball State in the MAC title game, forcing quarterback Nate Davis to commit a game-changing five turnovers. Now Buffalo has drawn the Huskies, who boast tailback Donald Brown and his nation-leading 1,822 yards, and the Bulls may need to create five more turnovers to stay in the game. While UConn averages 204.6 yards per game on the ground, Buffalo allows an average of 158.8. Also, when you consider that the Bulls’ eight wins came against teams that combined to go 42-54 this past season – and that counts 12-1 Ball State – you begin to wonder if Turner Gill did it with mirrors … Connecticut 27, Buffalo 21.(12 noon EST, ESPN2)

Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Houston (-3½) vs. Air Force; Oregon State vs. Pittsburgh (+3); Boston College (-3½) vs. Vanderbilt; Kansas vs. Minnesota (+10); LSU (+4½) vs. Georgia Tech; South Carolina vs. Iowa (-3½); Georgia vs. Michigan State (+8½); Nebraska (+3) vs. Clemson; Penn State (+10) vs. USC; Cincinnati (-2) vs. Virginia Tech; Mississippi (+5) vs. Texas Tech; Kentucky vs. East Carolina (-3); Utah vs. Alabama (-9); Buffalo vs. Connecticut (-3).

Enjoy the games, stay safe tonight if you’re partying and have very Happy New Year.

My Christmas Wish List

With sincere apologies to Santa for its lateness, here is my Christmas list this year and it’s a fairly lengthy one.

For Jim Tressel: A bowl victory. That would stop a lot of the petty criticism for a guy who restored elite status to the Ohio State football program.

For Terrelle Pryor: The allowance to do what he was recruited to do. Watching a replay of Texas beating USC in the Rose Bowl, I saw Mack Brown saying that Vince Young’s career really took off “when we decided to leave him alone.” Sounds like pretty good advice where Pryor is concerned.

For Beanie Wells: One entire injury-free season. And as long as I’m wishing, here’s hoping that occurs in 2009 at Ohio State.

For Todd Boeckman: A shot at an NFL job. I’m still not sure what this poor guy did to deserve so much vitriol from fans, but it would be nice if he was a late-round draft selection next April. Certainly if there is room in the NFL for Ken Dorsey, there is a spot somewhere for Todd Boeckman.

For Archie Griffin: A statue outside Ohio Stadium. When is the university going to get off its duff and commemorate the world’s only two-time Heisman Trophy with a likeness outside the Horseshoe? While they’re at it, statues of Woody Hayes, Chic Harley and Bill Willis are long overdue as well. Are you telling me we can have 100 different sculptures of Brutus but nothing to signify the most important figures in Ohio State football history?

For university presidents: A set of better priorities. If you’re not going to give fans a Division I-A playoff, at least get a handle on the bowl season. Games strung out over a three-week period simply waters down the product.

For Troy Smith: A ticket out of Baltimore. I thought Troy proved at the end of last season he could play in the NFL. But it’s obviously not going to happen with the Ravens. Cleveland, perhaps?

For Jim Lachey: A bust in Canton. It seems ridiculous to me that Lachey keeps getting passed over for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He started 129 of 131 NFL games during a 10-year career, was named to three Pro Bowls, was a three-time All-Pro, and as a member of the Hogs helped Washington win Super Bowl XXVI.

For Thad Matta: Another trip to the Final Four. I don’t know why, but I have this feeling that a Matta team is going to make a Cinderella trip to the Final Four – and soon.

For Michael Jenkins: A Super Bowl ring. The Atlanta Falcons are one of the best turnaround stories of the year thanks to rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. One of Ryan’s favorite receivers is Jenkins, who has established a new career-high in yardage. A Falcons run to the Super Bowl would also mean a ring for tight end Ben Hartsock, truly one of the good guys, as well as former Buckeyes Simon Fraser and Alex Stepanovich.

For Donnie Nickey: A Super Bowl ring. In case you forgot, Nickey is in his sixth season as a backup safety and special teams player for Tennessee. If the Falcons can’t win, I’ll take the Titans.

For B.J. Mullens: The good sense to stay in college for at least one more year.

For Ray Small: A really loud alarm clock.

For Nathan Williams: A different set of friends.

For Jake Ballard: John Frank’s playbook, deposited on Jim Tressel’s desk.

For Boom Herron: A growth spurt. Two inches in height, 10 pounds in weight.

For Brandon Saine: Patience.

For any Ohio State fullback: An average of one carry per game.

For Jim Bollman: A healthy 2009 starting line of Mike Adams, Jim Cordle, Michael Brewster, Justin Boren and J.B. Shugarts.

For Bob Todd: A trip to Omaha. Probably a huge wish.

For Tom Ryan: A national championship. Probably not as big a wish as you might think.

For Joe Daniels, Lawrence Wilson, Andre Amos, Dan Potokar and David Lighty: Renewed health.

For Tyson Gentry: A miracle.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman is one of three finalists for the sixth annual Bobby Bowden Award, given by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for the top Division I-A player who conducts himself as a faith model in the community, in the classroom and on the field. The other finalists are Illinois center Ryan McDonald and Texas A&M running back Stephen McGee. The winner will be announced Jan. 6.

** Success is a relative thing. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe went just 4-8 in his first season with the Blue Devils. But because that was such an improvement over what the team had done in recent years – just four victories in the previous four seasons combined – Cutcliffe got a two-year contract extension to coach at Duke through 2015.

** If you can figure this one out, you’re doing better than me. Florida QB Tim Tebow got the most first-place votes in the Heisman Trophy balloting yet finished third behind Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Colt McCoy of Texas. The other day, the venerable Sporting News released its postseason awards and had a three-way tie for player of the year: Bradford, McCoy and Graham Harrell of Texas Tech. If you’re going to wimp out and have three players of the year, you may as well add Tebow and make it four.

** The deluge of college juniors declaring for the NFL draft has begun. Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis is among the first and the two-time All-Big Ten selection will likely be a rich man come April. The 6-0, 204-pounder led all conference cornerbacks with 78 tackles in 2008, and is projected to be taken in the first round of the draft.

** Ever hear that saying about how the rich only get richer? What about the poor? Coming off the worst season in its history, Michigan has already lost top running back Sam McDuffie, who is transferring to a school in his home state of Texas. Now comes word the Wolverines have lost verbally committed four-star quarterback Shavodrick Beaver of Wichita Falls, Texas. And to which college powerhouse has Michigan lost Beaver? Texas? Texas Tech? Oklahoma? Nope. Would you believe Tulsa? With all due respect to the Golden Hurricane, what does it say about your program when you are contending for players with – and losing them to – a school in Conference USA?

** Remember Trace Armstrong? He played his college ball at Arizona State and Florida before embarking upon a 15-year NFL career with Chicago, Miami and Oakland. After hanging up his cleats in 2003, Armstrong got into the agenting business. But he’s not a player rep although he served eight years as president of the NFL Players Association. Armstrong specializes in representing coaches and so far this season, he is doing pretty well for his clients. He placed Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley at New Mexico as the new head coach and successfully parlayed Brady Hoke’s big season at Ball State into a higher-paying gig as head coach at San Diego State. There will likely be plenty of presents under the tree tomorrow in the Armstrong house.

**Note to Browns fans: One of Armstrong’s other clients is Marty Schottenheimer, rumored as a possible successor to Romeo Crennel in Cleveland.

** Speaking of rumors, here’s one that is currently making the rounds from Miami to South Bend to Honolulu and back again. Should Notre Dame lose to Hawaii this evening in the Hawaii Bowl, the Irish will decide the Charlie Weis experiment is a failure and cut their losses. Who will they go after as a replacement? Urban Meyer, who told listeners to a South Florida radio show last week that Notre Dame is “still my dream job. That hasn’t changed.”

** Ron English was announced yesterday as the new head coach at Eastern Michigan. Yes, that’s the same Ron English who was defensive coordinator at Michigan, whose once-proud stop troops surrendered 32 or more points in six of their last 15 games under his tutelage. It is also the same Ron English who was defensive coordinator at Louisville this past season when the Cardinals allowed nearly 30 points a game, including 63 in their season finale against Rutgers. Now, English takes over a program at Eastern Michigan team that finished next-to-last in the MAC in total defense and 109th among 119 Division I-A schools in scoring defense in 2008. Hmmmmm.

** Have you ever heard of Doug Marrone? How about Reaves Baysinger? Maybe if you were an aficionado of Syracuse football, you’d know. Marrone just got hired as head coach of the Orange after spending the last three seasons as offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. He is the first Syracuse alum to serve as head coach since Baysinger in 1948. For the Orange’s sake, let’s hope Marrone does better. Baysinger lasted only two seasons after posting a 4-14 record.

** Here’s another name to remember: Mark Hudspeth. He just left Division II North Alabama, where he had compiled a 66-21 record in seven seasons, to join Dan Mullen’s new staff at Mississippi State. Hudspeth will become passing game coordinator for Mullen, who was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Urban Meyer at Florida before replacing Sylvester Croom in Starkville. Anyone think the Bulldogs are fixin’ to throw the ball next year?

** So long to Sammy Baugh, who died Dec. 17 at the age of 94. Most people know that “Slingin’ Sammy” rewrote the NFL record books with the Washington Redskins, including becoming the first and only player ever to lead the league in passing, punting, and interceptions in the same season. But many don’t know that he was a star college player for TCU in the mid-1930s, leading the Horned Frogs to the 1935 national championship and finishing fourth in the 1936 Heisman Trophy balloting. TCU players wore a “45” sticker on their helmets during last night’s Poinsettia Bowl win over Boise State in memory of Baugh.

** Congratulations to Richmond, which cashed in on its first-ever appearance in the Division I-AA championship game. The Spiders rolled to a 24-7 victory over Montana last Friday night. Montana won the I-AA title in 2001 and was runner-up in 2004.

** Mount Union won its 10th national championship at the Division III level in the past 16 seasons, knocking off defending champ Wisconsin-Whitewater last Saturday by a 31-26 score. The two teams have met in the D-III title game for the fourth consecutive years with the Purple Raiders taking the 2005, ’06 and ’08 crowns.

** Mount Union running back Nate Kmic capped a record-breaking career with 88 yards and a touchdown, and became the first running back in NCAA history to crack the 8,000-yard mark. Kmic finished his career with 8,074 yards and also broke Division III postseason records for rushing yards, touchdowns and points scored.

** Despite Kmic’s heroics, it was Mount Union QB Greg Micheli who was named the Gagliardi Trophy winner as the outstanding NCAA Division III player of the year. Micheli was 12 for 19 for 262 yards and two touchdowns in the championship game against Montana, and finished the season with 3,749 yards and 36 touchdowns. His career totals: 568 completions in 780 attempts (72.8 percent), 8,479 yards, 81 TDs and only nine interceptions.

** Incidentally, the D-III player of the year award is named for longtime head coach John Gagliardi of St. John’s University in Minnesota. Gagliardi is college football’s all-time winningest coach with 453 victories in 60 (and counting) seasons. Gagliardi is also the only active coach who can call Joe Paterno “Sonny.” Gagliardi turned 82 on Nov. 1 while Paterno celebrated his 82nd birthday last Sunday.

** The University of Sioux Falls captured its third NAIA title last weekend with a 23-7 victory over defending champion Carroll (Mont.) College. Carroll, which defeated Sioux Falls by a 17-9 score in last year’s final, saw a 28-game winning streak end.

** Twenty years ago today marked a record bowl performance for an Alabama linebacker. On Dec. 24, 1988, the Crimson Tide wiped out a 28-20 fourth-quarter deficit and came back to beat Army 29-28 in the Sun Bowl. In that contest, Alabama linebacker Derrick Thomas blocked two field goals to set an NCAA bowl record. Thomas, of course, went on to make the Pro Bowl nine times with the Kansas City Chiefs in a career that was tragically cut short by a fatal auto accident in 2000.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 22, 2003, North Carolina State quarterback Phillip Rivers set an NCAA record with his 54th collegiate start and celebrated by throwing for 475 yards and five TDs to lead the Wolfpack to a 56-26 win over Kansas in the Tangerine Bowl; on Dec. 25, 1899, Carlisle upset undefeated California, 2-0, in the East-West Championship game played in front of more than 15,000 fans in San Francisco; and on Dec. 27, 1971, Arizona State took a 45-38 victory over Florida State in the first-ever Fiesta Bowl. With the game tied 38-38, Sun Devils QB Danny White drove his team 57 yards, setting up a 2-yard touchdown run by halfback Woody Green with just 34 seconds remaining.

** This week also marks the birthday of one of this country’s most unsung college football and military heroes. Thomas Hamilton was born Dec. 26, 1905, in Hoopeston, Ill., (the same hometown as Ohio State men’s basketball coach Thad Matta), and grew up to become an All-America halfback at Navy. Hamilton helped lead the Midshipmen to a 9-0-1 record in 1926 while leading the country in drop-kicked field goals. Several years later, he ascended to the rank of admiral and founded the Navy V-5 preflight training program that was used in World War II. Hamilton later served two different stints as Navy’s football coach, was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1965 and served as commissioner of the Pacific 8 conference from 1959-71. Hamilton died in California in 1994 at the age of 88.

FEARLESS FORECAST

As we noted last week, we tend to stay away from bowl game for no other reason than what transpired over the weekend. Navy blew a 13-0 lead and lost by 10 to Wake Forest, Fresno State blew a 28-20 lead after three quarters and lost by five to Colorado State, and Troy enjoyed a 27-17 advantage heading into the third quarter and lost in overtime to Southern Miss. Naturally, we picked Navy, Fresno and Troy to win.

The first week of the bowl season was an excruciating one, but maybe things are looking up. We nailed last night’s TCU win over Boise State and that brought us to 2-4 both straight up and against the spread. Not great certainly, but at least somewhere to begin.

Here is the next week’s worth of bowl games and how we see them.

DEC. 24 GAMES

Hawaii Bowl

Hawaii vs. Notre Dame: Most people believe the Irish’s nine-game losing streak in bowl games – the longest in NCAA history – will finally come to an end. That’s probably because while Charlie Weis and his team stumbled down the stretch of the 2008 season, the Rainbows quietly won four of their last six, and one of the losses during that stretch was a 29-24 defeat to Orange Bowl-bound Cincinnati. Notre Dame lost four of its last five games, but to give the Irish their due, the defeats came against teams that combined to go 32-17 this year. Still, it’s difficult to see how such a shaky offense can navigate the sometimes-tricky Aloha Stadium winds. Plus, there is the small fact that the Rainbows are extremely tough at home – 45 wins in 55 games dating back to 2002 … Hawaii 27, Notre Dame 23. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 26 GAMES

Motor City Bowl

Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan: If you like offense, this game is for you. FAU averaged 47.7 points in its final three victories while the Chippewas scored 30 or more points in six games this season. Couple that with a couple of teams who believe defense is something that goes between de-house and de-sidewalk, and you have the potential for a big-time fireworks display. The game will likely come down to which quarterback makes the fewer mistakes – Dan LeFevour of Central (2,531 yards, 21 TDs) or Rusty Smith of the Owls (2,918 yards, 22 TDs). If that’s the measuring stick, give me the Chippewas – LeFevour averaged one interception for every 67.2 attempts while Smith pitched picks at twice at that pace, one every 28.6 throws. Sit back and prepare to be entertained … Central Michigan 49, Florida Atlantic 42. (7:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 27 GAMES

Meineke Car Care Bowl

West Virginia vs. North Carolina: At one time, these two teams were on track to meet one another in the Orange Bowl. Neither had any consistency during the season, however, and now they’re headed to a game in Charlotte that is ostensibly a home game for the Tar Heels. But as someone once said, “Not so fast.” North Carolina may have the better defense, but the Mountaineers still have quarterback Pat White, who is about as healthy as he has been in two years. White, who ran for 919 yards and eight TDs this season, is the NCAA’s all-time leader in career rushing among quarterbacks with 4,425 yards, including four 200-yard games. When you put him together with tailback Noel Devine, who had 1,228 yards this season for WVU, and then consider the fact that Carolina is only average against the run, you get the picture … West Virginia 30, North Carolina 23. (1 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Champs Sports Bowl

Wisconsin vs. Florida State: Talk about limping to the finish line. The Badgers struggled to beat Division I-AA Cal Poly by a single point in their season finale while the Seminoles lost two of their last three, including a 45-15 rout to Florida. These schools are meeting for the first time in history and – at least on paper – the game should be close. Both teams like to run the ball and both are pretty adept at shutting down the opposition’s passing attack. Like a lot of these bowl games, it could come down to turnovers and neither team has distinguished itself in that category – FSU is minus-3 for the season and U-Dub is minus-5. Flip a coin … Florida State 28, Wisconsin 24. (4:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Emerald Bowl

Miami (Fla.) vs. California: The key matchup here pits Bears sophomore tailback Jahvid Best against the Hurricane’s young defense. Best ran for 1,394 yards and 13 touchdowns while Miami collapsed down the stretch, surrendering a combined 691 rushing yards in losses at Georgia Tech and North Carolina State to finish the season. Football can get complicated at times, but when you have one team that likes to run the ball playing against a team that has trouble stopping the run, things get a whole lot simpler … Cal 27, Miami 23. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 28 GAMES

Independence Bowl

Northern Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech: The Huskies finished 6-6 this season under fist-year head coach Jerry Kill – nothing to write home about until you learn that they were 2-10 a year ago. Then when you find out NIU lost four of its six games by four points or less, and Kill’s team suddenly gets a little more respect. Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech is playing in its first bowl game since 2001 and should feel pretty much at home playing in Shreveport, just about an hour west of campus on I-20. Still, you have to watch those overachieving teams in bowl games who play like they have everything to gain and nothing to lose. That would seem to describe the Huskies to a T … Northern Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 26. (8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 29 GAMES

PapaJohns.com Bowl

North Carolina State vs. Rutgers: In early October, these two teams had combined for a 3-11 record. Then the Scarlet Knights won six in a row to finish 7-5 while the Wolfpack strung together four straight victories for a 6-6 record. Rutgers has relied on the experience of its senior quarterback Mike Teel, who is his school’s all-time leading passer. Meanwhile, N.C. State has ridden on the back of redshirt freshman QB Russell Wilson, who threw for 1,769 yards and 16 TDs and added 342 yards and four more scores on the ground. Normally, you would take experience over youth. But in the upside-down world of bowl games, nothing is normal. Also, there is the small matter of the Wolfpack working on a five-game postseason win streak … North Carolina State 29, Rutgers 23. (3 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Alamo Bowl

No. 21 Missouri vs. No. 23 Northwestern: If you can’t move the ball through the air in this game, you’re not trying. Mizzou QB Chase Daniel and Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bachér combined this season to throw for 6,263 yards and 51 TDs. Conversely, the Wildcats are 74th nationally in pass defense while the Tigers are 117th. Northwestern can play some ball control if senior tailback Tyrell Sutton can return from wrist surgery, and the Wildcats also possess a pretty good pass rush led by All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootten (9.0 sacks). One thing working against NU, however, is the fact that the school is working on a five-game losing streak in the postseason. The Wildcats haven’t won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, a 20-14 win over Cal. Look for a few more points in this one … Missouri 47, Northwestern 41. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 30 GAMES

Humanitarian Bowl

Maryland vs. Nevada: I still can’t get my head around a bowl game played outside in Boise, Idaho, in late December. But I guess a bowl game is a bowl game, and you certainly don’t hear any complaining from the Terrapins or Wolf Pack. This game shapes up to be a struggle between Nevada’s high-powered offense and Maryland’s stingy defense. The Terps may have their hands full against Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a two-way threat who accounted for 3,594 multipurpose yards this year, and bruising runner Vai Taua, a 225-pound bruiser who rushed for 1,420 yards and 14 TDs. There is little doubt that the ACC is a tougher conference than the WAC, but I just wonder how the Terps can manufacture enough offense to stay with the Wolf Pack … Nevada 27, Maryland 24. (4:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Holiday Bowl

No. 13 Oklahoma State vs. No. 17 Oregon: You want another shootout, you’ve got another shootout. These teams each rank in the top eight nationally in scoring offense, combining to put up more than 83 points and 950 total yards per game. The Cowboys topped the 50-point mark five times this season while Ducks equaled that and even did a little better – they scored 60 or more on three different opponents. If you’re worried about defense spoiling this show, don’t bother. The teams allowed an average of 387.5 yards and 27.5 points per game. My advice if you’re going to watch this one: Hide the remote. If you start flipping, chances are you’ll miss a score or two … Oklahoma State 56, Oregon 52. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Texas Bowl

Western Michigan vs. Rice: Of course, if you do want to channel-surf – and you get the NFL Network on your big screen – you’ll probably want to take a look at this game featuring two of the unsung quarterbacks in college football. Chase Clement of Rice and Tim Hiller of Western Michigan combined this past season to complete 66.5 percent of their 926 attempts for 7,339 yards and 75 TDs against only 15 interceptions. As you might expect, though, neither team seems very interested in defense. Western finished the regular season ranked 83rd nationally in total defense while the Owls were 114th. It seems hard to believe a team could suddenly get that much better on defense during bowl practice, so barring turnovers, we’ll take the MAC over the WAC in another wild one … Western Michigan 48, Rice 45. (8 p.m. EST, NFL Network)

Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Hawaii (+2½) vs. Notre Dame; Florida Atlantic vs. Central Michigan (-6½); West Virginia (-1) vs. North Carolina; Wisconsin (+6) vs. Florida State; Miami-FL (+8½) vs. California; Northern Illinois (+1) vs. Louisiana Tech; North Carolina State (+7½) vs. Rutgers; Missouri vs. Northwestern (+13); Maryland vs. Nevada (-2); Oklahoma State (-3) vs. Oregon; Western Michigan (+3) vs. Rice.

Enjoy the games and have a safe and very Merry Christmas.

Buckeyes Underdogs To Texas, And Deservedly So

Since appearing on the NFL Network last week and opining that Ohio State’s chances in the Fiesta Bowl would be greatly enhanced if Texas was distracted in some way, I have acquired a few new pen pals.

To say my new best friends agreed with me would be inaccurate. Likewise, vilification is little too strong. Let’s just say the state of my mental health has been called into question.

I take no delight in feeling the way I do, and I really hope my gut instincts are dead wrong. But after all the big-game collapses of the past couple of years, you’ll have to forgive my scarlet-and-gray tinted glasses for being a little on the foggy side.

Let’s stipulate right now that there aren’t many head coaches in college football I’d rather see at Ohio State than Jim Tressel. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Likewise, you cannot dispute the man’s accomplishments in eight seasons with the Buckeyes – one national championship, one Heisman Trophy winner, two undefeated regular seasons, three trips to the national title game, five Big Ten championships, 24 first-team All-Americans, and perhaps most importantly, an unprecedented 7-1 record against Michigan.

Those who roundly criticize Tressel tend to forget the state of the program when he was hired. There were only five conference championship in the previous 17 seasons, the Wolverines had won 17 of the previous 25 games over the Buckeyes, and a national championship banner hadn’t been raised in Columbus in more than three decades.

Unfortunately for him, Tressel set the bar impossibly high, including wins in eight of his first 10 games against top-10 opponents. Anything less than perfection is seen as something akin to abject failure.

Expecting to win every single game – not to mention looking good in the process – is simply unfair. However, the 2002 national championship game and the euphoria attached to it is now six years in the history books. For some, that’s an eternity. The nature of college football today is what have you done lately, and what Ohio State has done lately is lose whenever a highly ranked team is on the opposite sideline.

That kind of pronouncement always angers the diehard members of the Buckeye Nation. They parade out the old mantra of “In Tress We Trust” and point to the coach’s excellent 32-11 record against ranked opposition. Yet, while Tressel’s mark against elite competition – teams in the top 10 – remains above the breakeven mark at 8-6, he is on a four-game losing streak. The cold, hard truth is that Ohio State has not taken down a top-10 team since that wild 42-39 win over second-ranked Michigan in the 2006 regular-season finale.

That performance was followed a month and a half later by a 41-14 spanking at the hands of Florida in the BCS National Championship Game, a mugging so severe that the argument could be made the Buckeyes as a team and their head coach in particular have never fully recovered for it.

How else can you explain the subsequent games against top-ranked competition? Against LSU in last year’s title game, and this year’s losses to Southern Cal and Penn State, the Buckeyes have played tighter than a new shoe. Obviously, the competition was tough and no team can beat top-ranked opposition with any kind of regularity.

But here are some stats from those three games.

Ohio State converted only 39.5 percent of its third-down situations (17 of 43) while LSU, USC and Penn State combined to convert 52.3 percent (23 of 44). The Buckeyes surrendered 11 sacks while getting to the Tigers, Trojans and Nittany Lions quarterbacks a total of only three times – once in each contest. Furthermore, OSU committed 21 penalties for 209 yards while their opponents were flagged 12 times for 112 yards, and the combined turnover margin was 8-2 against Ohio State.

I don’t know how you would describe those numbers, but the word “alarming” immediately comes to my mind.

And now the Buckeyes wade headlong into another big game on a big stage against a big-time opponent. Based upon their recent performances with those parameters, it’s no wonder they are double-digit underdogs.

Ohio State desperately needs a postseason victory this year and not for the reason you might think. National reputation and what the media thinks be damned. The Buckeyes need a win if only for a bit of their own personal redemption. Playing a team that should be considered one of this season’s best is a tough assignment. Likewise, there aren’t exactly sweet memories for veteran team members from their last trip to the Phoenix area.

A win over Texas won’t be easy but in the words of Woody Hayes, “Nothing worth a damn is ever easy.”

Can the Buckeyes beat the Longhorns? Of course, they can.

Will they? Good question.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** For those of you who can’t wait until the start of the 2009 college football season, the folks over at NationalChamps.net have released their annual “Early Bird Preview.” Their pre-preseason top 10 for ’09: 1. Florida, 2. Alabama, 3. Texas, 4. Oklahoma, 5. USC, 6. Oklahoma State, 7. Ohio State, 8. Georgia Tech, 9. Georgia, 10. Penn State. Two other Big Ten teams made the top 25 – Iowa at No. 15 and Minnesota at No. 18.

** I had him second on my ballot, so I have no problem with Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford winning the Heisman Trophy. Bradford shaded runner-up Colt McCoy of Texas by only 122 points, the tightest margin of victory since 2001. That year, Nebraska quarterback Eric Couch best Florida QB Rex Grossman by a mere 62 votes.

** The closest finish in Heisman history occurred in 1985. Auburn running back Bo Jackson beat Iowa quarterback Chuck Long by only 45 votes. BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco was a distant third, finishing 1,005 votes behind Long.

** Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first player since 1956 to finish in third place in the Heisman voting despite being named on more first-place ballots than anyone else. This year, Tebow was named on 750 total ballots while Bradford was on 811. McCoy’s name appeared on 784 ballots.

** The player who finished third in 1956 despite garnering the most first-place votes was Oklahoma halfback Tommy McDonald. He earned 205 first-place votes to 197 for winner Paul Hornung of Notre Dame. Second-place finisher Johnny Majors of Tennessee – yes, that Johnny Majors – had 172.

** McDonald’s other claim to fame? At just 5-9 and 176 pounds, he is the smallest member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

** Third place in the Heisman voting hasn’t been a bad place to be in recent years. Some of the third-place finishers over the past decade: Brady Quinn of Notre Dame, Eli Manning of Ole Miss, Larry Johnson of Penn State, Drew Brees of Purdue and Leinart.

** Note to Bradford and his Oklahoma teammates. The last three Heisman Trophy winners have the bowl game immediately after their selections. USC quarterback Matt Leinert, the 2004 winner, led his team to a 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl.

** Of the last 10 Heisman winners before Bradford, only four won their bowl games – Ricky Williams of Texas, Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, Carson Palmer of USC and Leinart.

** In case you couldn’t keep track of all the postseason individual awards, here are the winners: Heisman, Davey O’Brien – Sam Bradford, Oklahoma; Maxwell – Tim Tebow, Florida; Walter Camp National Player of the Year – Colt McCoy, Texas; Bednarik – Rey Maualuga, Southern California; Biletnikoff – Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech; Groza – Graham Gano, Florida State; Ray Guy – Matt Fodge, Oklahoma State; Outland – Andre Smith, Alabama; Thorpe – Malcolm Jenkins, Ohio State; Doak Walker – Shonn Greene, Iowa; Lott – James Laurinaitis, Ohio State; Rimington – A.Q. Shipley, Penn State; Nagurski and Lombardi – Brian Orakpo, Texas; Butkus – Aaron Curry, Wake Forest; Johnny Unitas Golden Arm – Graham Harrell, Texas Tech; Mackey – Chase Coffman, Missouri.

** Senior center Alex Mack of California took home the Draddy Award, known as the academic Heisman. Mack has already graduated magna cum laude from Cal with a 3.61 grade-point average and a degree in legal studies. He is a two-time All-Pac-10 selection, a two-time Rimington Trophy finalist and a four-team Academic All-Pac-10 honoree. Oh, yeah … he is also projected as a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft.

** Speaking of the draft, here’s wondering if there will be room in it for running back Bernard Scott of Abilene Christian. After finishing second last year, Scott was named winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy, symbolic of the Division II player of the year. The 5-11, 200-pounder rushed for 2,156 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season and added 48 receptions for 826 yards and six scores.

** Bowling Green, San Jose State, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Remember those schools and dazzle your friends with trivia at your holiday party. That foursome were the only Division I-A bowl-eligible teams in 2008 who did not get a postseason invitation. A record 68 other teams filled the 34 postseason spots.

** Since we’re on the subject of trivia, here are a couple of BCS tidbits. USC will play in a record seventh consecutive BCS game while Cincinnati is the only school making its first BCS appearance this year. The Bearcats are the 43rd different team to play in a BCS game.

** So much for the argument that Utah doesn’t have a fan base willing to travel. Demand from Utah for online ticket purchases for the Sugar Bowl was so heavy last week that the server had to be closed down for part of last Friday. Orders were taken by phone and in person.

** There is no doubt that Turner Gill and his Buffalo team are a feel-good story. Gill led the Bulls to a victory over Ball State in the MAC championship game and has gotten his program well on the way to respectability. But one winning season does not a Vince Lombardi make. Gill’s three-year record at Buffalo is still only 15-22 and he has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level. If he keeps the Bulls in the MAC title hunt for the next couple of years, then he might be ready for a step up to the likes of Iowa State or maybe even Auburn. Not yet, though.

** The first axe has fallen at Michigan and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer’s head was the one on the chopping block. Shafer resigned Tuesday after only one season on the job, a season that saw the once-proud Wolverines rank 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense. “I take full responsibility for the demise of where Michigan’s program is at this time,” the assistant coach told the Detroit Free-Press. While that was admirable from someone who just lost his job, it wasn’t exactly on the mark. Shafer didn’t have anything to do with the Michigan offense, which ranked dead last in the conference in total yardage and scoring.

** Ole Miss is playing in its final Cotton Bowl since 1956, and the Rebels will help Texas Tech close down the old facility on the Texas State Fairgrounds. Next year, the Cotton Bowl moves to the new $1 billion Cowboys Stadium in suburban Arlington.

** HD is great, but 3-D? A California-based company said earlier this week that it had won the contract to shoot the BCS National Championship game in 3-D. The game between Florida and Oklahoma will be broadcast live in 3-D to 80 to 100 movie theaters in about 30 U.S. cities with tickets expected to cost $18 to $22. My question: Would you pay money to go to a theater and watch what you can watch at home for free?

** This item was buried in the national news sections, far away from the sports page. Now that O.J. Simpson is a convicted felon, the College Football Hall of Fame plans to review his status. National Football Foundation president Steve Hatchell has said that while Simpson’s status will be reviewed, there are no plans to remove him from the hall.

** Congratulations to Minnesota-Duluth, which completed a perfect 15-0 season last weekend to capture the Division II national championship. The Bulldogs capped one of the biggest one-season turnarounds in NCAA history after posting a 4-6 record a year ago. They finished off the turnaround with a 21-14 victory in the title game of Northwest Missouri State, which lost in the final for the fourth consecutive year. Those four defeats have come by a combined total of 19 points.

** Richmond will make its first appearance in the Division I-AA championship game after knocking off Northern Iowa last weekend. The Spiders scored with just 14 seconds remaining to pull out a 21-20 win, and will take on Montana in the championship game, set for Friday in Chattanooga, Tenn. Montana, the 2001 national champs and 2004 runners-up, got to this year’s title contest thanks to last Friday night’s 35-27 upset over top-seeded James Madison.

** It’s a clash of titans for the Division III championship. Defending title-holder Wisconsin-Whitewater meets nine-time champion Mount Union on Saturday in Salem, Va. The two teams are meeting in the D-III title game for the fourth straight year – Wisconsin-Whitewater won last season after Mount Union had beaten the Warhawks in 2005 and ’06.

** Mount Union running back Nate Kmic rushed for 310 yards last week in his team’s semifinal win over Wheaton (Ill.) and became the all-time, all-division career rushing leader in NCAA history. Kmic now has 7,986 yards, eclipsing the mark of 7,962 set between 2004 and ’07 by Danny Woodhead of Division II Chadron (Neb.) State.

** Today marks the 27th anniversary of a remarkable Holiday Bowl victory by BYU. On Dec. 18, 1981, the Cougars jumped out to a 31-7 advantage in the third quarter and then weathered a Washington State storm, hanging on for a wild 38-36 win. BYU quarterback Jim McMahon, the nation’s leading passer and winner of the inaugural Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, threw for 368 yards and three touchdowns to help keep the Cougars in front.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 15, 1962, Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker accounted for the game’s only points on a record 99-yard run in Oregon State’s 6-0 Liberty Bowl win over Villanova; on Dec. 19, 2001, Marshall engineers the biggest comeback in bowl history, wiping out a 30-point deficit before claiming a 64-61 double overtime win over East Carolina in the GMAC Bowl; and on Dec. 21, 1946, North Texas scored with nine seconds remaining to steal a 14-13 decision away from the University of Pacific in the first and only Optimist Bowl. The contest was the final game in the fabled career of legendary head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, who piled up 314 victories over a 57-year career with Springfield College, Chicago and Pacific.

** This week also featured a significant milestone in the career of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. On Dec. 17, 1994, Tressel captured his second consecutive Division I-AA national championship as Youngstown State took a 28-14 victory over Boise State. The Penguins successfully defended their 1993 national title, and also took home championships under Tressel in 1991 and 1997.

FEARLESS FORECAST

As a rule, we tend to stay away from bowl games. It’s simply impossible to gauge how teams will play when they face opponents they’ve never faced before. Add in the myriad of other factors such as coaching changes, whether or not a particular team feels slighted about playing in what they perceive as a lesser bowl, and the emotion of senior players playing the final game of their college careers, and you never know what you’re going to get.

That said, we wade into the first week of action armed with regular-season records of 98-37 straight up and 70-60-1 against the spread.

DEC. 20 GAMES

EagleBank Bowl

Wake Forest vs. Navy: Hard to believe anyone was clamoring for a rematch of these two teams, but the first game of the 2008 postseason is exactly that. The Midshipmen took a 24-17 victory over the Demon Deacons back on Sept. 27, an outcome that was considered an upset at the time. Since then, Navy has become the best rushing team in college football while Wake has struggled with its consistency on offense. The Deacons won seven games this year, but were held to 17 points or less on six occasions. It all would seem to point to a win for the Middies, especially since their win earlier this season broke a four-game losing streak in the series. We might as well get the Upset Specials started early … Navy 24, Wake Forest 20. (11 a.m. EST, ESPN)

New Mexico Bowl

Colorado State vs. Fresno State: It has been an excellent year Steve Fairchild, who became the first coach in Colorado State history to get to the postseason in his first season. Meanwhile, longtime Bulldogs boss Pat Hill, fresh off a brief dalliance with Washington about its head coaching position, will seek a fifth victory in six bowl games since 2002. The Rams won their last two games to secure bowl eligibility, and those victories came at the expense of New Mexico and Wyoming, teams that combined to go 8-16 this season. There is also the small matter of Colorado State not having won a bowl game since 2001 … Fresno State 30, Colorado State 27. (2:30 p.m. EST, ESPN)

St. Petersburg Bowl

Memphis vs. South Florida: After a 5-0 start, USF fell off the radar and lost four of its last five games. What happened to the Bulls’ vaunted defense, their opportunistic offense and head coach Jim Leavitt’s genius? And how will their psyche be affected by playing a bowl game only about 30 miles away from campus? They have never seemed overly motivated in bowl games, losing two of their last three including last year’s lopsided 56-21 decision to Oregon in the Sun Bowl. Meanwhile, Memphis has a pretty good offense that averages better than 430 yards per game. Trouble is, the Tigers don’t do much in the way of defense and their six victories this year came against teams with a combined record of 19-47. Look for plenty of points in a game that should be dictated by the USF defense. But will it? … South Florida 27, Memphis 20. (4:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2)

Las Vegas Bowl

BYU vs. Arizona: Three things are given in life – death, taxes and BYU playing in the Las Vegas Bowl. This marks the fourth straight year for the Cougars in Sin City, but they don’t seem to mind. After losing to Cal in 2005, they beat Oregon in 2006 and UCLA last year. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are limping into their first postseason berth since 1998. They did beat instate rival Arizona State in the regular season finale, but had lost three of four games before that. Arizona has trouble stopping the run, and may have no answer for BYU sophomore Harvey Unga, a 239-pound bully who rushed for 1,061 yards and 10 TDs. The Wildcats can score pretty handily themselves, averaging 37.0 points per game. But a lot of that production came against lesser opponents – Zona played only four teams with winning records this season and lost three of the four … BYU 34, Arizona 31. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 21 GAME

New Orleans Bowl

Southern Mississippi vs. Troy: Maybe you didn’t know that Southern Miss is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. Maybe you didn’t know the Golden Eagles had to win their last four games to qualify for the postseason. Maybe you didn’t know they have the best freshman receiver in the nation in DeAndre Brown (92.3 yards per game). Maybe you didn’t know any of those things but rest assured Troy and longtime head coach Larry Blakeney are well-acquainted with Southern Miss. They are also aware that Louisiana has not exactly been kind to their team this year – excruciating losses at Louisiana-Monroe and LSU, the latter a 40-31 defeat after leading the defending national champs 31-7 late in the third quarter. What do they say about the third time being the charm? … Troy 27, Southern Miss 24. (8:15 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 23 GAMES

Poinsettia Bowl

Boise State vs. TCU: This is the best matchup on the early portion of the bowl-game schedule and it isn’t even close. The Horned Frogs, who get absolutely no respect despite a 40-10 record over the past four seasons, present an extremely tough out for the undefeated Broncos. TCU plays defense with the best of them, ranking No. 2 nationally in both total and scoring defense, allowing only 215.1 yards and 10.9 yards per game. Anyone familiar with Boise and its high-wire offensive act knows that trick plays are possible at any juncture. What you may not know is that the Broncos have a pretty fair defense as well, ranking third nationally in scoring and 16th in total defense. This should be a pretty good game with turnovers making the difference … TCU 23, Boise State 21. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

DEC. 24 GAMES

Hawaii Bowl

Hawaii vs. Notre Dame: Most people believe the Irish’s nine-game losing streak in bowl games – the longest in NCAA history – will reach 10 this year. That’s probably because while Charlie Weis and his team stumbled down the stretch of the 2008 season, the Rainbows quietly won four of their last six, and one of the losses during that stretch was a 29-24 defeat to Orange Bowl-bound Cincinnati. Notre Dame lost four of its last five games, but to give the Irish their due, the defeats came against teams that combined to go 32-17 this year. Still, it’s difficult to see how such a shaky offense can navigate the sometimes-tricky Aloha Stadium winds. Plus, there is the small fact that the Rainbows are extremely tough at home – 45 wins in 55 games dating back to 2002 … Hawaii 27, Notre Dame 23. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN)

Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Wake Forest vs. Navy (+3); Colorado State vs. Fresno State (+2½); Memphis (+12½) vs. South Florida; BYU (+3) vs. Arizona; Southern Miss (+4) vs. Troy; Boise State (+2½) vs. TCU; and Hawaii (-1½) vs. Notre Dame.

Enjoy the start of bowl week everyone and we’ll visit again next week.

How Can Buckeyes Beat Texas?

Please don’t say the BCS got it right. It didn’t.

During a season in which there are only two undefeated teams remaining and neither get a chance to play for the national championship, it was impossible to “get it right.”

During a season in which there are a half-dozen one-loss teams, each of which is worthy of playing for the national championship, it was impossible to “get it right.”

What makes Oklahoma and Florida so special? Are they really the best teams in college football this year? Obviously, the pollsters think so – but the emphasis is on the “think so.” No one knows for sure.

What disqualifies Texas? The last-second loss to Texas Tech? Maybe you want to discount what the Red Raiders have accomplished this season, and maybe that is a salient argument in light of their 44-point loss to Oklahoma. I just have a tough time believing the Sooners belong in the national championship game just because they ran up the score on their last half-dozen opponents.

Didn’t Texas beat Oklahoma? By 10 points? On a neutral field? And because freshman safety Blake Gideon couldn’t hold onto a fourth-quarter interception and on the next play sophomore cornerback Curtis Brown was unable to prevent the best receiver in college football from catching the winning pass, the rest of the Longhorns’ marvelous season is relegated to every other also-ran team? Tell me how that’s fair and how the BCS got everything “right.”

Now that my mini-rant is over, I have to admit I wasn’t that thrilled when the bowl invitations were announced. Ohio State desperately needs a postseason victory this year – for a bit of national redemption as much as anything else – and going to play a team that could/should be considered one of this season’s best is a tough assignment. Likewise, there aren’t exactly sweet memories for the Buckeyes from the last trip to the Phoenix area.

I didn’t like the matchup any better when I started looking a little more in-depth at the Longhorns.

For starters, Texas is the No. 3 ranked team in the nation and Ohio State is 0-2 against top-five competition this season. The Longhorns also have the No. 2 defense in the country against the rush. The Buckeyes’ offensive strength is their running game but in their two losses this season, they averaged only 66.0 yards per game and 2.0 yards on 132 rushing plays. UT also has a balanced offense that averages 43.9 points per game. OSU got its offense in gear toward the end of the season but only twice scored more points in a single game than the Longhorns averaged all year.

At first blush, it seems to be the recipe for more postseason heartache in your particular persuasion happens to lean toward scarlet and gray.

If you dig a little deeper, however, there are some chinks in the Texas armor. Yes, the Longhorns held eight of their 12 opponents to less than 50 yards rushing. That included Oklahoma, which gained only 48 yards. Two teams, however, figured out a way to run the ball against UT. Baylor managed 201 yards in a 45-21 loss in early November, and Oklahoma State piled up 217 yards in a narrow 28-24 defeat.

In that game, Cowboys running back Kendall Hunter rolled for 161 yards, a season-high total for a Texas opponent. As a means of comparison, Hunter finished the 2008 regular season ranked sixth in the country with an average of 126.5 yards per game. Ohio State tailback Beanie Wells finished one tick behind Hunter in the No. 7 position thanks to his 121.2-yard average.

There is no question that Texas quarterback Colt McCoy had a tremendous season, one that I think was Heisman Trophy worthy. (We’ll get to that later.) In terms of raw numbers, McCoy completed a ridiculous 77.6 percent of his 375 pass attempts for 3,445 yards and 32 touchdowns.

One facet of McCoy’s game that does not get enough attention is his ability to run – he rushed for 576 yards and 10 TDs this season. But opposing defenses that played sound fundamental football had success keeping the Texas QB corralled. The Longhorns surrendered 22 sacks this season. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes tallied 13 of their 24 sacks in the final five games. Maybe it’s no coincidence that when the sack total started to increase, they began to pull away from their opponents. Point differential in the first seven games: plus-70 for Ohio State. Point differential in the final five: plus-111.

One more possible way for the Buckeyes to attack Texas would be through the air. For all of their obvious strengths, the Longhorns rank a dismal 109th of 119 Division I-A schools in pass defense. Unfortunately, OSU ranks 104th in pass offense.

Naturally, the Orangebloods will argue their numbers are skewed because of playing in the pass-happy Big 12. They did face four quarterbacks who rank among the country’s top nine in passing efficiency.

What is Ohio State’s excuse? Well, in reality, the Buckeyes have none. Head coach Jim Tressel has been reluctant to allow freshman QB Terrelle Pryor to use the pass as much of a weapon, fearing too many passes would lead to too many mistakes. Guess what? Playing the likes of Texas, Tressel now has little choice but to open the entire playbook to his gifted young quarterback.

I have heard the knocks against Pryor’s arm and they come from people who have not seen him play. He can make all the throws – short, long and in between. My guess is that he will have to throw more than 15 times – his average number of attempts as a starter – if the Buckeyes have any hopes of beating the Longhorns.

There is one other possible advantage for Ohio State but it is such an intangible facet, no one will know whether it came into play until the game is over. It is the mind-set with which Texas will approach the game. Will the Longhorns seek to prove something to the country at large for their national title game slight? Or will their minds be in Miami and on Oklahoma and Florida rather than in Phoenix and on the Buckeyes? I have covered countless teams that have said all the right things leading up to the game and then played as though their minds were clearly elsewhere. Will that happen to the Longhorns? We’ll find out in exactly 25 days.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** I waited until the last minute before electronically filing my Heisman Trophy ballot yesterday. I finally settled on McCoy at the top because he has achieved a truly remarkable season on a team that features no outstanding supporting cast. I put McCoy ahead of Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford for three reasons: I felt Bradford had the better supporting players, McCoy beat Bradford in the head-to-head matchup, and some of Bradford’s stats were inflated as the Sooners and head coach Bob Stoops went for the inane NCAA record of six straight 60-point games. I stayed with my conviction for third place, filling out the ballot with Wells. Where would the Buckeyes have been without him? Not 10-2 and going to the Fiesta Bowl, that’s for sure, and that’s what got my third-place vote.

** McCoy is the leader in a poll of Heisman voters taken by the Rocky Mountain News. McCoy edged Bradford by a single point with Florida quarterback Tim Tebow finishing eight points back in third. The newspaper has correctly predicted the winner 18 of the past 21 years.

** Over at StiffArmTrophy.com, which has accurately predicted every winner since 2002 by gleaning actual votes from actual Heisman voters, Bradford enjoys a fairly healthy lead with McCoy and Tebow neck and neck for second. StiffArmTrophy.com is so accurate because they count actual votes.

** Congratulations to Buffalo head coach Turner Gill. The guy turned around a moribund program, engineered an upset of previously undefeated Ball State and has his school going to the International Bowl. What makes the postseason invitation even sweeter is that the school’s only previous bowl chance was aborted 50 years ago when it turned down a Tangerine Bowl berth because its African-American players would not be allowed to participate.

** Did you see the end of the Buffalo-Ball State contest? In a me-first world, Gill taught us all a little lesson in how to win with humility. When asked he could take the Bills from perennial doormats to MAC champions, tears came to Gill’s eyes when he answered, “It wasn’t me. They did it. The players did it. They deserve the credit.”

** Next time you get all bent out of shape because your favorite team doesn’t make the preseason top 25, consider what came of these teams that were ranked before the year began. Auburn, Clemson and Tennessee each fired their head coaches; Michigan had the worst season in its history; LSU lost more regular-season games than any defending national champion in six decades; Arizona State and Illinois each finished with losing records.

** When Oklahoma finished at the top of the Bowl Championship Series standings, it extended the Sooners’ all-time lead in the rankings. OU has made 18 appearances atop the BCS rankings, three more than Ohio State and USC. Florida State and Miami (Fla.) round out the top five with seven No. 1 appearances each.

** Did you know that the Big Ten was the only major Division I-A conference this year with co-champions? It’s true. Ohio State and Penn State tied for the Big Ten crown while every other conference had a sole champion. Virginia Tech won the ACC, Cincinnati took the Big East, Oklahoma won the Big 12, East Carolina took home the Conference USA title, Buffalo won the MAC, Utah was the Mountain West winner, USC took the Pac-10, Florida won the SEC, Troy took home the Sun Belt trophy and Boise State won the WAC.

** Of course, many of the aforementioned conferences have championship games and that makes it impossible to have co-champions. Still, Big Ten is pretty good about determining its champion without benefit of a title game. Over the past 25 seasons, including 2008, the conference has produced 15 outright champions – Ohio State (1984), Iowa (1985), Michigan State (1987), Michigan (1988-89), Michigan (1991-92), Penn State (1994), Northwestern (1995), Michigan (1997), Wisconsin (1999), Illinois (2001), Michigan (2003) and Ohio State (2006-07).

** USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Michigan quarterback Chuck Ortmann and Rose Bowl game manager Virgil Lubberden are this year’s class of inductees into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Fans of Ohio State football history may remember Ortmann as the quarterback on Michigan’s 1950 team that beat the Buckeyes, 9-3, in the famous Snow Bowl. In that game, Ortmann punted a Big Ten record 24 times, a single-game mark that still stands.

** While the Big 12 and SEC continue to get most of the love from the national media, how about a round of applause for the ACC? Ten of the conference’s 12 teams earned bowl invitations this season, including all six members of the Atlantic division.

** USC and Penn State will meet for the third time in the Rose Bowl. The first was in 1923 when the Trojans took a 14-3 victory. How long ago was that? So long that Joe Paterno wasn’t even born yet.

** Turnovers came in bunches last weekend. Undefeated Ball State committed five and lost to Buffalo in the MAC championship. High-scoring Tulsa grounded itself with seven turnovers in a C-USA title game loss to East Carolina. And three-time defending Division I-AA champion Appalachian State also committed seven turnovers and lost a 33-13 quarterfinal decision to Richmond.

** We’ve talked about turnovers. How about turnarounds? Southern Miss started this season 2-6, which included a five-game losing streak, the school’s longest in 32 years. The Golden Eagles closed with four straight wins and will play Troy in the New Orleans Bowl.

** Oregon State was 0-2 and giving up an average of 40.5 points per game. Then the Beavers upset USC and came within a whisker of making their first Rose Bowl in 44 years. They got a consolation prize of playing Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.

** And then there was Rutgers, left for dead at 1-5 following a 13-10 loss Oct. 11 to Cincinnati. The Scarlet Knights rebounded with six straight victories and will face North Carolina State on Dec. 29 in the PapaJohns.com Bowl.

** The Division II and III playoffs have familiar feels to them. Northwest Missouri State made the D-II championship game for the fourth straight season with last week’s 41-7 semifinal win over North Alabama. In D-III, defending champion Wisconsin-Whitewater is in the semifinals as is Mount Union, which reached the final four for the 14th consecutive season.

** Nothing has changed in the NAIA, either. Carroll College (Mont.) and the University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) will square off for the championship for the second year in a row. Last year, the Fighting Saints of Carroll knocked off the defending champion Cougars by a 17-9 score in the title game.

** Today marks the 37th anniversary of the first and only East-West Black All-Star Game. The contest, which was held Dec. 11, 1971, in Houston, featured all-star teams comprised of African-American players. The East took a 19-10 victory over the West before only 5,156 fans.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 8, 1914, representatives from Oklahoma and Rice attended a meeting in Houston and joined as charter members of what became the Southwest Athletic Conference; on Dec. 12, 1981, Eastern Michigan celebrated its first (and still only) postseason appearance with a 30-27 win over San Jose State in the California Bowl; and on Dec. 14, 1995, overtime was used for the first time ever in a Division I-A game. Toledo took a 40-37 win in OT over Nevada in the Las Vegas Bowl.

** This week also featured the first awards ceremony to honor the outstanding individual player in college football. On Dec. 9, 1935, Jay Berwanger of Chicago was named the first recipient of the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy. The award would be renamed the following year in honor of legendary coach and innovator John Heisman. The Heisman Memorial Trophy was awarded to the top college player by the Downtown Athletic Club until 2001 when it declared bankruptcy. The trophy is now awarded annually by the Yale Club of New York City.

FEARLESS FORECAST

The forecast will take a couple of weeks off until bowl season heats up and it isn’t a minute too soon. Thanks to a boatload of turnovers by Ball State and Tulsa, the weekend started off poorly and didn’t get any better. Straight up, we were only 5-3 to move the season total to 98-37.

Against the spread, it was just one of those weeks with a season-worst 1-6 finish. Thanks to Oklahoma for running up the score and preventing a total wipeout. The ATS ledger for the season is now 70-60-1.

Remember: The bowl season officially begins in just nine days with four games on the docket.

Fiesta or Sugar? Pick Your Poison

I don’t want to look any gift horse in the mouth but if Ohio State is truly going to go to the Arizona desert for the fifth time in seven years, the Buckeyes had better do everything different this time.

No more staying at the palatial Scottsdale Princess hotel. No more practicing at Pinnacle High School in Scottsdale. No more white jerseys – wear the scarlet ones even if it means giving up one team timeout per half. And, please, please, please, no more midnight runs to In-N-Out Burger.

If we’re reading the tea leaves correctly, it appears the Buckeyes are going to make another trek to the Fiesta Bowl this season and will probably play Texas. (That, of course, means everything has to go according to plan this weekend. Should Missouri somehow find a way to upset Oklahoma, all BCS bets are off.)

Pitting Ohio State against Texas would seem to be a dream matchup for the Phoenix-area folks who stage the bowl – two of the winningest programs in college football history meeting for only the third time ever and the first time in a bowl.

If it turns out to be OSU vs. the Longhorns in the Fiesta Bowl, neither team will travel to Phoenix with pleasant memories of their last trip to the desert. UT-Austin has made only one previous appearance in the Fiesta Bowl and that was a 38-15 loss to Penn State in the 1997 game. Ohio State, of course, was skewered to the ugly tune of 41-14 decision by Florida in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game.

There is another reason why the Longhorns may envision a Fiesta Bowl trip as something less than ideal. They probably should be playing the Big 12 championship game this Saturday with an eye toward the national title game, and anything less is likely to be a downer.

As for the Buckeyes, they should be elated about securing a sixth Bowl Championship Series berth in seven seasons. They also should send Oregon a Christmas card to thank the Ducks for knocking off Oregon State last weekend. That bumped the Beavers out of the Rose Bowl picture, supplanted USC in their place and paved the way for Ohio State to move into the big-money BCS mix.

Speaking only for myself, I would prefer a trip to the Orange Bowl. OSU has not played a postseason game in travel-friendly Florida since 2001 and it hasn’t appeared in the Orange Bowl since the 1977 game. (How long ago was that? It was the final bowl victory in Woody Hayes’ career.)

But the way the various BCS games pick their teams is about as convoluted as the way their standings are determined. The Orange seems destined to have Big East champion Cincinnati pitted against the ACC title game winner, leaving the Buckeyes available to be selected by either the Fiesta or Sugar bowl committees. To me, that’s a pick-your-poison scenario.

Not many OSU fans I talked with last year had a very good opinion of New Orleans. I have been to the Crescent City several times – both before Hurricane Katrina and after – and it is pretty much the same kind of touristy destination it has always been. Stay in the French Quarter and you’ll be OK. Venture elsewhere and take your chances.

Having acknowledged that, I would just as soon take a few more years off from going to the Fiesta Bowl. For one thing, it is a much different animal now that the game is played in suburban Glendale as opposed to quaint little Tempe. The game-day atmosphere around Sun Devil Stadium was lively and spirited with plenty of local establishments waiting with open arms to welcome fans of the participating teams. That was most likely because Tempe is a college town and Sun Devil Stadium is a college football venue – in other words, they know how to stage a college football game.

Glendale and its state-of-the-art University of Phoenix Stadium have all the charm of a school bus. Supposedly, there are more eateries and attractions that have been built in proximity to the stadium since last Ohio State and its fans visited for what is universally known as “The Debacle in the Desert.” That would be an improvement since amenities were nearly non-existent last time.

I also wonder just how many OSU fans will return to the desert after last time. There were reports of price-gouging – not only around town but at the sanctioned events and official tailgate parties for the Buckeyes themselves. I guess when you charge $10.50 for a single beer, you’re leaving yourself open for criticism. Of course, you have to pay for a $455 million retractable-roof stadium somehow.

While the amenities and attractions of the host city are important – especially to fans making the trip – the bottom line this year is simple. Pass-happy Texas, BCS buster Utah, defense-minded Alabama, high-scoring Florida and pesky Cincinnati each would bring something unique into a game against the Buckeyes.

But whoever the opponent, whatever the destination, after the last two years, there is only one option for Ohio State this time around. SEC redemption? A Big 12 beatdown? Defending the Big Ten’s honor? Who cares? Just win, baby.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** Here are my BCS game predictions: Oklahoma vs. Florida in the championship game, Ohio State vs. Texas in the Fiesta, Alabama vs. Utah in the Sugar, Boston College vs. Cincinnati in the Orange and USC vs. Penn State in the Rose. That’s two spots each for the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten, one each for the ACC, Big East and Pac-10 and one for a so-called BCS buster.

** Did you know that USC and Penn State have not met in the postseason since the 1982 Fiesta Bowl? The then-independent Nittany Lions scored a 26-10 decision over the Trojans and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen.

** I’m flipping the top two on my Heisman Trophy ballot from last week. This week, I moved Texas QB Colt McCoy to the top, leapfrogging Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford? My reasoning is simple (and, no, it is not some sort of protest due to the BCS jumping OU over UT-Austin in its standings). I believe the Sooners would be a comparable team to what they are today without Bradford in the lineup while McCoy is far and away the most valuable player on the Longhorns. There really isn’t a whole lot of difference in the two but I have to break the tie somehow. My third pick will still probably be Ohio State running back Chris “Beanie” Wells although I could be persuaded to throw a bone to someone like Ball State QB Nate Davis or Boise State DB Kyle Wilson, who had eight interceptions to go along with three punt returns for touchdowns.

** Anyone who has read any of my stuff since 1990 knows how I feel about former Ohio State running back Robert Smith. However, with regard to Florida QB Tim Tebow and his Heisman candidacy this year, Smith and I agree. Yes, Tebow is the quarterback for a team likely headed to the BCS title game. Yes, he has picked things up down the stretch. But his overall numbers – 2,299 yards and 25 TDs through the air, 507 yards and 12 scores on the ground – are hardly Heisman-worthy.

** Saturday’s SEC championship game between Alabama and Florida will mark the 40th time that the top two teams in the Associated Press poll have met with the top-ranked team holding a 23-15-1 edge. This is, however, the first 1-vs.-2 matchup ever to be waged in a conference championship game.

** Oklahoma has put up some ridiculous offensive numbers this season. To wit: The Sooners have 47 touchdown passes this season; Wisconsin, Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan combined for 45. The Sooners are averaging 53.3 points per game this season; Auburn, Tennessee and Mississippi State of the invincible SEC combined to average 49.9. And OU leads the nation with only nine turnovers; at the other end of the spectrum is Washington State, which committed 38.

** When Boston College takes on Virginia Tech this week in the ACC Championship Game, play attention to the Eagles and not just when they have the ball. BC is working on a streak of seven consecutive games in which it has scored a non-offensive touchdown. The streak continued last week in a 28-21 win over Maryland when the Eagles scored on a 9-yard touchdown pass off a fake field goal and a 36-yard interception return. The INT return made it four games in a row that BC has had a pick-six.

** USC will wear its home cardinal red jerseys Saturday in the Rose Bowl when it takes on UCLA. Because that violates an NCAA rule that requires visiting teams to wear white, the infraction will cost the Trojans one timeout per half.

** While offense continues to get the publicity (see above), playing able to play a modicum of defense still determines the difference between winning and losing. Houston quarterback Case Keenum threw for 494 yards and five touchdowns Saturday against crosstown rival Rice. Keenum also completed an NCAA-record 25 straight passes at one juncture. Final score: Rice 56, Houston 42. There were 57 first downs in the game not to mention 1,225 yards of total offense.

** By the way, Keenum is just one game shy of equaling another NCAA record. The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore’s performance against Rice pushed his streak of consecutive 300-yard passing games to 13. The NCAA record-holder with 14 is Tulsa QB Paul Smith, who finished his career last season with 312 yards in the Golden Hurricane’s 63-7 GMAC Bowl romp over Bowling Green. In case you wondered, Smith was signed as an undrafted free agent by Jacksonville is currently on the Jaguars’ practice squad.

** More individual passing records were set last weekend. Eastern Michigan quarterback Andy Schmitt was 58 for 80 for 516 yards and five touchdowns during a 55-52 upset of Central Michigan. The 58 completions were an all-division NCAA record for a single game.

** Texas teams have gotten a lot of ink this season for producing big offensive numbers. But you have to go one state north to find the best offenses in college football. Oklahoma and Tulsa finished one-two in scoring offense this season, combining for 190 touchdowns. The entire SEC West Division – which includes No. 1 Alabama and defending national champion LSU – combined to score only 221 TDs .

** While you ponder all of those dizzying passing stats, here is a stat for you to underline how important running the ball remains in the Big Ten. Of the top 100 quarterbacks in the country, four conference QBs are ranked in the bottom 15 in terms of pass efficiency. They are Brian Hoyer of Michigan State (85th), C.J. Bachér of Northwestern (86th), Kellen Lewis of Indiana (94th) and Steven Threet of Michigan (96th). The highest rated passer in the Big Ten: Daryll Clark of Penn State at No. 22.

** LSU’s fourth-quarter meltdown at seven-loss Arkansas last Saturday gave the Tigers a 7-5 record, the most regular-season defeats for a defending national champion in the AP poll since Ohio State went 3-6 in 1943. At least the Buckeyes had an excuse – their roster from ’42 was decimated by players enlisting in the military to fight in World War II. Les Miles’ excuse this season? Anyone? Anyone at all?

** Congratulations to kicking specialist Louie Sakoda of Utah, the only player in the nation who is a finalist for both the Lou Groza and Ray Guy awards. Sakoda, who has converted 21 of 23 field-goal tries this season while averaging 41.7 yards per punt, is only the second player in history to be named a finalist for both awards. Travis Dorsch of Purdue was the first – he won the 2001 Guy Award and finished behind Tulane’s Seth Marler for the ’01 Groza Award. Dorsch is currently punting for Winnipeg in the CFL while Marler is kicking for Tampa Bay in the arena league.

** Cal Poly will have a bad taste in its mouth for the entire offseason. The Mustangs missed three PATs in their regular-season finale, allowing Wisconsin to escape with a 36-35 overtime win in Madison. Then, Cal Poly bowed in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs last weekend by committing five turnovers and losing a 49-35 decision to Weber State. The Mustangs entered the game with only six turnovers all season.

** Speaking of Division I-AA teams, evidently they can throw the ball, too. Appalachian State got a school-record 433 yards from QB Armanti Edwards as the Mountaineers cruised to a 37-21 victory last weekend over South Carolina State.

** Mount Union is on track for another Division III national championship and running back Nate Kmic is a major reason. In last week’s second-round win playoff win over Hobart (N.Y.), Kmic pushed his career rushing total to 7,449 yards and that is a new D-III record. Kmic needs 514 more yards to break the NCAA all-division record, established just last year at 7,962 by Danny Woodhead of Division II Chadron (Neb.) State.

** If the Purple Raiders keep winning, Kmic could have as many as three more games in which to break the record. Mount Union, the No. 1 seed in the D-III playoffs, is seeking its 10th national championship in the last 16 seasons.

** It wasn’t a good weekend to be a top seed in the Division II playoffs. All quarterfinal hosts lost, including top seed Grand Valley State (Mich.). The Lakers, who won the D-II national title four times during a five-year period between 2002 and 2006, lost a 19-13 decision in double overtime to unbeaten Minnesota-Duluth.

** Twenty years ago today, the Heisman Trophy winner was nowhere near New York when he learned he had won college football’s top individual award. On Dec. 4, 1988, Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders was preparing for a game to be played in Tokyo, Japan, when he received the news he had won the ’88 Heisman. Sanders celebrated by rushing 44 times for 332 yards and four TDs as the Cowboys took a 45-42 victory over Texas Tech. Sanders’ performance allowed him to establish a new NCAA single-season rushing record with 2,628 yards in 11 games.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Dec. 2, 1972, Army blocked a field goal and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown during a 23-15 win over Navy and won the first-ever Commander-In-Chief Trophy; on Dec. 3, 1999, Marshall QB Chad Pennington threw a touchdown pass on the final play of the game and the Thundering Herd came back to beat Western Michigan, 34-30, in the MAC Championship Game; and on Dec. 6, 1969, top-rated Texas overcame a 14-0 fourth-quarter deficit and rallied for a 15-14 win at No. 2 Arkansas.

** This week also featured one of the early landmark victories in Joe Paterno’s long career. On Dec. 7, 1968, Penn State took a 30-12 win over Syracuse, extending its regular-season winning streak to 18 straight games. The Nittany Lions were led by halfback Bobby Campbell, who rushed 24 times for 239 yards and set a school record with an 87-yard touchdown run. The win also secured Penn State’s first undefeated and untied season since 1947 and the first of five perfect seasons (so far) under Paterno.

** Today also marks a milestone birthday for my wife Lisa. She may be 50 but she looks 30 and makes me feel like I’m 20. Anyone who knows her knows what a lucky guy I am. A very, very happy birthday to my biggest fan.

FEARLESS FORECAST

It wasn’t that difficult to forecast last week’s games as the top teams jockeyed for those BCS style points. Straight up and against the spread, we finished with 6-1 records and that makes us 93-34 SU and 69-54-1 ATS.

With the final week of the college football regular season comes conference championship games and another Saturday filled with good entertainment. Here is what we’ll be watching this weekend:

FRIDAY’S GAME

MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP

No. 12 Ball State vs. Buffalo: These teams are enjoying their best seasons in many years. The Cardinals recorded their first perfect regular season since 1949 while the Bulls are bowl-eligible for the first time since moving up to Division I-A in 1999. Ball State QB Nate Davis (3,095 yards, 25 TDs) has been getting most of the publicity this year but Buffalo has a pretty good quarterback, too, in senior Drew Willy (2,885 yards, 22 TDs). The game will also feature two of the nation’s top running backs, both juniors – MiQuale Lewis, who ranks fourth in the nation for the Cardinals with an average of 130.8 yards per game, and James Starks of Buffalo, who ranks sixth at 122.6. The difference in the game will likely be on defense where Ball State is 10th in the country in scoring defense (16.7 points per game) while the Bulls are 77th (27.8). There is also the small fact that Buffalo is 0-8 against ranked teams since joining I-A … Ball State 31, Buffalo 17. (8 p.m. EST, ESPN2)

SATURDAY’S GAMES

Army vs. Navy: To be able to call yourself a true fan of college football, you have to watch at least a little of the Army-Navy game each year. If the pageantry of the Cadets and Midshipmen entering the stadium doesn’t give you a chill, check your pulse. This year, the Middies would appear to have the upper hand, especially since they continue to run the same kind of triple-option offense they did under former head coach Paul Johnson. Navy is the No. 1 rushing team in the nation and had four different running backs who gained 480 or more yards this season. That quartet also combined for 24 rushing touchdowns. The Black Knights can run the ball, too, with senior Collin Mooney totaling 1,307 yards. Unfortunately for Army, most of its damage was done between the 20-yard lines – it ranks 114th out of 119 Division I-A teams in scoring … Navy 28, Army 14. (12 noon EST, CBS)

CONFERENCE USA CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP

East Carolina at Tulsa: Be forewarned that we have yet to pick Tulsa correctly this season. Still, how can you go against a team that averaged nearly 50 points per game this year? You may not have heard of Golden Hurricane QB David Johnson, but he is one of the nation’s best pure passers. Johnson tops the nation in pass efficiency, and he has thrown for 3,671 yards and 42 TDs. Where things get dicey for Tulsa is on defense. The Hurricane simply try to outscore the opposition, and they’ve given up 30 or more points in half of their 12 games. It seems difficult to believe the Pirates can keep up, especially since they have scored 30 or more points only twice all season … Tulsa 45, East Carolina 31. (12 noon EST, ESPN2)

ACC CHAMPIONSHIP

No. 18 Boston College vs. Virginia Tech: In nearly every game, there are key matchups to consider. Not here. The winner of this game will be predicated on how many mistakes the other team makes. BC has depended on defensive and special teams touchdowns all season, including a 65-yard punt return for a score in its 28-23 win over the Hokies earlier this year. But the game shouldn’t have been that close – the Eagles committed five turnovers and Tech returned two interceptions for TDs. If its a mistake-free game, Boston College should win this one easily. Trouble is, no one expects a mistake-free game … Boston College 27, Virginia Tech 23. (1 p.m. EST, ABC)

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Florida: If both of these teams bring their “A” games, this contest should be very entertaining. The Tide have stayed undefeated by sticking to a philosophy of ball control and defense. Meanwhile, the Gators have bludgeoned their opponents, winning their last seven games by an average of 40.9 points. As good as it has been on defense, no one believes Alabama will be able to stop Florida’s attack even without receiver Percy Harvin, whose gimpy ankle leaves him questionable for Saturday. Even if the Tide finds a way to slow down the Gators, the UF defense should be able to force a couple of miscues out of Bama QB John Parker Wilson. Look for the Urban Legends to make a second trip in three years to the national championship game … Florida 23, Alabama 17. (4 p.m. EST, CBS)

No. 5 USC at UCLA: Could this be one of those games in which the Trojans completely lose focus? Not very likely. Those kinds of games typically occur in midseason, and Pistol Pete has done a pretty good job lately of keeping his team motivated because of its perceived BCS slight. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the Bruins are probably no better matchup for USC than Notre Dame was last week. In fact, the Uclans are worse – they rank 107th in the country in scoring offense and 116th in rushing. The Trojans should roll while getting very comfortable with their Rose Bowl surroundings … USC 41, UCLA 3. (4:30 p.m. EST, ABC)

Big 12 CHAMPIONSHIP

No. 19 Missouri at No. 4 Oklahoma: If revenge is truly a dish served better cold, the Tigers had better hope for one of those Alberta clippers to hit Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night. Putting the Sooners in the deep freeze might be the only way Mizzou can get payback for getting knocked out of the national championship game by OU last year. There are tiny cracks in Oklahoma’s armor. QB Sam Bradford has torn ligaments in his non-throwing left hand and the injury led to a couple of bad snaps last week. Also, the Sooners aren’t exactly stellar on defense, ranking only 66th in the country in total defense and 98th in pass defense. Those rankings are better than Missouri, though, which is 91st in total defense and 116th against the pass. If you like your scores big and bad, this game is for you … Oklahoma 56, Missouri 35. (8 p.m. EST, ABC)

No. 13 Cincinnati at Hawaii: On the off-chance that Ohio State falls into the Orange Bowl, it’s worth scoping out the Bearcats as they take a victory lap to the land of balmy breezes and swaying palm trees. UC is led by junior quarterback Tony Pike, who despite playing with a painfully bruised sternum and a broken bone in his non-throwing hand, has managed to throw for 2,060 yards sand 17 TDs. Where Brian Kelly’s team has really distinguished itself, however, is defensively. The Bearcats give up an average of only 19.8 points per game, and that matches up well against a rebuilding Hawaii offense that has turned the ball over 33 times in 12 games … Cincinnati 27, Hawaii 17. (11:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2)

Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Ball State (-13½) vs. Buffalo; Army vs. Navy (-10½); East Carolina at Tulsa (-11); Boston College (-1) vs. Virginia Tech; Alabama (+10) vs. Florida; USC (-27) at UCLA; Missouri at Oklahoma (-14½); Cincinnati (-6½) at Hawaii.

Enjoy the games and we’ll visit again next week.

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