Some days, my job feels like equal parts journalist and psychotherapist because on more than one occasion I have had to talk Ohio State fans in off the ledge. Recently, though, the sheer lunacy of the conspiracy theories regarding Tattoogate and the Jim Tressel saga nearly drove me to the psychiatrist’s couch.
Countless times since early March when Tressel was hit with a two-game suspension and substantial fine, I have had to assure family, friends and fans that Tressel was not going to resign nor was he going to be fired. I think some even secretly believed the NCAA was plotting to bulldoze Ohio Stadium.
Now, with that firestorm seemingly dying away with each passing day, the Nervous Nellies and Chicken Littles have moved on to their latest doomsday scenario – the 2011 season could produce the worst record since Tressel’s first team in 2001 finished 7-5 while the Buckeyes’ streak of consecutive Big Ten championships will most assuredly end at six.
My reply: Not so fast.
There is no doubt the Ohio State football team is in a state of flux. When the team kicks off Sept. 3 in the Horseshoe against Akron, it will do so without 16 of the players who started the Sugar Bowl. Four of those – quarterback Terrelle Pryor, tailback Dan “Boom” Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey and left tackle Mike Adams – are integral parts of an offense that averaged 38.8 points and 448.6 yards last season.
But as good as those numbers look, the cold, hard truth at OSU has always been that while offense stirs the masses, defense wins the championships.
With the exception of Posey, the argument can be made that the Buckeyes have ready-made replacements in place for Pryor, Herron and Adams. The offensive scheme will change, of course, without Pryor at the controls but maybe that’s not such a terrible thing. An evolving offensive line always seems to excel more at run blocking, meaning Ohio State can take advantage of its unusual depth at tailback. It might not be the most exciting football to watch, but Woody Hayes managed to win a whole bunch of games with a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach.
Ball-control offense not only controls the tempo of a game, it helps to keep your own defense fresh, and that will be paramount to the Buckeyes in the early going. While the defensive talent is unquestionable, the lineup is a little light on experience.
That said, I have the utmost confidence in defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, who has had to overhaul his starting lineup several times in the past. You need look back only five years when Heacock was faced with replacing nine defensive starters, including his entire secondary and all three linebackers. That season, the Buckeyes won their first outright Big Ten title in 22 years and went all the way to the BCS National Championship Game.
Yes, that was the 2006 season when Troy Smith won the Heisman Trophy while operating an offense that ranked eighth in the nation in scoring. But that was also the season that produced a defense that finished No. 5 in the country in scoring and No. 12 in total defense just one year after the likes of A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner went to the NFL.
QUICK LOOK AT FIRST FIVE
It’s not only the confidence I have in the personnel and the Ohio State coaching staff that leads me to believe the Buckeyes could have a much better record during their first five games than many think. It’s also the competition.
OSU kicks off the season against Akron, one of the worst teams in Division I-A last season. The Zips finished 1-11 last season and for good reason – they were 118th of 120 teams in total offense and 109th in scoring defense. The only team Akron defeated last season was Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference rival that finished 2-10.
It is true that the Zips are the most recent current MAC team to beat the Buckeyes, but since that came in 1894 it really has little bearing on the upcoming season. Mark this one down as an easy victory.
Next up is another MAC opponent, although Toledo figures to give the Buckeyes a much stiffer test than Akron.
The Rockets were a bowl team last season, and head coach Tim Beckman – the former OSU assistant – had them playing their best down the stretch. Toledo won five of its last six regular-season games, and only a last-second loss to Florida International in the Little Caesars Bowl prevented the program’s first nine-win campaign since 2005.
Beckman should have a pretty decent offense spearheaded by running back Adonis Thomas, who finished second in the MAC in rushing last season. But the Rockets still need to shore up their defense – nine opponents scored at least 20 points and three of those topped 40 – and that could spell disaster against a team such as Ohio State.
Look for Beckman to give it his best shot, but expect the Buckeyes to prevail.
Week three provides the toughest nonconference test when OSU travels to Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 17. The Hurricanes enjoy a 12-day layoff before hosting the Buckeyes, but their season opener is no picnic – they have to travel to Maryland for a Labor Day evening affair with the Terrapins.
Sun Life Stadium should be rocking, of course, as Miami tries for payback from last year’s 36-24 loss to Ohio State and that itch from the 2002 national title game its fans just can’t seem to scratch enough.
But the Hurricanes are one huge question mark as they enter the 2011 season. They dropped four of their last six games last year, they turned the ball over at an alarming rate – a nation-high 27 interceptions – and they have a new head coach.
Al Golden comes over from Temple, where he was 17-8 the last two seasons with the Owls. In his previous three seasons, however, he was 10-26. Add to that the impression Golden has given early this spring that he will tinker with his lineup – perhaps even well into the regular season – and you have the makings of a team that could still be searching for its identity in mid-September.
If the Buckeyes stick to their game plan and show the same aggressiveness they did defensively against the Hurricanes a year ago, this game is far from a lost cause for Ohio State. In fact, I see no reason why OSU shouldn’t be favored to win.
One week later, the Buckeyes return home to face another program in transition.
Colorado begins its first season of Pac-10 membership with Jon Embree as the program’s third head coach in the last 12 months. Embree has 16 starters returning from last year’s 5-7 team, including second-team all-conference tailback Rodney Stewart, who was 12th in the nation with an average of 109.8 yards per game.
But as any college football fan knows, returning starters sometimes have a short shelf life when a new head coach comes to town. The truth of the matter is that Colorado hasn’t had a winning season since 2005, and it is doubtful that string ends anytime soon.
That brings us to Oct. 1, the Big Ten opener with Michigan State and a game that will go a long, long way toward determining the success of Ohio State’s season. And before you summarily dismiss the Buckeyes’ chances against the defending conference co-champions, understand the Spartans are yet another team facing the challenges of an overhauled starting lineup.
By early October, MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will have found replacements for 11 departed starters from last season, including All-America linebacker Greg Jones and All-Big Ten punter Aaron Bates. History is not exactly on Coach Dino’s side, however. The last four times the Spartans have won or shared the Big Ten championship, they have failed to win more than six games the following season.
In addition, since it is reasonable to believe Ohio State will be ranked when it plays Michigan State, it is worth mentioning Dantonio’s record against ranked teams in his four seasons in East Lansing – it’s only 5-10.
At least the head Spartan won’t have to worry about going against his old boss. Tressel is not only a perfect 6-0 against Sparty, Dantonio has never beaten JT in four previous tries – 2004 and ’06 at Cincinnati and ’07 and ’08 at MSU. The combined scores of those four games? 136-37.
With the aforementioned information in mind, it is certainly no stretch to believe Ohio State could make it through its first five games without Tressel and the so-called “Tattooed Five” unscathed.
Then, of course, the Buckeyes will finally be at full strength when they make their first-ever visit to Lincoln to take on new Big Ten rival Nebraska. That will definitely be a loss, right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini is credited with breathing life back into a program that had fallen on hard times. The Cornhuskers, a pedestrian 27-22 overall during the four-year tenure of Bill Callahan, have rebounded to go 30-12 in three seasons under Pelini.
Last year, Nebraska enjoyed its second straight 10-win season, something that hadn’t occurred in Lincoln in a decade. Pelini has accomplished much of his success with defense, and it proved to be that way last season as well when the Huskers were ninth in the country in scoring defense.
But the nasty little secret about Pelini and his team is that they seem to falter on the big stage. For all of his success, Pelini is only 5-7 against ranked opponents including back-to-back defeats in the Big 12 championship game. Then, there was the totally inexplicable 19-7 Holiday Bowl loss to Washington, a team that had to win its final three regular-season games last year just to become bowl-eligible.
There is no doubt Memorial Stadium is a tough place to play, especially for a team that has never been there. At the same time, don’t you think there is just the slightest possibility Tressel, Pryor, et al. will want to make a statement on their first game back?