Exactly 13 weeks from tomorrow – 91 days to be even more exact – Ohio State will kick off the 2009 football season with a couple of goals in mind.
The Buckeyes will be shooting for their fifth consecutive Big Ten championship, only one off the conference record of six in a row set by OSU between 1972 and ’77. The team will also be shooting for an unprecedented sixth straight victory over archrival Michigan while attempting to extend their string of Bowl Championship Series berths to five in a row.
Those goals are certainly within the Buckeyes’ grasp. So, too, could be other loftier goals such as Terrelle Pryor becoming the third sophomore quarterback in a row to win the Heisman Trophy. There is also the ultimate goal of every team – earning a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. If Ohio State accomplishes that one, it becomes only the second team in BCS history to play in four title games. (Oklahoma is the other one.)
Before any of the aforementioned can occur, however, the Buckeyes have to navigate their way through a 2009 season that features a handful of tough games and more than a couple of gimmes. Here is a breakdown of that schedule in reverse order of difficulty.
12. NEW MEXICO STATE – OCT. 31
The Aggies will be breaking in a new offensive system as well as a new head coach this season. Gone is pass-happy Hal Mumme (Tim Couch’s mentor in the late 1990s at Kentucky) and his successor, DeWayne Walker, has decided to install a run-oriented offense.
That’s not exactly music to the ears of fans because New Mexico State finished 10th in Division I-A last year in passing yards. Even so, the Aggies won only three games last season and were 3-9 overall because of an abysmal running attack that averaged a measly 54.2 yards per game. The defense wasn’t much better – NMSU surrendered an average of 34.1 points per game and that ranked 105th out of 119 I-A schools.
Walker, who was a two-year letterman at Minnesota in 1981-82, will likely begin to get things turned around in Las Cruces but not quickly enough to pull an upset over Ohio State. It is likely to be a scary Halloween night in the Horseshoe for the Aggies.
11. AT INDIANA – OCT. 3
Terry Hoeppner’s death two years ago derailed the Indiana program which seemed to be enjoying a renaissance. Now the Hoosiers appear ready to extend a streak that has produced losing records in 12 of the past 13 seasons.
Head coach Bill Lynch enters the 2009 season with a depleted roster after kicking quarterback Kellen Lewis off the team for multiple team infractions. Lewis was easily the Hoosiers’ best player, but even with him the team was likely to struggle. The schedule-makers didn’t do IU any favors either with road games at Virginia, Iowa and Penn State.
One of the Hoosiers’ marquee games will be a prime-time contest when the Buckeyes travel to Bloomington for the first time since 2005. However, Ohio State is working on a 15-game winning streak in the series, including 6-0 under Jim Tressel. The average score in just those six games is 37-10.
10. NAVY – SEPT. 5
There could be more here than meets the eye, especially since Navy has had the No. 1 rushing offense in the country for two years running. It’s difficult for most teams to defend the triple option since they don’t see it much anymore and certainly don’t practice against it very often.
That will be a little different for the Buckeyes, who have all summer to gear up to stop such an attack. When the Midshipmen cannot run the ball, they simply do not win. In their eight victories last season, they averaged 331.9 yards rushing. In their five defeats, that average dropped to 229.2.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has more than his share of critics, and many of them point to last year’s ranking of 18th in the nation against the run. That was the Buckeyes’ worst showing in run defense since ranking 35th in 2004. Still, one would think OSU will be ready to go. After all, the team hasn’t lost a season opener at home since 1978, outscoring the opposition by about three touchdowns over that 26-game span.
9. TOLEDO AT CLEVELAND – SEPT. 19
Don’t be fooled by the fact the Rockets were 3-9 last year and finished tied for last place in the MAC West. Toledo has a returning starter at nearly every position, including quarterback Aaron Opelt and exciting tailback Morgan Williams. Opelt has thrown for 4,807 yards and 30 TDs during his career while Williams burst on the scene last year to rush for 1,010 yards while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
Former OSU cornerbacks coach Tim Beckman takes over the head coaching position in Toledo this season, his first shot at running a program after serving as an assistant since 1988. If history proves anything, he’s not going to have an easy time of it in this contest. Former Tressel assistants such as Mark Snyder and Mark Dantonio are winless against their old boss since he got to Ohio State.
In addition to Beckman, there are a couple of other intriguing storylines that go along with this game. The Rockets, of course, beat Michigan in Ann Arbor last season, leading the players to believe they can pull a similar upset this year. And the game will be played in Cleveland Browns Stadium, and Toledo needs only to look back to 2002 when Cincinnati nearly upset the Buckeyes in Paul Brown Stadium. Will all of that be enough to become the first Ohio team to beat Ohio State since 1921? Probably not.
8. AT PURDUE (OCT. 17)
Purdue could be the poster child for why it is a bad idea to name a coach-in-waiting. During Joe Tiller’s final season in West Lafayette, the Boilermakers threw up all over themselves (polite way of saying they quit on ol’ Uncle Joe) and finished 4-8 overall. That was only the second losing season for Tiller in a dozen years at Purdue.
Now that bunch of underachievers is new head coach Danny Hope’s problem and he has to find a way to jump-start an offense that tanked in 2008. The bad news is that he has to begin by finding eight new starters on offense. The good news? The guys he had to replace were seemingly going through the motions at times last year, so a fresh start may be good for everyone.
Lost amid Purdue’s season of a year ago was the fact it played Ohio State about as tough as it played anyone in a 16-3 loss in Columbus. But the Boilermakers never seem to have the same fire at home – they have lost seven of their last nine to the Buckeyes in West Lafayette.
7. WISCONSIN – OCT. 10
The Badgers have taken a mighty tumble since Bret Bielema took over as head coach. After Bielema went 12-1 in 2006 as Barry Alvarez’s hand-picked successor, the Badgers slipped to 9-4 in ’07 and just 7-6 last season. That drop-off, along with a rumored penchant for the nightlife in Madison, may make the coach’s seat extremely hot this season if he doesn’t get the ship headed back in the right direction.
Unfortunately for Bielema, the Badgers are not much more than a question mark as they embark on the 2009 season. Job one will be to figure out who the starting quarterback is going to be – fifth-year senior Dustin Scherer or redshirt freshman Curt Phillips. Next, Bielema has to find replacements for five members of the defensive front seven.
Ohio State and Wisconsin have had a spirited rivalry for past decade or so with the teams splitting eight games since 1999. During that span, the Badgers have won three of four in Ohio Stadium, including two of three against Tressel.
6. AT MICHIGAN – NOV. 21
I flip-flopped back and forth with the rankings of the Michigan and Wisconsin games. While how good the Badgers are going to be remains anyone’s guess, it doesn’t seem likely the Wolverines will be much better in Rich Rodriguez’s second year than they were in his first.
There is, however, that little thing about a rivalry that goes back to 1897 – a series during which the perceived weaker team has won more than its fair share of games. Therefore, on sheer sentimentality alone, I put this game at No. 6 although even ranking it that low is testament to how much the Wolverines are expected to struggle again.
By the time the traditional season finale rolls around, the Buckeyes could have an awful lot to play for while their rivals may face the same problems they did last year – keeping enough healthy bodies in the lineup to put up a representative fight.
No one expects Ohio State’s winning streak against Michigan to last forever. There is a reason why the Buckeyes have never before won six straight in the series. That’s because it isn’t easy. Likewise, there is a reason why the Wolverines have a 30-19-4 record in Ann Arbor against OSU. An upset isn’t out of the question, of course. It just isn’t very likely.
5. MINNESOTA – OCT. 24
Call me crazy but I think Minnesota is one of the dark horse teams in the Big Ten this season. Many believe last year’s six-game improvement from 1-11 to 7-5 in the regular season was a fluke. But head coach Tim Brewster has his team believing in his rah-rah style, and the Gophers are about as talented as they have been in quite some time.
For starters, nearly everyone is back for Brewster, including quarterback Adam Weber, wide receiver Eric Decker and eight others on offense. The Gophers are so loaded that talented youngster MarQueis Gray may steal some snaps from Weber. The only problem is finding any kind of consistent running attack, and Brewster said he addressed that with the hiring of new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. Not sure how Fisch helps the running game, though. He has spent most of his 11-year career as a receivers coach, including last year with the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
If Fisch can get any kind of running game started to take the heat off Weber and/or Gray, that will leave the defense as the only thing standing between the Gophers and championship contention. For all of its improvement in 2008, Minnesota still ranked only 10th in the conference in total defense. That must improve if the Gophers are to successfully navigate the two-week stretch that takes them to Happy Valley the Saturday before they come to Columbus for the Buckeyes’ homecoming.
4. ILLINOIS – SEPT. 26
The Illini are about as close to Jekyll and Hyde as you’re going to get in the Big Ten. Are they the team that shocked everyone and went to the Rose Bowl in 2007? Or are they the team that stumbled its way to a losing season last year?
Critics are going to say the latter, of course, and use as ammunition the fact that Illinois has posted losing records in six of the last seven seasons. Still, head coach Ron Zook has amassed a lot of talent in Champaign and his team has as many good players at key positions as any other in the conference. That is especially true on offense where Juice Williams returns at quarterback and receiver Rejus Benn is one of the top young playmakers in college football. Williams has to cut down on his mistakes, though. During his career, he has thrown 44 TDs but pitched 37 interceptions.
Defensively, the Illini are a bit of a mystery. With studs like Martez Wilson, who moves to middle linebacker in 2009, the team ought to be one of the Big Ten’s best. Yet last year, it ranked only in the middle of the pack.
There is no doubt Zook – an Ohio native who spent three seasons on John Cooper’s OSU staff from 1988-90 – wants this game desperately. But although his team knocked off the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes in Columbus two years ago, history is not on his side. Tressel is 4-2 against the Illini, and the Buckeyes have won nine of the last 12 in the series. This game is the Big Ten opener for both teams, and Illinois will be coming off an open week.
3. IOWA – NOV. 14
In my humble opinion, the Hawkeyes are going to have a boatload of trouble finding a suitable replacement for tailback Shonn Greene. Not only that, the offensive line that blew open so many holes for Greene last season loses both guard Seth Olsen and center Rob Bruggeman.
Secondly, when was the last time a Kirk Ferentz team threw an actual scare into the Buckeyes? Since 2003, the Hawkeyes have been ranked three times entering their game against Ohio State and lost all three times. Not only that, the games were never really close, including 2006 when No. 13 Iowa was gunning for an upset in Iowa City and took a 38-17 trip to the woodshed.
Since sharing the 2004 Big Ten championship with Michigan, the Hawkeyes have perhaps been as disappointing as any other team in the conference. The past four seasons have produced a middling 28-22 record along with a litany of off-the-field problems for Ferentz and his program.
Having noted all of that, the Hawkeyes couldn’t be in a better spot schedule-wise despite not having tasted victory at Ohio Stadium since 1991. They come to Columbus after a two-week home stand with Indiana and Northwestern while the Buckeyes will be coming off a trip to Penn State.
2. AT PENN STATE – NOV. 7
In each of the past two years, Ohio State has lost a Big Ten home game it should have won. Two years ago, Williams led Illinois to a 28-21 victory. Last year, it was Darryl Clark, who came through for Penn State while leading his team to a 13-6 win. Williams couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle two years in a row, and now Clark gets to try. It won’t be easy since the Nittany Lions lost several offensive linemen and receivers to graduation and the NFL.
But the old master still has a thing or two up his sleeve. Joe Paterno would rather play defense anyway, and with a linebacking crew that features Josh Hull, Navarro Bowman and Sean Lee, the Lions should be nasty on D. Also, Clark has enough holdovers from last year – including 1,000-yard rusher Evan Royster and steady backup Stephfon Green – that Penn State should score enough.
A trip to Happy Valley is never a picnic although Tressel’s record is 2-2 there. A couple of other factors may tilt in Ohio State’s favor. First, the game will not be a nighttime affair, making the Beaver Stadium crazies just a little less so. Secondly, if Terrelle Pryor has any game circled on his calendar, it’s this one. His late fumble did the Buckeyes in last year and he knows it. I would guess the OSU quarterback has a little payback in mind.
1. USC – SEPT. 12
No surprise here. The Traveling Trojan Show starring Pistol Pete Carroll rolls into town in week two for another prime-time game that nearly no one gives Ohio State a chance to win. That stands to reason since every remaining member of the Buckeyes still has 35-3 tread marks on their backsides.
This will be a different USC team, of course. Gone are quarterback Mark Sanchez as well as linebacker Rey Maualuga and seven other defensive starters. But if the old saying “We’re don’t rebuild; we reload” is true of any college team, it is true of the Trojans. Carroll signs more five-star prospects than almost anyone and has plenty of them left over for 2009.
For the Buckeyes to entertain any thought of winning this game, they will have to figure out a way to move the ball consistently against USC. Last year, in case you have forgotten, Ohio State totaled 207 yards of offense against the Trojans – 69 of it on a 17-play drive early in the first quarter. In the second half, the Buckeyes were absolutely pathetic – 21 plays from scrimmage, 25 total yards.
Pryor could make the difference, of course. He played in last year’s game, rushing for 40 yards and throwing for 52 on 7-for-9 passing. But he can’t be the only Buckeye who’s on his game Sept. 12. It doesn’t matter who USC has on defense – if the offensive line can’t at least neutralize the line of scrimmage, Ohio State will be in for another long night.
DID YOU KNOW?
Did you know that NCAA Bylaw 13.10.5 prevents universities from “publicizing an athlete’s visit or allowing the visitor to “participate in team activities that would make the public or media aware of the prospective student-athlete’s visit to the institution (e.g., running out of the tunnel with team, celebratory walks to or around the stadium/arena, on-field pregame celebrations).”
Did you know that Auburn had its “Big Cat Weekend” last week during which the Tigers hosted a bunch of blue-chip prospects on unofficial visits, and that the event was advertised on all three major websites that cover Auburn with push-pinned message board posts urging fans to attend? (The posts did not attribute the information to coaches or other Auburn staff members, but many fans showed up for what was clearly a planned event with Auburn police providing crowd and traffic control and school mascot Aubie helping lead cheers.
And did you know that when ESPN college football writer Bruce Feldman contacted a college administrator about the incident, he got a strange reaction?
“That is one of the biggest problems I have with the NCAA,” the administrator told Feldman. “All of the prospects enjoyed it, and they leave the campus having a great time. Auburn will report a secondary violation, which is nothing. In the end they will probably get some of those players.”
And then he added, “(The NCAA) should put in a rule that if you have multiple reported violations with a prospect you are not allowed to recruit him.”
The NCAA rule book is 412 pages thick and that’s not in there?
On that happy note, we mark today’s Buckeye birthday which belongs to former OSU defensive end Vernon Gholston. He turns 23 today.
Gholston was born June 5, 1986, in Detroit, and was recruited as a linebacker out of Cass Technical. It didn’t take long for Ohio State to move the chiseled 6-4, 260-pounder to a defensive end spot and Gholston flourished there, setting a single-season school record with 14 sacks and earning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year honors. He opted to skip his final year of college eligibility and the New York Jets took him with the sixth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. Gholston experienced a tough rookie season with the Jets, playing mostly on special teams and registering only nine tackles in 15 games (eight of them assists). Gholston is expecting bigger and better things in 2009 under the schemes of new head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Also, Gholston has been working during the offseason with Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Evidently, so far so good.
Other luminaries celebrating birthdays this 5th day of June: Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan is 84; journalist Bill Moyers is 75; Sixties television actress Connie Hines (Wilbur Post’s wife, Carol, on “Mister Ed”) is 73; New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft is 68; novelist Ken Follett is 60; financial advisor Suze Orman is 58; Grammy winning musician Kenneth Gorelick (better known as Kenny G) is 53; singer/songwriter Brian McKnight is 40; actor/singer Mark Wahlberg is 38; Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Torry Holt is 33; Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz is 30; Ottawa Senators center Mike Fisher is 29; Cincinnati Reds lefthander Bill Bray is 26; and New Orleans Saints receiver Marques Colston is 26.
Also sharing birthdays today are Olympic gold medal sprinter Tommie Smith, who is 65, and bronze medalist John Carlos, who is 64. Smith and Carlos created a stir during the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City after placing first and third in the 200-meter finals. On the medal stand, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem. The “Power to the People” salute created a great deal of controversy in 1968 and led to the sprinters being suspended by the International Olympic Committee and ostracized for several years by the U.S. sports establishment.
The runners landed on their feet, however. Smith played three years in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals and later became track coach at Oberlin. More recently, he has been a faculty member at Santa Monica College, a two-year community college in Santa Monica, Calif. Carlos also played pro football – one year in the NFL and two in the Canadian league – and is currently a high school track coach in Palm Springs, Calif. Ironically, Carlos worked for a time for the U.S. Olympic Committee and was a member of the organizing committee for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
** Here’s an interesting little nugget that could conspire to keep Ohio State and any other deserving Big Ten school out of the Rose Bowl for the foreseeable future. There is reportedly a clause in the new BCS contract with ESPN – which will begin after the 2010 regular season – that says if the Rose Bowl loses one of its champions to the BCS National Championship Game that opening will be automatically filled by a “coalition” (non-BCS conference) team if one has qualified. For example, let’s say some year that an 11-1 Ohio State team ties for the Big Ten championship but doesn’t get the conference’s automatic berth in the Rose Bowl. Let’s say that same year that a team like Boise State or Hawaii goes undefeated. If that team doesn’t get into the national title game (and what are the chances of that?) it would automatically go to the Rose. The new clause is the Bowl Championship Series’ sneaky little way of increasing access of the five coalition conferences to its games. That way, should the BCS get sued and hauled back before Congress, it is another way it can counter the claim that the coalition schools don’t have enough access.
** Minnesota plans to dedicate its new TCF Stadium in style by honoring some of its greats from the past during the Sept. 12 opener against Air Force. The Gophers will honor former head coach Murray Warmath as well as former players Bobby Bell, Billy Bye, Bob McNamara, Sandy Stephens and Bud Grant (yes, that Bud Grant). Warmath, who is 96 and directed the school’s national championship team in 1960, will be the honorary coach for the game. The five ex-players have been named honorary captains.
** It seems that everyone’s favorite sideline reporter, sugary-sweet Erin Andrews, has a burning desire to compete on “Dancing With The Stars.” That revelation came during a recent Q&A with Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg.
** One of the other nuggets in the story reveals that Andrews’ stylists is Paige Geran, who has also dressed Britney Spears, Wayne Brady, the Spice Girls and American Idols on-tour among many others. Andrews said her work clothes arrive at the hotels where she’s staying and that she trusts they’ll be appropriate to the sporting event she’s covering. She’s wrong. They’re not. A short skirt during a windy Home Run Derby? Skin-tight pants and knee-high boots at the Big Ten basketball tournament? I like a pretty girl as much as the next red-blooded American guy, and there is no questioning Andrews’ attractiveness. But I’ve seen her at some venues where she looks like she’s dressed to go clubbing. That may be easy on the eyes of the spectators and players, but trust me when I tell you it is not appropriate work attire. Erin is fairly good at what she does, but she’s never going to be taken seriously if she continues to show up for work looking like she’s on her way to a night on the town.
** The Washington Nationals on Tuesday fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire. Not that St. Claire was the sole problem, but he was a convenient scapegoat. At the time of his firing, the Natties had an MLB-worst 13-36 record with a bloated 5.69 team ERA. They had also allowed the most runs (308) and recorded the fewest saves (eight) of any team in baseball. Washington’s 12 blown saves were also a league high.
** Also, Nationals outfielder Adam Dunn had 16 home runs through Wednesday while the Nationals had only 14 victories. In case you’re wondering, no player has ever finished the season with more home runs than his team had victories.