Dawn Of New Season Remains Saving Grace

Richard III had his winter of discontent and Ohio State certainly had a similar summer. Who knew the business of building a perennial college football powerhouse would devolve into defending yourself about the way you built it?

Thankfully, most of that is behind us now. And as we wait for some sort of closure regarding the NCAA mess – something that could take up to another month or so – Ohio Stadium stands in readiness for another football season.

A noontime kickoff under a bright September sky by the banks of the Olentangy River means the beginning of a new season made far sweeter by the bitterness of the past eight months. But no matter how much the NCAA, the media and some of its own coaches and players try to ruin it, college football will always remain one of the preeminent fall activities throughout the country.

Of course, we’re a little prejudiced in Columbus because nothing could be better than the first glimpse of TBDBITL coming down the ramp, the smell of hamburgers and hotdogs being grilled at tailgate parties, the roar that goes up when the team bolts from the tunnel and the first strains of “Hang On Sloopy.”

I won’t lie to you. Last May, when Jim Tressel was forced to resign, I felt like I had been kicked the gut to the point where I seriously questioned whether I wanted to cover Ohio State football any more. I wasn’t particular close to Tressel – no one in the media was – and there were times when the guy seemed moody or prickly just because he could get away with it. Still, I kind of liked the way he went about his business, micromanaging everything from offensive play-calling to which players graced the front of the gameday program.

Tressel had his share of detractors, though. Every public figure does. But no matter if you loved the guy or hated him, you had to respect the bottom line. During his decade-long tenure with the Buckeyes, he accomplished things no Ohio State head coach ever has. At the top of that list was nine victories over Michigan in 10 tries.

For about a six-week period, I was in an angry funk. Yes, Tressel lied to his superiors and that sets the absolute wrong tone for someone who is supposed to be above that sort of thing. But I just couldn’t get my head around the fact that his punishment did not fit his crime. Slowly but surely, however, I cooled off and so did the weather. The closer we got to actually playing football again, the better I seemed to feel. I imagine it’s like that for a lot of you.

The Ohio State football program has weathered many storms and it will weather many more. I’m sure there were those in 1928 who believed the Buckeyes would never be the same after the resignation of longtime coach John W. Wilce. The sentiment was likely the same in 1944 when Paul Brown went off to World War II. And I know how people felt following Woody Hayes’ all-too-public meltdown on national television in 1978.

I don’t have the slightest idea what kind of a head coach Luke Fickell will make. I have known Luke for a long time – since he was a high school wrestler at Columbus DeSales – but he’s never been the lead dog. He wasn’t as a four-year starter on the Ohio State defensive line and he never has been during a coaching career that began as a grad assistant on John Cooper’s OSU staff in 1999.

It is doubtful Luke knows the avalanche headed his way. He can prepare all he wants, but until you are in the meat grinder that is being the head football coach at Ohio State, you have no idea how white-hot that spotlight is going to be. Some thrive on it, some despise it and some get devoured by it. I don’t need to name names. You all know who I’m talking about in each instance.

Regardless of how Fickell handles the intrinsic pressure that comes with the unreasonable expectation of winning every game by at least 40 points, though, his bottom line will remain constant. For every head coach at Ohio State, the success formula is really quite simple: Win and you can stay. Lose and you can pack your bags.

Fortunately for Fickell, the cupboard left to him by Tressel is far from bare. There are a lot of new faces in the starting lineup – even more after the announcement of yesterday’s suspensions – but the Buckeyes have recruited so well over the past several years and talent always has a way of rising to the top. Additionally, the Buckeyes can take advantage of a fairly soft schedule that features no more than three or four bona fide landmines.

How will the team do under its new head coach? I think the answer is similar to how the program will survive in the wake of a particularly mean-spirited NCAA investigation that sullied its reputation. Very well, thank you.

OSU-AKRON TIDBITS

** Ohio State kicks off its 122nd season of intercollegiate football tomorrow against Akron. The Buckeyes have won 32 consecutive home openers, not tasting defeat since a 19-0 loss to Penn State in the 1978 season opener.

** OSU head coach Luke Fickell makes his debut this weekend. The last time the Buckeyes went into a season with a man who had no previous head coaching experience was 1946. Assistant coach Paul Bixler was elevated to the head coaching position and his first game resulted in a 13-13 tie with Missouri. That also marked the last time a first-year Ohio State head coach failed to win his opening game with the Buckeyes.

** The Zips are led by second-year coach Rob Ianello, whose team struggled to a 1-11 record last season. Ianello is not unfamiliar with playing against Ohio State, however. He was on staff at Wisconsin from 1990-93 and again in 2003 and ’04 during which time the Badgers posted a 3-2-1 record against the Buckeyes. Ianello was also on Charlie Weis’ staff at Notre Dame in 2005 when Ohio State rolled to a 34-20 victory in the Fiesta Bowl.

** Fickell may be in his first season as a head coach, but his staff has a combined 184 years of experience as college assistants or staff members.

** Fickell also knows a little bit about Akron. He got his first full-time coaching job there, serving as defensive line coach on Lee Owens’ staff in 2000 and 2001. OSU recruiting coordinator John Peterson also spent time in Akron. He coached the Zips’ offensive line for Owens from 1995-98.

** Former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel also began his coaching career at Akron. Tressel was a graduate assistant on Jim Dennison’s staff in 1975 and was a full-time assistant for Dennison from 1976-78.

** Akron is embarking upon its 111th season of intercollegiate football. The Zips haven’t had a winning season since going 7-5 in 2005, and they haven’t won a season opener since 2007 when they took a 22-14 victory over Army at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

** All-time, the Buckeyes are 105-12-4 in season openers. The team’s last opening-game loss came in the 1999 Kickoff Classic, a 23-12 loss to Miami (Fla.) in East Rutherford, N.J.

** In season home openers, OSU is 109-8-4 all-time.

** Ohio State is working on a streak of 56 consecutive regular-season victories over unranked nonconference opposition. The last time the Buckeyes lost in the regular season to an unranked foe was a 42-10 loss at Pittsburgh in 1988.

** OSU also has a 57-game home winning streak against unranked nonconference opponents. You have to go all the way back to a 34-17 loss to Florida State in 1982 to find the last unranked nonconference team to beat the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.

** The Buckeyes are 28-1 all-time against current members of the Mid-American Conference. The only blemish on that record against the MAC remains a 12-6 loss to Akron in a game played Sept. 15, 1894, at the Ohio State Fair.

** The Zips are 1-6 lifetime against Ohio State with the only victory coming with that win in 1894. The Buckeyes won the last meeting between the two schools, a 20-2 snoozefest in 2007.

** Akron is 1-22 all-time against current members of the Big Ten. In addition to their 1-6 mark against OSU, the Zips are 0-4 vs. Penn State, 0-3 against Indiana, 0-2 vs. Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and 0-1 against Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. Akron has never played Michigan, Minnesota or Northwestern.

** Akron is facing a ranked team for the first time since 2009 when it opened the season with a 31-7 loss at Penn State. The Zips are 1-21 all-time vs. ranked opponents with the lone win a 34-20 defeat of No. 25 Marshall in November 2002.

** Since 2005, Ohio State has allowed only 10 opponents to rush for 100 yards or more. That is the third-best figure in Division I-AA, trailing only Boston College (eight) and Alabama (nine).

** Ohio State is 399-107-20 in Ohio Stadium since the facility opened in 1922. That is a .778 winning percentage. All-time in Columbus, the team is 542-154-35, good for a winning percentage of .765.

** Over the past nine seasons, the Buckeyes have enjoyed a 60-5 record at home, good for a .923 winning percentage. Since 2002, that is tied with Oklahoma for the third-best home mark in Division I-A. Only Boise State (56-0, 1.000) and TCU (49-4, .925) have done better over that time frame.

** Although last season was technically vacated, OSU recorded 10 wins or more for a Big Ten-record sixth consecutive season.

** The Buckeyes are the only Division I-A team to have finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press writers’ poll in each of the last six years.

** ESPN will have the telecast of the season opener with Syracuse alum Dave Pasch on the play-by-play, former Florida head coach Urban Meyer and former Ohio State All-America linebacker Chris Spielman handling color analysis and former Johns Hopkins All-America lacrosse player Quint Kessenich providing sideline reports. Kickoff is set for shortly after 12 noon Eastern.

** Next week, Ohio State stays home to host another MAC team in Toledo with former OSU defensive coordinator Tim Beckman in his third season as head coach. The game will be telecast by the Big Ten Network and will kickoff at 12 noon Eastern.

THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL

** On Aug. 31, 1996, No. 18 Kansas State took a 21-14 victory over Texas Tech in the inaugural Big 12 conference game. The Red Raiders nearly rallied from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, but K-State safety Mario Smith broke up a fourth-down pass deep in his own territory with 44 seconds remaining to secure the win.

** On Sept. 1, 2007, Appalachian State engineered one of the biggest upsets in college football history, going into Ann Arbor and pulling off a 34-32 shocker over No. 5 Michigan. The Wolverines trailed much of the game but managed to take a 32-31 lead with 4:36 to play before QB Armanti Edwards led the Mountaineers on a 69-yard drive for a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds left. U-M responded and got all the way to Appalachian State’s 20-yard line, but the Wolverines’ field-goal attempt was blocked with six seconds remaining the Mountaineers secured Division I-AA’s first-ever victory over a top-five Division I-A opponent.

** On Sept. 1, 1984, BYU began its march to the national championship with a 20-14 upset at No. 3 Pittsburgh. Cougars QB Robbie Bosco threw for 325 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown to Adam Haysbert with 1:37 remaining in the game. The victory vaulted BYU from unranked to No. 13 in the national polls. The contest was also the first regular-season college football game ever televised live by ESPN.

** On Sept. 2, 1989, Southern Mississippi quarterback Brett Favre threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns, including a 2-yard score with 23 seconds remaining, to lead the Golden Eagles to a 30-26 win over No. 6 Florida State.

** On Sept. 3, 1983, seventh-ranked Florida State barely escaped a season-opening loss, scoring a late touchdown to squeeze past unranked East Carolina, 47-46, in Tallahassee.

** On Sept. 4, 1993, Penn State scored its first Big Ten victory with a 38-20 win over Minnesota.

** On Sept. 5, 1981, Lamar University engineered one of the biggest upsets in college football history, beating defending Southwest Conference champion Baylor, 18-17, in Waco. Lamar kicker Mike Marlow booted a 42-yard field goal with three seconds left to account for the winning points. It was the first time in history that a Division I-AA school had beaten a I-A school.

** On Sept. 6, 1986, third-ranked Miami (Fla.) overcame a 15-9 second-half deficit for a 23-15 over Florida, ending the Gators’ 21-game home winning streak.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** Congratulations to our old pals up north who are out to prove they are unafraid of lightning striking them twice. Michigan has scheduled a rematch with Appalachian State in 2014.

** Proving that a decent idea can be ground into the dust, Nike will provide its so-called Pro Combat uniforms to selected schools again this year. Boise State, Georgia and Oregon will unveil theirs tomorrow while other teams will wear them throughout the season. Ohio State is scheduled to suit up in its Pro Combats when the Buckeyes host Wisconsin on Oct. 29.

** On the off chance that you give a rip, ESPN released this week preseason predictions by its cadre of college football analysts. Eighteen analysts picked conference champions as well as national title participants. In the Big Ten, Wisconsin was selected by nine of the analysts while Ohio State got five votes and Nebraska garnered four. Those voting for the Badgers were Ed Cunningham, Rod Gilmore, Brian Griese, Desmond Howard, Brock Huard, Danny Kanell, Matt Millen, David Pollock and Chris Spielman. OSU received the nod from Mike Bellotti, Todd Blackledge, Bob Davie, Kirk Herbstreit and Urban Meyer, while Nebraska got votes from Lee Corso, Dan Hawkins, Craig James and Jesse Palmer.

** Eleven of the analysts picked Alabama to make the BCS National Championship Game while Oklahoma also received 11 votes to make the title game. However, only five analysts – Bellotti, James, Meyer, Miller and Pollock – picked the Crimson Tide to play the Sooners for the championship. To see all of the picks, click here.

** How about a little Heisman Trophy trivia? Name the Division I-A school with the most all-time wins that has never had a Heisman winner. The answer comes later.

** Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson enters the 2011 season with 2,053 career rushing yards, seventh on the all-time Big Ten list among quarterbacks. He needs only 98 more to move into the top five, but Robinson has a ways to go to catch Antwaan Randle El, who rushed for 3,895 yards while quarterbacking Indiana from 1998 to 2001.

** Minnesota return man Troy Stoudermire needs only 97 yards in kickoff returns to become the all-time Big Ten leader in that department. Stoudermire enters 2011 with 2,929 kickoff return yards, second only to David Gilreath of Wisconsin, who became the conference leader just last season. Gilreath finished his career with 3,025 yards on kickoff returns.

** Penn State kicker Collin Wagner takes a streak of 85 consecutive PATs into this season. That ranks as the sixth longest streak in Big Ten history behind J.D. Carlson of Michigan (128, 1989-91), Brett Conway of Penn State (119, 1994-96), Chris Summers of Purdue (111, 2006-08), Pete Stoyanovich of Indiana (107, 1986-88) and Tim Williams of Ohio State (86, 1991-93).

** Four Big Ten kickers were named to the preseason watch list for the Groza Award, given annually to the top placekicker in college football. Wagner wasn’t one of the four. They were Derek Dimke of Illinois, Mitch Ewald of Indiana, Dan Conroy of Michigan State and Philip Welch of Wisconsin. Dimke led the Big Ten in field goals last season with 24 and Wagner tied for second with 20.

** According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Oklahoma’s unemployment rate of 5.5 ranked as the fifth-lowest in the country for July. Perhaps that is one reason why Oklahoma State has surpassed 34,000 season tickets sold this year, breaking the school record set in 2009.

** The Fiesta Bowl has been moved from Jan. 5 (a Thursday) to Jan. 2 (a Monday). No, I don’t know why.

** In other bowl news, the Humanitarian Bowl – the one played outside in Boise, Idaho, in mid-December – has changed its name. Henceforth, the game will now be known as the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

** Talk about planning ahead: Notre Dame and Navy recently announced they have agreed to continue playing one another in football through at least the 2026 season.

** Pity the poor punters in last Saturday’s Division III game between Saint Augustine’s College (Va.) and Virginia Union. The game was played the same afternoon Hurricane Irene rolled into the area and four punts during the contest traveled less than 10 yards. That included one that went for minus-9 and another than went for minus-1. There was also a fifth punt that blew out of the punter’s grasp before he could get the kick away. Saint Augustine also fumbled six times during the 12-0 loss.

** Here is the answer to our Heisman trivia. Going into the 2011 season, the top five winningest programs that have never produced a Heisman Trophy winner are Tennessee (789), West Virginia (691), Georgia Tech (679), Virginia Tech (678) and Arkansas (669).

FEARLESS FORECAST

Last season is going to be a pretty tough act to follow here at Forecast World Headquarters. The straight-up picks finished with a 118-24 record (that’s a .831 winning percentage) while we had a solid 81-55-6 mark against the spread.

In case you’re keeping score at home, that makes the career numbers 1,521-450 straight up (77.2 percent) and still fairly well above water against the spread at 765-685-25 (good enough for 52.7 percent).

Yeah, we’re pretty solid in the black with these picks but remember it’s all in fun and there are many more picks based on gut feelings than any inside information. Nevertheless, we enjoy making the picks, so off we go for another year.

Here are the games we’re watching this week:

TONIGHT’S GAMES

Youngstown State at No. 17 Michigan State: With Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State taking up most of the summertime oxygen in the Big Ten, Sparty has been a tad overlooked. MSU returns a boatload of talent on offense, including veteran QB Kirk Cousins (2,825 yards, 20 TDs a year ago) and ultra-productive tailback Edwin Baker (1,201 yards, 13 TDs) … Michigan State 42, Youngstown State 7. (7:30 p.m. ET, BTN)

No. 14 TCU at Baylor: The Horned Frogs have several new starters, including sophomore Casey Pachall taking over at quarterback for the graduated Andy Dalton, as they begin their final season in the Mighty Mountain West. Their goal remains the same, however – upset the college football apple cart by crashing the BCS party. Before they can think about that, they need to contend with the Bears and their quarterback Robert Griffin III, who is a preseason Heisman candidate after throwing for a school-record 3,501 yards last year. Unfortunately, Baylor isn’t quite as strong on defense and that will make the difference … TCU 31, Baylor 21. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

SATURDAY’S GAMES

Utah State at No. 23 Auburn: Hopefully, the Tigers squeezed every ounce of enjoyment they could out of last year’s national championship run. This year, it’s back to reality without Heisman winner Cam Newton and the specter of an NCAA investigation looming over the program. Not that those problems should have much of an impact this week with the Aggies coming to town. Utah State is one of the weakest programs in I-A with 13 consecutive losing seasons and a 1-54 all-time record against ranked opponents … Auburn 38, Utah State 6. (12 noon ET, ESPN2)

Chattanooga at No. 10 Nebraska: The Cornhuskers begin life as Big Ten members by hosting the Mocs, who are coming off their second consecutive 6-5 season. Chattanooga typically schedules a big-name Division I-A school each year and those games turn out about the way you would expect. Since 2008, the Mocs have played Oklahoma, Alabama and Auburn have lost all three by a combined score of 164-26. Don’t expect anything different this time around … Nebraska 42, Chattanooga 0. (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN)

Minnesota at No. 25 USC: Since new Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill says he likes challenges, he should be very happy. Not only is he charged with a huge rebuilding project, he gets to start it at a venue that has been very unkind to Big Ten teams. Since 1960, the conference is a dismal 2-17-1 when traveling to the Coliseum to play the Trojans. The last time the Golden Gophers were there was 1979 and they came home with a 48-14 loss. Quite frankly, that final score seems about right … USC 48, Minnesota 14. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Western Michigan at Michigan: The Brady Hoke Era gets under way in Ann Arbor and if it is to go any better than the Rich Rodriguez Era, the Wolverines will have to figure out a way to play some defense. Last year, U-M ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring and total defense – meaning they gave up more points and more yardage than any other team in the conference. This should be a pretty good barometer on what Hoke has done during the offseason to shore up the stop troops since the Broncos throw the ball around pretty well with returning QB Alex Carder (3,334 yards, 30 TDs). This one might be closer than a lot of people think it will be … Michigan 37, Western Michigan 31. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)

Tulsa at No. 1 Oklahoma: Every year it seems the Sooners are early favorites to make a run at the national championship, and every year it seems they fall just short of that goal. This time, OU may be for real. QB Landry Jones (4,718 yards, 38 TDs) leads a potent offense and the Sooners are also pretty good on defense despite the absence of linebackers Travis Lewis (broken foot) and Austin Box, who tragically died over the summer due to an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers. The Golden Hurricane enters the game on a seven-game winning streak, and they have posted three 10-win seasons in the past four years. Still, it’s difficult to see how they can break through, especially with Oklahoma protecting its No. 1 status as well as a 36-game home win streak … Oklahoma 45, Tulsa 10. (8 p.m. ET, FX)

No. 5 Boise State vs. No. 19 Georgia: Mark Richt is on the hot seat in Athens, and that chair is about to get even hotter. The Bulldogs are coming off a 6-7 campaign, their first losing season since 1996, and their opening-night assignment in the Georgia Dome is figuring out how to slow down the ultra-talented Broncos. Leading the Boise attack is Heisman-worthy QB Kellen Moore (3,845 yards, 35 TDs), who has a gaudy 38-2 record as a starter. As good as the Broncos are on offense, they are extremely underrated on defense and that is where they will win this game … Boise State 20, Georgia 17. (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 4 LSU: This is easily the most-hyped game of the first weekend since it is basically a national championship elimination bout. The winner solidifies his résumé while the loser can begin making plans for next year. The Ducks obviously have great team speed, led by Heisman candidate LaMichael James, who needs only 20 yards to become his school’s all-time leading rusher. Then, there are the Tigers with their messy quarterback situation that resulted in starter Jordan Jefferson being suspended. There are folks in the bayou, however, who believe their team will be better off with Jarrett Lee under center anyway. Add that to the fact LSU has the better defense and, after all, they are from the SEC, and you smell what we’re cooking here … LSU 26, Oregon 22. (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Akron at No. 18 Ohio State: There is little use in rehashing the Buckeyes’ summer of discontent. Ohio State has played intercollegiate football for the past 121 years and there is every indication the program will continue for at least another 121, so who occupies the head coach’s office and who takes the snaps as quarterback is largely irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. When the pigskins begin to fly, OSU fans regain their singular focus. They simply want their team to win and look good doing so. That shouldn’t be much of a problem in the opener against the Zips, who were one of the worst teams in all of Division I-A last year. However, with the Buckeyes having so many new faces in so many new positions – not the least of which is Luke Fickell – we don’t foresee things getting too much out of hand … Ohio State 31, Akron 7. (12 noon ET, ESPN)

SUNDAY’S GAMES

Marshall at No. 24 West Virginia: If not for ESPN’s summertime obsession with Ohio State, the all-sports network might have been focusing on these two programs. The Mountaineers had a messy coaching change and were placed on a two-year probation by the NCAA while one of the Herd’s top receivers was recently charged in connection with a string of armed robberies. No wonder both of the programs are ready to get back to some football … West Virginia 41, Marshall 13. (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

SMU at No. 8 Texas A&M: These former Southwest Conference foes get together for what could be the final time in the foreseeable future as the Aggies prepare to bolt for the SEC. While A&M has gotten most of the preseason hype, the Mustangs feature one of the best quarterbacks you’ve probably never heard of. Kyle Padron (3,828 yards, 31 TDs) flourished in head coach June Jones’ system – what quarterback doesn’t flourish with Jones? – and that always gives SMU a puncher’s chance. What Jones’ teams typically lack is a creditable defense and that will make the difference here … Texas A&M 37, SMU 20. (7:30 p.m. ET, FSN)

Here are the spreads for the above games: Youngstown State at Michigan State (-34); TCU (-3½) at Baylor; Utah State at Auburn (-22); Chattanooga at Nebraska (-34½); Minnesota at USC (-23); Western Michigan (+14½) at Michigan; Tulsa at Oklahoma (-24½); Boise State (-2½) vs. Georgia in Atlanta; Oregon vs. LSU (-3½) in Dallas; Marshall at West Virginia (-23); SMU at Texas A&M (-14); and Akron (+34) at Ohio State.

Enjoy opening weekend, have a safe Labor Day holiday and we’ll see you next week.

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2 Comments

  1. Mark – the Youtube video with the “sneak peek” of the Buckeyes jerseys is a dead link.

    • Ah, the power of Phil Knight.


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