Where Do Buckeyes, Pryor Go From Here?

I try to avoid posting my columns from Buckeye Sports Bulletin on this blog, but I received a lot of positive feedback this week so I thought I would share it here. Like many others around the country, the column deals with Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and where the Buckeyes are headed following last week’s loss to Purdue.

There is nothing like a four-hour drive on a meandering black ribbon of interstate highway to clear the mind – that is, of course, unless you are making your way back home after witnessing something wholly unexpected.

I suppose there will be those who claim they expected Ohio State and its clogged artery of an offense to someday cause the team to stumble and fall. I doubt very seriously, however, if any of those self-proclaimed psychics foretold that occurring in the form of an eight-point loss at Purdue.

There were any number of finger-pointing moments during the 26-18 loss to the unranked Boilermakers, although there is no doubt the white-hot glare of the spotlight shone squarely on quarterback Terrelle Pryor.

Many of us – me included – failed to recognize just how much Pryor remains a work in progress. Ardent critics of Jim Tressel and the way he goes about his business will likely dismiss that assessment as a convenient excuse to cover up something far more sinister. Perhaps Pryor is secretly hiding an injury. Maybe he’s angry at the way he’s being used. Maybe he’s really an alien from the planet Mxyzptlk and he’s been sent here to destroy Ohio State football.

Much to the dismay of the conspiracy theorists, however, the plain truth is that Pryor is a gifted athlete going through a stretch where he simply isn’t playing well.

Why is that? There are plenty of theories but they’re really only that – theories.

On that drive back from West Lafayette, my BSB colleagues and I bounced around our opinions about Pryor’s ongoing problems, and I’d be willing to bet our concerns mirror those of most of the Buckeye Nation.

We discussed poor mechanics and that Pryor’s performance continually suffers every time he allows his mechanics to stray. When he squares his shoulders to the target or plants his feet in the proper position, his throws are usually on the money. When he gets flushed from the pocket, or when he is scrambling laterally, he is much more erratic and prone to incompletions and interceptions.

We discussed the possibility that Pryor is perhaps struggling as he tries to digest an expanded playbook. There is little question Tressel kept things much simpler for his quarterback last season when Pryor was inserted into the starting lineup in week four. As a result, much of what the then-freshman did was on instinct and sheer athleticism. Now, as opposing defensive coordinators have caught on to Pryor’s strengths and weaknesses, they scheme against the former and seek to exploit the latter.

To explain it another way, Pryor is like the young slugger who knocks the cover off the baseball during a late September call-up to the major leagues. The following spring, when opposing pitchers learn his tendency to crush fastballs and wave at sliders in the dirt, his production plummets. The young players who can adapt their games and adjust to the adjustments made against them are the successful superstars of tomorrow.

So far, Pryor has not adapted, nor has he made the necessary adjustments.

We discussed Pryor’s state of mind with regard to the mental aspects of playing the quarterback position at one of the elite programs in college football. In its long and glorious history, Ohio State has had but one four-year starting quarterback. The reason? Because it’s damned hard for any young player to assume a leadership role on what very often is a veteran team gunning for a championship.

Sure, there are plenty of programs around the country who entrust their programs to freshman quarterbacks, but how many of them expect that first-year player to guide them into the national championship picture? The jump to major-college football from the high school level is a quantum leap. That is underscored even more when the player comes from a low-division high school program.

In a period of 24 short months, Pryor has ridden the roller coaster of fame. While still a high school student in tiny Jeannette, Pa., his name was on the lips of every college football recruiting nut in the country. When he signed with Ohio State, his constituency was pared to the Buckeye faithful. Now, many of those same fans who felt the program couldn’t go on without Pryor’s name on a national letter of intent scream for someone else – anyone else – to play in his place.

Criticism comes with the territory, of course. I’ve swallowed what I consider to be my fair share over the years and have gotten fairly used to it. But I’m 51 and there are times when criticism – warranted or not – still gets to me. With everything else on a 20-year-old’s plate – from schoolwork and social activities to just plain growing up and being away from home for the first time – the criticism leveled at Pryor must be quite a burden to bear.

Personally, I think Pryor is one of the most confused football players I have ever been around. He seems to be caught in a personal vortex between the quarterback he is and the quarterback he wants to be, and the more he tries to be one or the other, the more confused he seemingly becomes.

Since he first began playing the position full time as a high school sophomore four short years ago, Pryor has relied on his instincts first and everything else followed. More often than not, that meant he’d beat you with his legs long before he’d beat you with his arm. That approach was plenty good enough for a state championship at Jeannette and even good enough to make him one of the most talked-about freshmen in college football last year.

Suddenly, though, it’s not good enough. Not nearly.

What has changed? Pryor’s role in the offense for starters.

Last year, he was content in his role as just another guy in an attack led by Chris “Beanie” Wells. With Wells doing most of the heavy lifting throughout the season, pretty much all that was asked of Pryor was to be himself and protect the football.

When Wells decided to leave early for the NFL, both Tressel and Pryor lost their security blankets. Since Tressel no longer had the luxury of relying on a workhorse tailback to ease the pressure from his young quarterback, he likely reasoned that opposing defenses would try to negate Pryor’s mobility. So Tressel went about the task of trying to remake his budding star into a passing prodigy. So far, that strategy has had its ups and downs for one of two reasons: Either Pryor has yet to grasp the concept or he has yet to fully embrace it.

My guess is that he wants to embrace it but old habits die painfully hard. Case in point: The final play on Ohio State’s final drive against Purdue. Fourth-and-14 at the Purdue 38. Trailing by eight. Clock winding under three minutes. Do or die.

Pryor took the shotgun snap, waited a split-second for the Boilermakers to stage the same kind of furious pass rush they had shown the entire second half and then bolted toward the left side of the line. After a few steps toward the line of scrimmage, Pryor saw traffic in front of him and suddenly slowed.

On fourth-and-14, it is doubtful the play call was a quarterback draw. Then again, with the way the Purdue defensive ends were coming on almost every play, the strategy could have been for Pryor to try to create something with his legs. Earlier in the fourth quarter, he had broken off a 35-yard scramble against a similar rush.

But he had committed to that early run and had broken containment quickly. This time, as he tried to quickly process the moment, Pryor saw Ray Small crossing to his left about 20 yards downfield. You could almost see the conflict going on inside the quarterback’s helmet. Run it or throw it? Throw it or run it? In the end, he committed to neither. Rather than tucking the ball under his arm or taking the time to set his feet, Pryor shuffled and then heaved a pass in Small’s direction as a couple of Boilermaker defenders closed in.

The ball fluttered a bit – it had way too much air under it – and never came close to Small. Purdue cornerback David Pender crossed in front of the OSU receiver and easily swatted the ball to the ground to end the Buckeyes’ potential rally.

Would Pryor have picked up the necessary 14 yards for a first down had he committed to the run in that situation? Who can tell? I only know that he clearly was not in command of what he wanted to do. And if that was the case, how can he possibly be in command of what he needs to do?

Am I in favor of sitting him for a while in favor of backup Joe Bauserman? No. That would be the worst thing Tressel could do. About the only thing Pryor still has going for him is a kind of inner confidence that he’s going to work this out. You sit him down now and you send him the message that you don’t think he can work it out.

The best thing Tressel could do for his young quarterback is commit to making him either a runner or a passer – not both. Not now.

If part of the offensive game plan is going to be predicated on Pryor running the football, concentrate on that. Stop monkeying around with the option, put Pryor in a form of the wildcat formation and run the football from the different variations of that kind of attack.

If, instead, the game plan is to feature a pro-style passing attack, put on the red light and instruct Pryor that he can run only as a last resort. You must make him commit to stopping, setting and firing the football rather than stopping, starting, shuffling and trying to get something out of nothing. In that scenario, you not only get your quarterback to commit to the passing game, your offensive line becomes more comfortable in what it’s trying to accomplish.

There is no doubt in my mind that Pryor can become a more complete quarterback. But he is much more of a raw commodity than anyone envisioned, and his maturation process at the position is going to take some time.

In the interim, the question becomes which is more important to Tressel: Mold your quarterback into an NFL-ready player or take what you’ve got and try to go win yourself another Big Ten championship.

At this point, it seems the Ohio State head coach can have one or the other but not both.

OSU-MINNESOTA TIDBITS

** This marks the 49th meeting between Ohio State and Minnesota with the Buckeyes holding a decisive 41-7 record in the overall series. OSU is 21-3 against the Golden Gophers in Columbus, including victories in 18 of the last 19 games played at Ohio Stadium. The lone blemish during that stretch was a 29-17 loss to Minnesota in 2000.

** Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is a perfect 6-0 against the Gophers, including last year’s 34-21 victory in Columbus. The average margin of victory for the Buckeyes in those six games has been 21.3 points.

** Tressel is now 88-21 in his eight-plus seasons with OSU. In the games immediately following the coach’s 20 previous losses, the Buckeyes are 18-2. Only once in the Tressel era have the Buckeyes ever lost back-to-back games. That was in 2004 when Ohio State dropped three straight Big Ten contests – at Northwestern, at home against Wisconsin and at Iowa.

** Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster is 0-2 against the Buckeyes and 1-6 against ranked teams in his two-plus seasons with the Gophers. The lone victory was a 17-6 win at Purdue last season when the Boilermakers were ranked 25th.

** Don’t go to sleep on Goldy. Minnesota has come from behind in all four of its victories this season, including three when the Gophers were trailing at the end of three quarters.

** The game will serve as Ohio State’s annual homecoming contest. The Buckeyes are 63-19-5 all-time on homecoming, including 6-2 under Tressel. Last year’s homecoming game resulted in a 13-6 loss to Penn State.

** In addition to homecoming, the annual Captains’ Breakfast will be held with former OSU flanker Mike Lanese giving the address. Additionally, several teams will hold reunions, including the surviving members of the 1942 national championship squad. Also, members of the 1954 team will celebrate the 55th anniversary of their national championship and will be honored during Saturday’s game.

** Pryor needs two more yards to become only the fifth OSU quarterback to rush for 1,000 or more yards in his career. The other four: Cornelius Greene (2,066, 1972-75), Rex Kern (1,714, 1968-70), Art Schlichter (1,303, 1978-81) and Troy Smith (1,168, 2003-06).

** Last week’s loss at Purdue snapped Ohio State’s conference road win streak at 16. That was one shy of the all-time Big Ten record set by Michigan between 1988 and 1992. The Buckeyes also have the conference’s third-longest road winning streak in terms of league games. OSU won 11 in a row between 1974 and 1977.

** Think turnovers make a difference? In the Buckeyes’ last 20 road games against Big Ten competition, they are 16-4. In those 16 victories, the team has committed 20 turnovers, an average of 1.25 per game. In the four defeats, OSU has turned the ball over 14 times, an average of 3.5 per game.

** Minnesota wide receiver Eric Decker is moving up several all-time Big Ten statistical lists. He has 224 career receptions and needs 29 more to move into the top five in league history. Decker also needs only 376 more receiving yards to crack the Big Ten’s career top five in that category, and six more touchdown catches to become only the 10th player in conference history with at least 30 TD grabs.

** Minnesota sophomore Troy Stoudermire boasts a career kickoff return average of 25.7 yards, and that is good enough for sixth all-time in the Big Ten. The longstanding conference leader in career kickoff returns is Stan Brown of Purdue, who averaged 28.8 yards per return from 1968-70.

** The Gophers have a lethal punt return game and lead the Big Ten with a lofty average of 19.0 yards per return. That figure ranks sixth nationally. But it is a bit of a misnomer since Minnesota has returned only three of its opponents’ 30 punts all season. That could make for a bit of a boring afternoon tomorrow. Ohio State opponents have returned only three of 30 punts this season.

** Kickoff for tomorrow’s game will be shortly after 12 noon Eastern. ESPN will have the telecast with Dave Pasch doing the play-by-play while former Ohio State All-America linebacker Chris Spielman will share color analysis duties with former Purdue All-America quarterback Bob Griese.

** The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channels 122 and 129 as well as XM channel 196.

** The Buckeyes complete the two-week home stand next Saturday when they host New Mexico State. Kickoff set for 12 noon Eastern and the game will televised by the Big Ten Network.

THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY

** Forty-four years ago today, Virginia Tech was riding high with a new facility and a victory over its instate rival. The Hokies, known then as the Gobblers, dedicated their new Lane Stadium on Oct. 23, 1965, and celebrated with a 22-14 win over Virginia. Tech rushed for 323 yards in the contest, but the decisive touchdown came on a 71-yard pass from quarterback Bobby Owens to receiver Tommy Groom late in the fourth quarter.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Oct. 20, 1917, Washington beat Whitman College by a 14-6 score, extending its unbeaten streak to 63 games, an NCAA record that still stands; on Oct. 21, 2006, Michigan State engineered the biggest comeback in NCAA history, erasing a 38-3 deficit on the way to a 41-38 victory over Northwestern in Evanston; on Oct. 22, 1983, Nebraska scored 41 points in less than three minutes of possession time on its way to a 69-19 rout of Colorado; and on Oct. 25, 1947, Columbia scored a 21-20 upset over Army, ending the Black Knights’ unbeaten streak at 32 games.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** The weekly count of undefeated teams at the Division I-A level is down to seven: Alabama, Boise State, Cincinnati, Florida, Iowa, Texas and TCU. Of those seven, it’s anyone’s guess who makes it to the national championship game. Last Saturday, Florida and Texas survived by a field goal, Boise State held on by a touchdown and Alabama couldn’t put away South Carolina until the fourth quarter. Anyone want to forecast a Cincinnati-Iowa championship game?

** Iowa looks to improve to 8-0 this week with a road contest at Michigan State. The last time the Hawkeyes started a season with eight straight victories? Never.

** To say Oklahoma is having a strange season would be putting it mildly. The Sooners have outscored their opposition by a 188-58 margin, yet sport a 3-3 record. Their three losses are each to ranked teams by a combined total of five points.

** With Sam Bradford done for the season, and Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow not exactly lighting things up, we Heisman Trophy voters have gone searching for new blood. The popular candidate of the moment is Alabama sophomore running back Mark Ingram, who had 246 yards last Saturday against South Carolina. Ingram, the son of former NFL receiver Mark Ingram, has rushed for 905 yards and eight TDs for the Crimson Tide, who moved past Florida into the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press writers’ poll.

** The triple option is alive and well and Georgia Tech used it to perfection to hand Virginia Tech a 28-23 upset loss last Saturday. The Yellow Jackets completed exactly one pass in the game for 51 yards – they also ran 63 times for 309 yards against the Hokies’ supposedly impenetrable defense.

** Georgia Tech’s victory over the fourth-ranked Hokies was the first at home for the Yellow Jackets over a top-five team since 1962. That season, Georgia Tech scored a 7-6 victory over top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama, ending the Crimson Tide’s 26-game unbeaten streak. The two head coaches patrolling the sidelines that day were legends – Bobby Dodd for Georgia Tech and Bear Bryant for Alabama.

** In case you wondered, his team’s loss to USC last weekend sent Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis’ record to 4-11 against ranked teams.

** Not that much of anyone is going to notice, but Illinois and Purdue square off this week in an unusual trophy game. The teams play for the Purdue Cannon. Not a trophy. A real cannon. In 1905, a group of Purdue students somehow thought it was a good idea to take the cannon to Champaign in anticipation of firing it after a victory. Although the Boilermakers won the game, Illinois officials confiscated the cannon and kept it. It was later moved to a farmhouse in Milford, Ill., before the universities agreed in 1943 to play for possession of the cannon. Purdue holds a narrow 29-26-2 advantage in previous cannon games.

** Illinois went to the Rose Bowl following the 2001 and 2007 seasons, going 13-3 in the conference those two years. Heading into tomorrow’s game, the team’s combined league record for the remainder of the decade is 11-49.

** You probably haven’t noticed it, but the best turnaround story in college football this season is happening at Idaho. After going a combined 3-21 the past two seasons, the Vandals are already bowl-eligible with six victories in seven games. Three of their victories have been by four points or less as the team averages 29.6 points per game on offense and gives up 25.1 on defense.

FEARLESS FORECAST

It seems whenever Ohio State loses, the old forecast suffers. After a great start on Friday night, picking the Pittsburgh-Rutgers final score on the nose, things went south in a big-time hurry.

Straight up, we were 6-3 while we suffered for the second straight week against the spread, finishing at 2-7. That puts the yearly ledgers at 48-15 SU and 20-31-1 ATS. All we can say is that we’ll try to do better this week.

SATURDAY’S GAMES

Illinois at Purdue: The Fighting Illini are no doubt eager to get out of Champaign for an afternoon so they don’t have to answer any more questions about how much longer Ron Zook will be their head coach. Not that those questions are going to go away anytime soon, especially if Illinois can’t stop its slide. Perhaps they can catch the Boilermakers still feeling good after last week’s upset of Ohio State, but it’s doubtful … Purdue 27, Illinois 17. (12 noon ET, ESPN2)

Louisville at No. 5 Cincinnati: The Bearcats are riding high with the best poll ranking in program history, and have some believing they have a real good shot at making the national championship game. We like Brian Kelly and what he’s doing at UC, but the Bearcats still have a lot of ground to cover before they can think about the title game. First and foremost is the health of quarterback Tony Pike, who had surgery this week to repair a dislodged metal plate in his non-throwing arm. With or without Pike, the Bearcats ought to be able to handle the Cardinals, who have lost nine of 11 dating back to last season … Cincinnati 31, Louisville 14. (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

Tennessee at No. 1 Alabama: The Crimson Tide celebrate their ascendancy to the top of the AP poll by hosting the Volunteers, a team that more than held its own in last year’s 29-9 loss at Knoxville. Alabama running back Mark Ingram has a little something to prove, especially if he is going to be a bona fide Heisman contender. He rushed for a career-low 1 yard on four carries last year against Tennessee. Of course, this is a different Vols team under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin, a team that seems more preoccupied with offense. UT has had an extra week to prepare after its 45-19 pasting of Georgia, and the fact the Tide has several ailing defensive players may make this game a lot closer than some think … Alabama 26, Tennessee 20. (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

No. 13 Penn State at Michigan: If there is one Big Ten team Joe Paterno doesn’t like to play, it’s the Wolverines. He is 4-10 lifetime against them, including 2-5 in Ann Arbor. Even last year’s 46-17 win that snapped a nine-game skid in the series wasn’t as easy as the final score may have indicated. Michigan led 17-14 at halftime before fading. All of that should give the Wolverines some comfort as they seek to snap their two-game conference losing streak. Unfortunately, all of the offensive fireworks they enjoyed last week during a glorified scrimmage against I-AA Delaware State (63 points and a team-record 727 total yards) won’t do them much good against JoePa’s defense, which has given up only three points in its last eight quarters … Penn State 31, Michigan 14. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional)

No. 7 Iowa at Michigan State: Lost amid the euphoria of the Fighting Ferentzes’ undefeated start is just how close they have been skating to the edge. Six of their seven victories have been by 11 points or less, and they have had to come from behind in five of their games. The high-wire act could begin to stumble this week. The Spartans seem to have ironed out the problems that caused them to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in September, and the Green and White are now on a three-game winning streak. Add that to the fact the Hawkeyes have lost four in a row in Spartan Stadium and you get this week’s Upset Special … Michigan State 17, Iowa 16. (7 p.m. ET, BTN)

No. 10 TCU at No. 16 BYU: Rather than simply talking about how it should be in the BCS mix, the Horned Frogs actually try to do something about it. TCU takes on the ranked Cougars, who are trying to protect a Mountain West Conference-record 13-game home winning streak. That includes a 27-22 win over the Frogs in 2007. This should be an interesting matchup featuring the nation’s No. 4 team in total defense (TCU) against the No. 6 team in the country in scoring offense (BYU). The Cougars would seem to have the cards stacked in their favor, and they hold a 5-3 edge in the all-time series. Still, we like the overall strength of the Frogs … TCU 26, BYU 20. (7:30 p.m. ET, The Mtn)

No. 2 Florida at Mississippi State: The Gators remain undefeated but you get the distinct impression they may be living on borrowed time. They are not the offensive or defensive powerhouse from a year ago, and quarterback Tim Tebow (their spiritual leader on and off the field) is playing hurt. Will this be the week the defending national champs crumble under the strain? First-year Bulldogs head coach Dan Mullen knows Florida almost well as he knows his own team – he was Urban Meyer’s longtime offensive coordinator at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green. It reminds me a lot of the Washington-USC game earlier this season when first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian exploited all the weaknesses of the offense he used to run for Pete Carroll. You may also be interested in the fact Florida is winless in its last four trips to Davis Wade Stadium. Get ready for a shocker in Starkville. Here’s Upset Special No. 2 … Mississippi State 26, Florida 23. (7:30 p.m., ESPN)

Oregon State at No. 4 USC: The Beavers had their way with the Trojans last season, costing USC a shot at playing for the national championship with a 33-31 upset win in Corvallis. Oregon State usually plays the Trojans tough at their place. In the L.A. Coliseum? Not so much. USC will be looking for its 22nd consecutive home win in the series. It knows it will have to do a much better job containing OSU running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who ran for 186 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s meeting. Rodgers is coming off a career-high 189 yards and four TDs two weeks ago against Stanford, and stopping him will be the Trojans’ top priority. Boasting the nation’s No. 4 rush defense should help get that done … USC 27, Oregon State 23. (8 p.m. ET, ABC Regional)

No. 6 Boise State at Hawaii: The Broncos don’t get much respect in their quest for BCS recognition, but one thing you can’t take away from them – they’re willing to get on a plane and play anywhere in the nation. The team that has already made road trips this year to Fresno State, Bowling Green and Tulsa heads for Honolulu this week to take on Hawaii. Unfortunately, a game against the 2-4 Rainbows isn’t going to count for many style points. It could, however, push the Heisman candidacy of Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, who currently leads the country in pass efficiency. Moore has completed 69.5 percent of his passes and thrown for 1,404 yards and 16 TDs against only two interceptions this season, and if he can solve the swirling winds of Aloha Stadium, those numbers should go up. The Rainbows rank 101st nationally in total defense … Boise State 38, Hawaii 17. (11 p.m. ET, ESPN 360)

Minnesota at No. 18 Ohio State: A week of overcritical analysis of Terrelle Pryor and the struggling OSU offense has overshadowed a few small facts: The Buckeyes still average 28.0 points per game on offense and surrender only 14.0 on defense. The last thing Ohio State needs to do with its young quarterback and offensive attack is panic. Simplify the playbook a little, return to establishing the run and continue to rely on defense. All ingredients for making things a little sunnier next week in the Buckeye Nation … Ohio State 34, Minnesota 14. (12 noon ET, ESPN)

Here are the spreads for the above games: Illinois at Purdue (-9½); Louisville (+18) at Cincinnati; Tennessee (+14½) at Alabama; Penn State (-4½) at Michigan; Iowa at Michigan State (+1); TCU (-2½) at BYU; Florida at Mississippi State (+23½); Oregon State (+21) at USC; Boise State at Hawaii (+24½); Minnesota at Ohio State (-16).

In case you care, Minnesota is 3-8 ATS in its last 11 games against Ohio State while the Buckeyes are 4-2 ATS at home in their last six vs. Goldy. Enjoy the games.

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To Redshirt Or Not To Redshirt

There was a spirited debate this week among Ohio State football fans regarding whether or not to take the redshirt off freshman tailback Jaamal Berry in week six of the regular season.

In case you have forgotten, Berry is a 5-11, 195-pound slasher/dasher out of Palmetto High School in Miami who has heretofore been unable to showcase his skills as a Buckeye because of a nagging hamstring injury. The injury had subsided, Berry had reportedly been lighting things up in practice, and head coach Jim Tressel indicated on Tuesday he would be inclined to use the freshman running back tomorrow against Wisconsin.

That was until yesterday when reports that Berry’s hamstring problem had flared up again. He likely will not be ready for action against the Badgers and his status moving forward remains firmly up in the air.

Nevertheless, the argument for and against taking the redshirt off Berry at the midway point of the regular season was one worth having. Before the hamstring injury recurred, opinions were running about 9-to-1 in favor of letting the freshman play. Among the many arguments for getting Berry on the field was the perhaps most salient one – if the young tailback is another piece in a championship puzzle, he needs to play. No one knows what the future may hold, so you win as many games every season as you possibly can. If playing Berry is a means to that end, play him. “Fire all of the bullets in your arsenal” was the way one poster put it.

Originally, I was in the minority. I have always felt that if a freshman didn’t play by week three of the regular season, he probably should be redshirted. In other words, if he wasn’t good enough to crack the rotation by the time one-quarter of the season was in the books, he probably wasn’t going to be able to contribute enough down the stretch to warrant the cost of a full season of his eligibility.

Berry is a unique case, of course. First and foremost, the hamstring injury is evidently the sole reason why he hasn’t been playing. From all indications, he would have been in the lineup long ago had he been at or near 100 percent. Secondly, if Berry is as good as his advance billing, saving an additional year of his eligibility could be moot. Whether he plays this season or not, NCAA rules would permit him to leave school early for the NFL following the 2011 season. If he does turn out to be as good as advertised, he may want to explore that option and the Buckeyes would do well to maximize his college playing time as much as possible.

Then, of course, there is the position Berry plays. Ohio State has gotten a mixed bag from its tailback spot this season. Dan “Boom” Herron started the first four games of the season and leads the team in touchdowns scored. But he sustained a sprained ankle against Illinois and didn’t play at all last week. The injury only underscores the whispers about Herron that perhaps his 5-10, 193-pound frame is not big enough to withstand an entire Big Ten season as the leading ball-carrier.

Brandon Saine had what could be described as a breakout game last Saturday night, powering his way to a career-high 113 yards against Indiana. The 6-1, 217-pound junior features a nice blend of power and speed – not to mention pass-catching abilities – and most people don’t realize he currently ranks second in the Big Ten only to Wisconsin’s John Clay in rushing average per conference game. The knock against the junior running back, of course, is an injury-checkered past, and the unfortunate truth is that no one knows if a healthy Saine can make it through an entire season.

The third man in the tailback mix has been freshman Jordan Hall, who didn’t see action until week three against Toledo. Since then, he has shown some flashes that he can be a very good complimentary back although at 5-10 and 190 pounds, he faces some of the same durability questions as Herron. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Herron and Hall have combined for an average of 3.8 yards per carry.

Herron, Saine and Hall have done well as a trio this season. Together, they average 126.0 yards per game – and when you throw Terrelle Pryor’s yardage into the mix, the Buckeyes are purring along at 187.2 yards rushing per game. Last season, with Beanie Wells as the primary back, the team was only slightly better at 192.5 yards on the ground per game.

So why do so many people believe Berry is needed? Maybe it’s because they know tailback depth in the Big Ten is a fleeting thing. Wells, Mike Hart of Michigan and P.J. Hill of Wisconsin were all tremendous running backs, but they each missed their share of playing time with injuries. When those big guns were on the sidelines, their respective teams suffered. That was partly due to a lack of depth but more so because the running backs behind them on the depth chart suffered from inexperience.

This season is looking more and more like the first since 2004 that Ohio State will have no 1,000-yard rusher. The problem five years ago was lack of depth at the position and subsequently the Buckeyes scuffled their way to an 8-4 finish.

This year, especially if/when Berry joins the backfield, depth at the running back depth could be one of the team’s strengths. Every team seeks that one dependable every-down running back, but who’s to say that approach trumps one where five or even six players on your roster have somewhere between 300 and 600 yards apiece?

That’s never happened in the Tressel era. (See stats below.) But as the offensive game plan continues to evolve this year, the head coach must believe it’s a path worth exploring.

LEADING RUSHERS BY SEASON

Here is a list of Ohio State’s leading rushers, by season, through the Tressel era so far. Listed are carries and net yards.

2008 – Chris Wells 207-1,197; Terrelle Pryor 139-631; Dan Herron 89-439; Maurice Wells 39-129; Brandon Saine 26-65.

2007 – Chris Wells 274-1,609; Maurice Wells 103-367; Brandon Saine 60-267; Todd Boeckman 56-63; Ray Small 4-49.

2006 – Antonio Pittman 242-1,233; Chris Wells 104-576; Troy Smith 72-128; Maurice Wells 46-171; Anthony Gonzalez 2-28.

2005 – Antonio Pittman 243-1,331; Troy Smith 136-611; Maurice Wells 61-199; Ted Ginn Jr. 12-83; Erik Haw 14-61.

2004 – Lydell Ross 117-475; Antonio Pittman 72-381; Troy Smith 82-339; Maurice Hall 52-216; Branden Joe 50-162.

2003 – Lydell Ross 193-826; Maurice Hall 97-316; Craig Krenzel 109-255; Branden Joe 27-99; Ira Guilford 28-64.

2002 – Maurice Clarett 222-1,237; Lydell Ross 166-619; Maurice Hall 78-370; Craig Krenzel 125-368; Chris Gamble 3-49.

2001 – Jonathan Wells 251-1,294; Lydell Ross 120-419; Sammy Maldonado 39-168; Steve Bellisari 83-107; Jamar Martin 22-86.

OSU-WISCONSIN TIDBITS

** This marks the 75th meeting of Ohio State and Wisconsin, and the Buckeyes hold a decidedly lopsided 52-17-5 record in the overall series, including 27-7-3 in Columbus. However, the Badgers have won three of their last four trips to Ohio Stadium and that has allowed them to close the overall gap in recent years. Since 1981, OSU has only a 13-10-1 advantage and the team have split their last eight games.

** Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is in his ninth season with the Buckeyes. He has an 87-20 overall record, including 3-3 against Wisconsin. He is 54-12 in the Big Ten and 32-13 against ranked teams. The Badgers are ranked No. 25 in this week’s USA Today coaches’ poll.

** Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema is in his fourth season with the Badgers. He has a 33-11 overall record, including 0-2 against Ohio State. He is 17-9 in the Big Ten and 4-7 against ranked teams. That includes an 0-3 mark against teams ranked in the top 10. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 8 in this week’s coaches’ poll and No. 9 in the Associated Press writers’ poll.

** As it has been so many times in this series, the game will feature a classic matchup between the irresistible force and the immovable object. Wisconsin ranks first or second in the Big Ten in rushing, pass efficiency and scoring offense while Ohio State ranks first or second in each of those defensive categories.

** The Badgers have been able to achieve an almost unbelievable offensive balance over their first five games. They have 1,086 yards rushing and 1,080 yards through the air.

** In Tressel’s 107 games with the Buckeyes, opposing teams have totaled 175 or more yards on the ground only 11 times. Wisconsin has three of those 11 performances, including 179 last year. However, the Badgers weren’t so successful on the ground the last time they were in Columbus. Wisconsin netted only 12 yards rushing during a 38-17 loss in 2007, the team’s lowest total in the Bielema era.

** Wisconsin tailback John Clay, who leads the Big Ten and is fifth nationally with an average of 116.4 yards per game, will be trying to join an elite group on Saturday. Only 16 running backs have gained 100 or more yards in a game against the Buckeyes during the Tressel era – none so far this season and only three over Ohio State’s last 32 games. USC tailback Joe McKnight, who rushed for 105 yards in his team’s 35-3 win in 2008, was the last opponent to crack the century mark against the Buckeyes.

** Clay has a conference-leading 112 carries this season. Only five have gone for negative yardage.

** UW quarterback Scott Tolzien leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency and is completing 65.6 percent of his attempts so far this season. Tolzien has been especially lethal on third downs – he is 29 for 41 for 340 yards and three touchdowns on third down this year. On third and less than 10 yards to go, Tolzien has completed 23 of 29 pass attempts, and 21 of those 23 completions have gone for either a first down or touchdown.

** Ohio State has two shutouts this season, the most of any single season in the Tressel era so far. If the Buckeyes entertain any notions of getting a third whitewash of the year against the Badgers, they should know Wisconsin hasn’t been shut out since a 34-0 loss to Syracuse in the 1997 season opener. No Big Ten opponent has blanked the Badgers since Iowa posted a 31-0 win on Nov. 16, 1996.

** The Buckeyes haven’t been shut out since a 28-0 loss at Michigan in the 1993 regular-season finale. That represents a span of 195 games.

** Ohio State and Wisconsin are the most successful teams in the Big Ten since the beginning of the 2004 season. The Buckeyes are 55-13 (.809 winning percentage) during that span while the Badgers are 52-17 (.754). Wisconsin has also made seven straight bowl trips, and that is second in the conference only to OSU, which has gone bowling nine years in a row.

** Wisconsin has nine Ohio natives on its roster. Ohio State has no Wisconsin-born players.

** Last week’s win over Indiana was the 54th Big Ten win for Tressel and he moved into a tie for 17th place on the league’s all-time conference victories list with Ray Eliot of Illinois (1942-59). Tressel needs three more league wins to join a four-way tie at 57 wins with Bennie Bierman of Minnesota (1932-41, ’45-50), Fritz Crisler of Michigan (1938-47), Jack Mollenkopf of Purdue (1956-69) and Earle Bruce of Ohio State (1979-87).

** When freshman Zach Boren scored on an 8-yard touchdown pass last week against Indiana, he became only the third full-time fullback to cross the goal line in the Tressel era. In the 2007 season opener against Youngstown State, Trever Robinson scored on a 1-yard pass reception, and before that you have to all the way back to Tressel’s first game with the Buckeyes. Jamar Martin scored on a 10-yard pass from QB Steve Bellisari in the first quarter of a 28-14 win over Akron in the 2001 season opener.

** OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor had 222 yards of total offense against the Hoosiers and moved past the 3,000-yard mark for his young career, becoming the 21st player in school history to break the 3,000-yard barrier. Now with 3,094 yards, Pryor needs 49 more to move into 20th place all-time, currently occupied by Pepe Pearson (3,142, 1994-97). The OSU career leader in total offense is Art Schlichter (8,850, 1978-81).

** Kickoff for Saturday’s game will be shortly after 3:30 p.m. Eastern. ABC will broadcast the game on a regional basis with Sean McDonough handling play-by-play duties, Matt Millen providing color analysis and Holly Rowe reporting from the sidelines. The game will employ the reverse mirror, so if you don’t get the contest on your local ABC-affiliated station, it will be available on ESPN.

** The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channel 127.

** The Buckeyes are back on the road next week to visit Purdue. Kickoff from West Lafayette is set for 12 noon Eastern, and the game will televised by the Big Ten Network.

THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY

** Sixty-six years ago today, an Indiana freshman quarterback celebrated a record-setting day. On Oct. 9, 1943, IU quarterback Bob Hoernschemeyer set an NCAA record for touchdown passes in a game by a freshman when he threw six as the Hoosiers took a 54-13 win over Nebraska in Bloomington.

** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Oct. 5, 1991, Fresno State kicker Derek Mahoney tied the NCAA record for most PATs in a game when he went 13 for 13 as the Bulldogs rolled to a 94-17 win over New Mexico; on Oct. 7, 2000, No. 7 Miami (Fla.) upset top-ranked Florida State, 27-24, when Seminoles kicker Matt Munyon’s last-second field goal attempt from 49 yards sailed wide right; on Oct. 8, 1977, seventh-ranked Alabama squeezed out a 21-20 victory over No. 1 USC when the Trojans scored a touchdown with 38 seconds remaining but their subsequent two-point conversion try failed; and on Oct. 10, 1936, trumpet player John Brungart became the first member of the Ohio State Marching Band to dot the “i” in Script Ohio.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** You probably know that Florida currently has the nation’s longest winning streak at the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Gators have won 14 in a row. Did you know which team currently owns the second-longest streak? That would be Iowa, which has won nine consecutive games.

** The weekly count of undefeated teams at the Division I-A level was whittled last week to 13. The list in alphabetical order: Alabama, Auburn, Boise State, Cincinnati, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, LSU, Missouri, South Florida, Texas, TCU and Wisconsin.

** Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has the Tigers off to a 5-0 start in his first season after posting only five victories total in two years at Iowa State. What’s the difference? Perhaps that Chizik hired Gus Malzahn away from Tulsa to be his offensive coordinator at Auburn. In five games this season, the Tigers have scored 207 points. They scored 208 all of last season.

** In addition to being undefeated, Wisconsin and Iowa are among the eight teams that are currently 5-0. This is old hat for the Badgers, who are 5-0 for the fifth time in the last eight seasons. On the flip side, the Hawkeyes are enjoying their first 5-0 start since 1995. The last time Iowa began a season with more than five victories was 1985 when the team started 7-0 on the way to the school’s last outright Big Ten championship.

**When Michigan State defeated Michigan last weekend, it gave Sparty his first back-to-back victories over the Wolverines since winning three in a row from 1965-67.

** I guess it’s never too early to make projections about bowl season. This week’s forecast, courtesy of CBSSports.com, has Florida and Texas on a collision course for the BCS National Championship Game, set for Jan. 8 in Pasadena. The other four BCS matchups – Oregon and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, USC and Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, Alabama and Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl and Virginia Tech and Iowa in the Orange Bowl.

** With his team’s victory last weekend over Illinois, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno moved into a fifth-place tie on the all-time Big Ten conference win list. JoePa now has 81 league victories and that ties him with Lloyd Carr of Michigan (1995-2007). The top four coaches in terms of Big Ten victories are Woody Hayes of Ohio State (152, 1951-78), Bo Schembechler of Michigan (143, 1969-89), Amos Alonzo Stagg of Chicago (116, 1896-1932) and Hayden Fry of Iowa (98, 1979-98).

** A week ago today, Notre Dame unveiled a bronze sculpture of legendary Knute Rockne outside its stadium. The statue of Rockne, who was 105-12-5 with the Fighting Irish for an NCAA-record .881 winning percentage, shows the coach in his sweatshirt and baseball pants with his hands on his hips. Rockne is the fourth sculpture to be unveiled outside Notre Dame Stadium after Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz. Yes, you read that correctly. Notre Dame actually put up a statue of Lou Holtz before getting around to putting up one of Knute Rockne.

** ESPN.com has something it calls “The Heisman Predictor,” updated each week with standings based upon a formula that takes into account 11 different variables and awards points in a variety of ways. That may sound scientific until you realize you automatically get extra credit for playing quarterback at a BCS conference school. Anyway, this week’s standings have preseason favorites Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy in the top two spots followed Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike, Notre Dame QB Jimmy Clausen, running back Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech and Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier.

** If your cable or dish provider carries CBS College Sports Network, and you like service academy football, Saturday is your day. The network will televise a service academy tripleheader tomorrow beginning with Vanderbilt at Army at 12 noon Eastern. That will be followed by Navy at Rice at 3:30 p.m., and wind up with TCU at Air Force at 7:30 p.m.

** Former Nebraska offensive lineman Aaron Taylor has revealed that he is bankrupt and will be auctioning off assets which include his 1994, 1995 and 1997 national championship rings as well as his 1997 Outland Trophy. The Oct. 31 auction was forced by the failure of the Husker-themed Scarlet and Cream Letter Club restaurant Taylor started in Omaha with other former players. Proceeds from the auction will help pay some of Taylor’s debts, estimated at more than $100,000, including $69,000 in federal and state taxes owed to the IRS.

** In case you missed it, former Muskingum College head coach and athletic director Ed Sherman died Sept. 29 at the age of 97. Sherman spent 22 years as head coach of the Muskies, capturing six Ohio Conference championships and compiling a 141-43-7 record from 1945 to 1966. When he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996, Sherman became the first Division III coach to be so honored.

FEARLESS FORECAST

Don’t know what it is about Houston. Last year, when we finally gave the Cougars some love, they lost. This year, same thing. We picked them to blow out a weak UTEP team and the Miners hung 58 on UH one week after it failed gain 58 total yards against Texas. Thankfully, that miss was not the norm and we finished with a 5-2 record. That moved us to 32-11 straight up for the season.

Against the spread, we didn’t do so well. After briefly popping our heads above water, we went 3-4 last week and are now a flat 16-16-1 ATS for the year.

Here are the games we like this week.

Eastern Michigan at Central Michigan: It’s homecoming for the Chippewas, who are seeking to go 5-1 for the first time since 1988. Although they are at the top of the MAC West standings and EMU is tied with Ball State at the bottom, these two teams usually wear out the scoreboard when they meet. In fact, Eastern has won the last two meetings – 48-45 in 2007 and 56-52 last season. I’m not sure those kinds of fireworks can be repeated, especially since the Eagles are struggling on offense. They rank 114th out of 120 Division I-A schools in total offense. On the other side, CMU still has quarterback Dan LeFevour, who is now the MAC’s all-time leader in total offense. He should be more than enough to keep the Chippewas rolling … Central Michigan 41, Eastern Michigan 24. (12 noon ET, ESPN 360)

Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern: There is a lot of synergy between these two schools not the least of which is the fact Ara Parseghian was head coach of both programs. Before gaining fame at Notre Dame, Parseghian followed Woody Hayes at Miami and compiled a 39-6-1 record from 1951-55. Then came eight seasons in Evanston from 1956-64 where he went 36-35-1 with the Wildcats. That may seem like a fairly pedestrian record, but Parseghian is the last Northwestern head coach to compile a winning record … at least until Pat Fitzgerald came along. Fitz is currently 22-20 with the Wildcats and he figures to better that mark this week against the winless RedHawks, who are 119th nationally in scoring defense and a dead-last 120th in scoring offense … Northwestern 34, Miami 10. (12 noon ET, BTN)

Eastern Illinois at No. 14 Penn State: What does it say about the Nittany Lions’ nonconference schedule that the I-AA Panthers are the best team on it? EIU is 4-1 this season, thanks in part to a pretty good offensive attack led by quarterback Jake Christensen (1,090 yards, 11 TDs). If that name sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same Jake Christensen who was the starting QB at Iowa in 2007 before losing his job last year to Ricky Stanzi. It did seem that Penn State got itself untracked last week against Illinois, but we’re not sure how much of an indicator that is since the Fighting Illini seem to already be circling the drain. JoePa’s team still has some injury issues on defense, most notably linebacker Sean Lee’s continued knee problems, but the Lions – if they stay engaged – should have no problem with the Panthers … Penn State 31, Eastern Illinois 7. (12 noon ET, ESPN Classic)

Georgia at Tennessee: This game marks the first time since 1937 that these SEC rivals square off while neither is ranked by the AP or the coaches. Not that either of them seem to care. Fresh from a game against LSU that was all but taken from them by the officials for a ludicrous celebration penalty, the Bulldogs head to Rocky Top in a sour mood. That doesn’t exactly bode well for the Volunteers, who are 2-3 and trying to avoid their first back-to-back losing seasons in nearly a century. First-year Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin is getting his initial taste of the rivalry while UGA head coach Mark Richt is 5-3 against the Volunteers, and the Dawgs have won three of their last four overall at Neyland Stadium. Georgia has had a difficult time scoring points this season and that won’t change this week since UT has a pretty good defense. The home team is a slight favorite, but I have a feeling the Bulldogs get it done. Here is a mini-Upset Special … Georgia 17, Tennessee 14. (12 noon ET, SEC Network)

No. 3 Alabama at No. 20 Mississippi: There are a lot of college football observers who believe the Crimson Tide is the best team in the nation right now. They will get to prove it Saturday when they travel to Oxford. Bama appears to be the total package with a potent offense (40.0 points per game on average) and a punishing defense (14.4 points) that has smothered most of its opponents so far this season. That isn’t exactly music to the Rebels’ ears since one-time Heisman hopeful QB Jevan Snead has struggled lately. He has completed only 51.4 percent of his passes this season and pitched three interceptions last weekend in a 23-7 win at Vanderbilt. Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt usually has something up his sleeve – i.e. last year’s 31-30 upset of Florida in Gainesville – and that should at least keep things closer than some are forecasting. We don’t see an upset, though … Alabama 23, Mississippi 17. (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

No. 13 Oregon at UCLA: The Ducks are suddenly the sexy pick in the Pac-10, but if Oregon is to avoid its annual swoon it will have to keep starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli healthy. Masoli banged up a knee during last week’s over Washington State and he is questionable for this week’s game. He ran for a career-high 170 yards in last year’s win over the Bruins, and it would be a decidedly different kind of Quack Attack if Masoli can’t go on Saturday. Even so, Oregon might be able to get by on defense. The Ducks completely shut down Cal and Heisman hopeful Jahvid Best two weeks ago, while UCLA has been struggling on offense. That is especially true when it comes to throwing the ball. The Bruins are last in the Pac-10 in passing … Oregon 24, UCLA 10. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)

Colorado at No. 2 Texas: The Longhorns haven’t been tested all season, outscoring their four opponents by an average of 34.3 points. Coincidentally, the last four games in this series have each resulted in Texas wins by an average margin of 35.0 points. That is somewhat skewed by a 70-3 blowout of the Buffaloes in the 2005 Big 12 championship game. On the other hand, a similar stomp job is not totally out of the question this year. The Longhorns are the No. 1 team in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 49.5 points per game, while the Colorado defense has surrendered 28.0 points on average. That ranks 86th in the nation. Then when you consider the CU defense ranks 102nd or lower in every other major defensive category, you begin a smell a big-time rout … Texas 52, Colorado 7. (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

No. 10 TCU at Air Force: The Horned Frogs are eager to prove their top-10 ranking is deserved and they face a major hurdle Saturday night in Colorado Springs. Not only will TCU will taking on a pretty good Air Force team, it will also have to battle the elements. The weatherman is calling for game-time temperatures in the low-20s, gusty winds and a rainy-icy mix of precipitation. That sounds like weather that favors the defense, and that’s where both teams excel. TCU is the nation’s No. 1 defense in terms of stopping the run which should make for some interesting moments since the Cadets feature the nation’s No. 2 rushing offense. But Air Force is also adept at stopping other teams – it is ninth nationally in scoring defense and No. 1 in turnover margin. The thing that sets the teams apart is the passing game. TCU has a big advantage there although it might be negated by the weather … TCU 24, Air Force 14. (7:30 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports)

No. 1 Florida at No. 4 LSU: With Tim Tebow’s status still uncertain until game time, it’s really anyone’s guess how this game will turn out. The Tigers have struggled mightily on offense all season, yet remain undefeated on the strength of a defense that allows only 14.8 points per game. There is also this little nugget – LSU has won 32 consecutive Saturday night games at Tiger Stadium. To win, however, you have to score and that has been difficult for any Florida opponent so far this year. The Gators are the nation’s No. 1 team in total defense and they’re No. 2 in scoring defense. Even so, their heart and soul plays on offense and they are a completely different team without Tebow. That nasty concussion he suffered was two weeks ago, and since the quarterback began practicing again on Tuesday, we expect Tebow to play. That makes the difference in what should be an entertaining battle of two heavyweights … Florida 16, LSU 7. (8 p.m. ET, CBS)

Michigan at No. 12 Iowa: As well as the Hawkeyes played while upsetting Penn State, they have been maddeningly inconsistent. That includes last week’s uninspired 24-21 win over Arkansas State in which the team nearly blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. Most of the inconsistency has come on the offensive side of the ball, however, as the defense ranks 10th nationally, surrendering only 13.4 points per game. Meanwhile, Michigan is coming off its first loss of the season, a 26-20 overtime defeat at the hands of instate rival Michigan State. Freshman QB Tate Forcier, who had engineered last-minute wins over Notre Dame and Indiana, rallied his team again last week with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to get the game to OT. However, it was Forcier’s interception in overtime that cost the Wolverines the game. Was that a product of growing pains from a first-year starter playing his first road game or something more troublesome? We’ll see soon enough … Iowa 23, Michigan 14. (8 p.m. ET, ABC)

Wisconsin at No. 9 Ohio State: The game plan for the Buckeyes is pretty simple. Stop Wisconsin from running the ball and win the game. That’s easier said than done, of course, since the Badgers possess the Big Ten’s best rushing attack behind bruising tailback John Clay. Unfortunately for UW, their power pretty much begins and ends with Clay. Although he has some excellent numbers, quarterback Scott Tolzien is only slightly above average while the Badgers rank no higher than sixth in the conference in any of the major defensive categories. Look for the Buckeyes to hold Clay to about half his league average (163.0 yards per game) and keep their defensive roll going … Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 17. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)

Here are the spreads for the above games: Eastern Michigan (+23) at Central Michigan; Miami (Ohio) at Northwestern (-19½); Georgia (+1½) at Tennessee; Alabama at Mississippi (+7); Oregon (-5) at UCLA; Colorado at Texas (-32); TCU (-9) at Air Force; Florida (-6) at LSU; Michigan at Iowa (-7½); Wisconsin (+16) at Ohio State.

You would probably like to know that the Buckeyes are 1-4 ATS in their last five home games against Wisconsin. Enjoy the games.

What One Week Of Big Ten Play Has Taught Us

Only one week into the Big Ten season and several conference teams have already distinguished themselves – both good and bad.

Penn State, which tied Ohio State for the league championship last season, is starting out behind the 8-ball after losing its conference opener at home to Iowa. Likewise for Michigan State, last year’s third-place team, who lost at Wisconsin and is 1-3 to start the season for the first time since 1998.

Michigan and Minnesota could be considered overachievers at this point, Illinois and Northwestern could be considered underachievers, and the remainder of the teams fit somewhere in between.

Here is a quick look at the Big Ten schools, in early conference standings order, and how they rank compared to preseason forecasts.

Iowa (1-0, 4-0) – The Hawkeyes weren’t exactly considered championship contenders since they lost running back Shonn Greene, last year’s Big Ten MVP, as well as defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul. So far, however, Kirk Ferentz’s team has found a way to win each week even though three of its four victories have come by 11 points or less.

Last week’s win over Penn State was an attention-getter, but considering the fact the Hawkeyes have owned the Nittany Lions in recent years makes one wonder if Iowa can truly build on that big upset. Going 5-0 shouldn’t be difficult with this week’s game against Arkansas State, but the Hawkeyes return to conference play Oct. 10 to begin a three-week stretch at home with Michigan and on the road at Wisconsin and Michigan State.

You would have to believe a team that ranks only eighth in the Big Ten in scoring offense and ninth in total offense will have to figure out a way to get more points on the board if it truly intends to make a serious play for the championship.

Michigan (1-0, 4-0) – Everyone figured the Wolverines would be better than last season. I’m not sure anyone outside Ann Arbor thought they would be undefeated at this point. Give props to Rich Rodriguez. He perfected a philosophy at West Virginia and has recruited players to Michigan who buy into that philosophy. The question remains how well that philosophy will work when the weather turns cold and bigger, stronger teams begin to pound on U-M’s undersized offensive line.

So far so good for freshman quarterback Tate Forcier, who has completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 671 yards and seven TDs against only two interceptions. He has also rushed for 127 yards, and that is second only to Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State among conference quarterbacks. The fact remains, however, that Forcier is still a freshman and has yet to play a road game. That ends beginning this week when the Wolverines head to East Lansing. Next week, they travel to Iowa City.

Additionally, if Michigan is going to continue to rack up wins, the defense must play better. The unit is ninth in the Big Ten in total defense and has surrendered yardage in chunks. Rodriguez has a pretty good thing going on offense, but how the Wolverines play on defense is what will ultimately separate them as contender or pretender.

Wisconsin (1-0, 4-0) – Not unpredictably, the Badgers have gotten things done so far with their running game. The team is second in the conference in rushing offense, averaging 197.8 yards per game. But Bret Bielema’s team has found that it can throw the football a little bit, too. First-year starter Scott Tolzien has thrown for 884 yards and eight touchdowns, and has led his team to an average of 428.0 yards and 36.0 points per game.

Defense? Well, that’s another story in Madison. For a team that excels so well running the ball, it’s perhaps a little bit of a mystery why the Badgers can’t seem to stop the run. They have allowed 145.8 yards per game to four opponents so far, a number that ranks next-to-last in the Big Ten and 73rd nationally in rushing defense. Those numbers are even more leaky when considering the fact UW’s first four opponents have combined for a 5-11 record.

The fun part of the season would appear to be over for Wisconsin, however. Over the next three weeks, the Badgers travel to Minnesota and Ohio State before hosting Iowa.

Minnesota (1-0, 3-1) – Are the Gophers truly overachievers or are they about where they should be? They scored a seven-point victory over Air Force – the only loss the Falcons have so far this season – and they played right with Cal when the Bears were a top-10 team. Last week, though, could have been a signal. After losing two straight games to Northwestern in the waning moments, Goldy finally got over the hump with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to overturn a 24-21 deficit.

Minnesota entered the 2009 season trying to retool its offense and breathe new life into a running game that finished dead last in the conference last year. So far, whatever Tim Brewster has tried hasn’t work. The Gophers remain last in the Big Ten in rushing and it’s really not even close. You have to wonder what happens when/if an opponent puts the clamps on senior wideout Eric Decker, who leads the league and is sixth nationally with 124.8 receiving yards per game.

Figure out a way to take Decker out of the equation and watch Minnesota struggle. Take his yardage away and the Gophers would be averaging just over 200 yards a game. Decker’s teammates are going to have pick things up, especially when back-to-back games at Penn State and Ohio State come around in mid-October.

Ohio State (1-0, 3-1) – Same old Buckeyes. A mini-scare against an early nonconference opponent, a loss to a top-five team and then some muscle flexing as the Big Ten season gets under way. Perhaps the only difference this season is the way the defense is playing. Ohio State has ridden the wave of an attacking defensive front to pitch consecutive shutouts against Toledo and Illinois – teams that have shown themselves to be pretty good offensively.

Not that the Buckeyes are not without question marks. The running game remains in flux as neither Boom Herron nor Brandon Saine have exactly distinguished themselves What does it say about them that Pryor is the leading rusher on the team? Still, the Herron-Saine combo has averaged 103.4 yards per game.

Likewise, Ohio State’s passing game seems a bit sparse. Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey have combined for 27 receptions – exactly one-half of the team’s total. No other wideout has more than five catches so far. Add in Pryor’s sometimes-maddening penchant for continued mental and physical mistakes and Buckeye fans may need to keep the Pepto-Bismol close at hand.

Purdue (0-0, 1-3) – The Boilermakers are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Are they the team that gave Oregon all it wanted in Eugene before falling by only two points, or are they the team that lost to Northern Illinois, a MAC team that had a previous 1-32-1 record against the Big Ten? The Boilers are as hard to figure as head coach Danny Hope’s decision to call a defensive timeout right before Notre Dame scored the winning touchdown last week.

One thing you can figure on is Purdue to try and run up the score on every opponent. Sophomore tailback Ralph Bolden has been the league’s leading rusher all season, and his average of 122.0 yards per game is more than 20 better than anyone else. Meanwhile, first-year starting QB Joey Elliott has thrown for 963 yards and seven TDs this season.

What has kept the Boilermakers from achieving more this season is a porous defense that has allowed 421.5 yards and 30.2 points per game. Both figures are dead last in the Big Ten. Add in 11 giveaways (the most in the conference) and you have a recipe for disaster if those numbers don’t get better.

Indiana (0-1, 3-1) – Since the Hoosiers have had exactly one winning season since 1994, and haven’t won or shared a Big Ten title since 1967, it has been easy to dismiss the team’s good start. Another play or two going their way – not to mention that questionable simultaneous reception call – and IU could have claimed victory at Michigan and been undefeated.

The Hoosiers are a much-improved team, both on offense and on defense. Settling on Ben Chappell at quarterback has solidified what IU wants to do with its offensive attack, and a defense led by hard-charging defensive ends Jammie Kerlew and Greg Middleton have surprised some early opponents.

For all of their improvements, however, Bill Lynch’s team remains an unknown entity. With the exception of kickoff returns (first in the Big Ten) and rush defense (second), the Hoosiers are a middle-of-the-pack team in most categories. Given the lack of success in recent years for the program, however, Lynch would likely welcome a middle-of-the-pack finish in the standings.

Penn State (0-1, 3-1) – Sometimes we tend to dismiss Joe Paterno when he poor-mouths his team. In reality, when JoePa says he really doesn’t know how good his team is, he means it. No one knows how good – or how bad – the Nittany Lions are. When you put three creampuffs on your nonconference schedule, that’s how it’s likely to be.

Last week’s loss to Iowa exposed some possible problems moving forward. For example, the worst two games in quarterback Darryl Clark’s career have now come against Iowa. However, Clark has already pitched six interceptions this season after throwing only six all of last year. Meanwhile, running back Evan Royster’s production is down – way down – from a season ago when he averaged 95.1 yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry. This year, his averages are 76.2 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry.

The Nittany Lions are probably good enough defensively to make up for a lot of offensive problems. They are No. 1 in the Big Ten in every defensive category so far. Still, with an offense that features Clark and Royster, you would assume the production gets better. Penn State will likely right the ship and get back on course to its Nov. 7 showdown with Ohio State in Happy Valley.

Northwestern (0-1, 2-2) – Time for a mea culpa. In the season preview issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I picked the Wildcats as a dark horse title contender and actually had them playing in a BCS bowl. Then reality hit, the defense forgot to tackle and Northwestern is just trying to keep its hopes alive for any bowl game.

What happened? For starters, the defense has not played up to snuff and a rebuilt offense simply can’t be required to outscore the opposing team every week. The Wildcats are third in the conference in passing offense and second in scoring, but they’re also fifth in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. Turnovers have also been a problem – Northwestern already has 10 giveaways in four games.

On the bright side, dual-threat quarterback Mike Kafka is leading the Big Ten in passing and total offense. Conversely, teams are beginning to load up against Kafka as the Wildcats scramble to find offensive players who can take the burden off their quarterback. The upcoming schedule could help. Northwestern’s next three opponents are a combined 2-10 so far this season.

Illinois (0-1, 1-2) – Ron Zook may want to circle the wagons in Champaign. His team couldn’t have looked any more disjointed last week at Ohio State if it had been the first day of camp. His team’s Rose Bowl appearance in 2007 is beginning to look more and more like an aberration, and this year’s 1-2 start certainly isn’t helping.

Zook has long had the reputation of being an excellent recruiter who has difficulties coaching up the talent once it gets on campus. His record in three years at Florida was a pedestrian 23-14, but only two years after he left Gainesville, Urban Meyer guided a roster primarily made up of Zook recruits to the national championship. Now in his fifth season with the Illini, Zook has produced a record of 19-32. Throw out the Rose Bowl year and that mark plummets to 10-28, or a ghastly .263 winning percentage.

Zook’s contract calls for an annual salary of approximately $1.5 million and it runs through 2014, but he’s going to be awfully tough for university officials to defend if he doesn’t get his program turned around and turned around quickly.

Michigan State (0-1, 1-3) – They haven’t celebrated a Big Ten championship in East Lansing since 1990, but this was supposed to be Sparty’s year. Then came a fourth-quarter collapse in week two against Central Michigan and things have gone steadily downhill. Perhaps the most difficult part of the three consecutive losses is the fact the Spartans know they could have (and probably should have) won all three.

Head coach Mark Dantonio’s mission now is to get a win anyway he can and avoid the program’s first four-game skid since losing eight of the last nine in 2006. That got John L. Smith fired and Dantonio hired.

It’s not that Michigan State is devoid of talent. Kirk Cousins has done a creditable job in his first year as the starting quarterback, senior wideout Blair White is one of the most underrated receivers in the Big Ten, and linebacker Greg Jones is arguably the best defensive player in the conference. So, why aren’t they winning? Good question.

OSU-INDIANA TIDBITS

** Ohio State and Indiana will be meeting for the 83rd time on Saturday with the Buckeyes holding a lopsided 62-12-5 advantage in the series. That includes a 23-2-1 record in Bloomington, and OSU has won on each of its last seven trips to Memorial Stadium. Indiana defeated the Buckeyes by an 8-0 score in 1904 and then didn’t beat Ohio State in Bloomington again until a 41-7 pounding in 1988 … and the Hoosiers haven’t experienced a home win over OSU since.

** The Buckeyes are currently enjoying a 14-game winning streak in the overall series. You have to go back to a 27-27 tie in 1990 to find the last time Ohio State failed to come away with a victory over Indiana. The average margin of victory for the Buckeyes during their current win streak over the Hoosiers has been 22.7 points.

** Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is a perfect 5-0 against the Hoosiers. The average margin of victory for the Buckeyes in those games has been 30.4 points.

** Indiana head coach Bill Lynch is in his third season with the Hoosiers and is playing the Buckeyes for the first time. He will be attempting to become only the second IU coach in the past 50 years to claim a victory over Ohio State. Bill Mallory, who coached the Hoosiers from 1984-96, claimed back-to-back wins over the Buckeyes in 1987 and ’88.

** Tressel has a 5-3 record in Big Ten road openers, including wins in each of the past three seasons. The Buckeyes haven’t lost a conference road opener since a 17-10 defeat at Penn State in 2005. All-time, Ohio State is 60-32-5 in conference road openers.

** The two teams haven’t met since the Buckeyes scored a 44-3 victory over the Hoosiers in 2006. OSU totaled 540 yards of offense – 270 rushing and 270 passing – as Heisman Trophy quarterback Troy Smith completed 15 of 21 passes for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Ted Ginn Jr. caught five passes for 72 yards and a touchdown for the Buckeyes, and he also threw for a 38-yard TD pass to tight end Rory Nicol.

** Indiana has 16 native Ohioans on its roster – six of which are projected to start against the Buckeyes – while Ohio State has only one player from Indiana. That is defensive tackle Dexter Larimore, who hails from Merrillville.

** Ohio State has won at least three of its first four games for the 19th consecutive season.

** IU redshirt freshman kicker Nick Freeland leads the Big Ten in scoring so far this season with 39 points. Last week, he matched a school single-game record with four field goals against Michigan. Freeland has become such an important  part of the offense this season that the Hoosiers have been able to convert 16 of their 18 trips into the red zone. Last year, when Indiana went 3-9, they finished dead last in the conference (and 117th of 119 Division I-A) teams in red-zone offense.

** OSU sophomore tailback Dan “Boom” Herron is currently first in the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with five and tied for fourth in overall scoring with 30 points. A Buckeye hasn’t led the conference in either of those categories since 1995 when Eddie George rushed for 25 TDs and scored 152 points on his way to the Heisman Trophy.

** Another reason why Indiana has started 3-1 is improved play along the offensive line. The Hoosiers have given up only two sacks so far this season, and that not only ties them for the Big Ten lead with Wisconsin, it’s good enough for a tie for the national lead along with 11 other teams including Boise State, Auburn and Oklahoma.

** One problem the Hoosiers have had this season is with penalties. Through four games, they have been flagged more times (31) than any other team in the Big Ten. Conversely, Ohio State has been penalized only 21 times, and that’s tied for the third-lowest total among conference teams.

** Tressel is making a rapid rise up the ladder in terms of all-time Big Ten victories. Last week’s win over Illinois was the coach’s 53rd conference victory, tying him for 18th place with Joe Tiller of Purdue. Next up is Ray Eliot of Illinois (1942-59), who won 54 Big Ten games during his tenure. The legendary Woody Hayes is the career leader in conference victories with 152.

** Lynch is relatively new to the Big Ten, but he is currently in his 17th year as a head coach. He has a 94-83-3 career record with stops at Butler (his alma mater), Ball State and DePauw as well as Indiana.

** Memorial Stadium has been enclosed since the last time the Buckeyes played in Bloomington. The 138,000-square-foot Student-Athlete Development Center is situated in what used to be a vacant space past the north end zone. The two-year project was completed in July and features bowl seating with an outdoor club seating area that encloses the north end of the stadium.

** The Big Ten Network will televise the game with kickoff scheduled shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern. Craig Coshun will handle the play-by-play duties while former Minnesota head coach (and former OSU assistant and player) Glen Mason will provide color commentary. Rebecca Haarlow will report from the sidelines.

** The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channel 126.

** The Buckeyes return to Ohio Stadium next to host Wisconsin. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern, and the game will televised by ABC and ESPN using the reverse mirror. That means most viewers will get the game on ABC while those outside what Disney determines to be the Big Ten viewing market will see the game on ESPN.

AROUND THE COUNTRY

** The 2009 Heisman Trophy would seem to be Colt McCoy’s to lose. With last year’s winner Sam Bradford still on the shelf with a shoulder injury, and the status of 2007 winner Tim Tebow up in the air after he suffered a nasty-looking concussion last weekend, McCoy is the only one of the preseason favorites left standing. The candidacies of three other contenders – Cal running back Jahvid Best, Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead and Miami (Fla.) quarterback Jacory Harris – took major hits last week.

** The 2009 season has reached the one-third mark and only 17 undefeated teams remain at the Football Bowl Subdivision (aka Division I-A) level. The alphabetical list of the unblemished: Alabama, Auburn, Boise State, Cincinnati, Florida, Houston, Iowa, Kansas, LSU, Michigan, Missouri, South Florida, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, UCLA and Wisconsin.

** The much-maligned Big Ten is one of only three conferences to feature three or more 4-0 teams. The SEC and Big 12 each have four teams with 4-0 records.

** Congratulations to Cincinnati, which has reached its highest-ever ranking in the Associated Press poll. The Bearcats are No. 10 this week.

** Speaking of polls, the media-darling SEC holds down the Nos. 1, 3 and 4 spots in this week’s AP poll with Florida (first), Alabama (third) and LSU (fourth). That marks the first time any conference has held three of the top four spots since 1971 when Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado of the Big Eight were first, second and third.

** Nebraska reached a milestone last weekend with its 300th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers have sold out every game in Lincoln since 1962, and their record during the streak is 261-39.

** With last week’s upset win at Penn State, Iowa is 4-0 for only the third time in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 11 seasons. If the Hawkeyes can get past Sun Belt Conference member Arkansas State this week, they will have their first 5-0 start since 1995.

** It’s Paul Bunyan Week in the Big Ten. Michigan and Michigan State square off for the Paul Bunyan Trophy, a four-foot wooden statue of the mythical giant woodsman that has gone to the annual winner in the series since 1953. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Wisconsin will resume the longest rivalry in I-A history with Paul Bunyan’s Axe going to the victor. The Gophers and Badgers, who will mark the 119th renewal of their rivalry, first played one another in 1890 and have squared off every season since 1907. The two schools originally vied for the Slab of Bacon Trophy, which mysteriously disappeared in the 1940s. They started playing for the Bunyan Axe in 1948.

** While we’re on the subject of long rivalries, Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) will meet this Saturday for the 114th time. The first meeting in the series was Dec. 8, 1888, and the first collegiate football game played in Ohio.

** Wisconsin kick returner David Gilreath needs only five more yards to become the sixth Big Ten player ever to record 2,000 or more career kickoff return yards. The all-time conference leader is Derrick Mason of Michigan State (1993-96), who returned kickoffs for 2,575 yards during his career.

** Houston head coach Kevin Sumlin is making the most of his first shot of directing a program after 20 years as an assistant. Sumlin, one of only a handful of African-American head coaches at Division I-A, posted an 8-5 record last year in his rookie season and has the Cougars off to a 3-0 record this year. If Sumlin’s name sounds familiar to longtime Big Ten fans, it’s because he was a three-year starter at inside linebacker for Purdue from 1984-86. His head coach with the Boilermakers was Leon Burtnett, who is now in charge of linebackers on Sumlin’s staff at Houston.

** Former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley is finding life as the lead dog comes with its own kind of pressure. Locksley was hired as head coach at New Mexico in the offseason and the Lobos are off to a 0-4 start. Things have gotten so bad that Locksley recently grabbed receivers coach J.B. Gerald by the collar and then punched him, giving the assistant a bloody lip. Gerald told police he didn’t want to file charges, but Locksley was officially reprimanded by New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs. (Krebs served several years as an assistant athletic director at Ohio State.) Locksley has been in hot water almost from the time he arrived in Albuquerque. He was accused of sexual harassment, age discrimination and retaliation in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed last spring by a former football administrative assistant. That case is still pending.

** A couple of streaks in the lower divisions of NCAA football are worth mentioning. NAIA member Saint Francis (Ind.) extended its home winning streak to 54 games with last week’s 28-7 victory over Marian (Ind.). At the other end of the spectrum, Division I-AA Indiana State dropped a 28-0 decision at home to Youngstown State last week. That extended the Sycamores’ losing streak to 31 in a row.

FEARLESS FORECAST

Last week was one to savor. The Upset Special was good as gold as Iowa knocked off Penn State, and the Hawkeyes finished off a perfect 7-0 week in the straight-up picks. We also finished a season-best 5-2 against the spread, moving the yearly totals to 19-7 SU and 13-12-1 ATS.

Let’s see if we can keep the hot streak going.

No. 22 Michigan at Michigan State: In rivalry games such as these, we are always taught that records should be thrown out the window. I think that is never more true with this year and these teams. As far as I’m concerned, the Wolverines have been doing it with mirrors. Four straight home games have helped, not to mention fortuitous bounces against Notre Dame and Indiana. We are going to get to see how good freshman quarterback Tate Forcier really is as he makes the first road start of his career. On the other sideline is a team much too talented to be 1-3. However, we have seen this act in prior coaching regimes in East Lansing. Unless Mark Dantonio wants to go the way of Bobby Williams and John L. Smith, he’d better get his team untracked sooner as opposed to later. A victory this week would heal a lot of wounds … Michigan State 34, Michigan 31. (12 noon ET, BTN)

No. 3 Alabama at Kentucky: With all of the love the SEC gets for its high-octane offenses, it’s nice to know someone in that conference still stresses defense. Nick Saban’s Tide ranks second nationally in total defense and allows an average of only 47.3 yards per game on the ground. The unit took a hit last week with a season-ending knee injury to linebacker Dont’a Hightower, but even with their leading pass rusher Bama should have enough to stop the Wildcats. Led by quarterback Mike Hartline (former OSU receiver Brian Hartline’s younger brother), Kentucky ranks next-to-last in the SEC in total offense and is coming off a 41-7 home loss to Florida during which it generated only 179 yards. The Wildcats usually keep things close against the Crimson Tide, but close generally isn’t good enough. Bama holds a 34-2-1 edge in the overall series … Alabama 34, Kentucky 7. (12:20 p.m. ET, ESPN 360)

No. 10 Cincinnati at Miami (Ohio): The Bearcats are getting a lot of ink this season and deservedly so. Quarterback Tony Pike is currently third in the nation in passing yardage and tied for second with 11 touchdown passes. He will likely pad his stats this week against the winless RedHawks, who rank 119th out of 120 Division I-A schools in scoring defense. Even if Pike should somehow struggle, however, UC should still be OK. Miami ranks dead last at No. 120 in scoring offense. Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly can pretty much name his own score. Here’s mine … Cincinnati 48, Miami 0. (1 p.m. ET, ESPN 360)

No. 15 Penn State at Illinois: The Fighting Illini are in desperate need of a victory and they draw the unfortunate task of trying to get one against a Nittany Lion team scratched raw from last week’s loss to Iowa. We still don’t really know how good Penn State is this season, and this is the team’s first road test of the season. There have been a couple of notable injuries on the defensive side of the ball for the Lions, but they doesn’t explain the inconsistent play of veteran quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. If they don’t get untracked, Penn State is going to continue to struggle. Still, the Illinois team that played Ohio State last week looked like a listless bunch that had little interest in playing a football game. At least the Nittany Lions still appear to be hungry … Penn State 31, Illinois 14. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)

No. 4 LSU at No. 18 Georgia: While I was looking up stats for some of the other teams in the SEC, I discovered that LSU is dead last in the conference in total offense. Of course, the Tigers could get well this week since the Bulldogs are next-to-last in total defense. Helping make up for their relative lack of defense has been the play of quarterback Joe Cox and sophomore receiver A.J. Green, who leads the SEC with 25 catches for 428 yards and four TDs. You might be tempted to take the Tigers, who have the better defense. But UGA has practically owned SEC West opponents since Mark Richt arrived in Athens. Therefore … Georgia 24, LSU 20. (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

No. 12 Houston at UTEP: The Cougars are quickly grabbing a lot of attention this season. Think of how much more they could grab if their games were televised, especially this one which figures to be a shootout. These two teams have combined for 144 points in their last two meetings, both Houston victories that have been decided by less than a touchdown. The Miners have the home edge in this series, and the Cougars should be on upset alert if they don’t have their heads in the game. But you would think QB Case Keenum (1,160 yards and eight TD passes already) and the nation’s No. 2 offensive team would be enough against a UTEP defense that ranks 109th nationally … Houston 41, UTEP 17. (9:05 p.m. ET, No TV)

No. 9 Ohio State at Indiana: Almost no one is giving the Hoosiers any chance in this game, and that seems reasonable since OSU is working on a 14-game winning streak in the series. But those of you who have been paying attention know this is no ordinary Indiana team. The defense is playing better and the offense can put some points on the board. That said, the Buckeyes are clearly the more talented team. If they can continue the momentum on defense that has carried them the last couple of weeks, the final score should be comfortable enough. Can they record a third straight shutout? Possible but unlikely … Ohio State 34, Indiana 10. (7 p.m. ET, BTN)

Here are the spreads for the above games: Michigan (+3½) at Michigan State; Alabama (-15) at Kentucky; Cincinnati (-28½) at Miami (Ohio); Penn State (-6½) at Illinois; LSU at Georgia (-2½); Houston (-14½) at UTEP; Ohio State (-17½) at Indiana.

I guess you would want to know that the Buckeyes are 6-1 ATS in their last seven games against the Hoosiers while Indiana is 1-4 ATS in its last five home games against Ohio State. Enjoy the games.

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.

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.

Time For Ohio State To Prove It’s The Best

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

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

Dear Buckeyes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAPPY! HAPPY!

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

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

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

AND FINALLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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