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A Somewhat Obligatory Assessment Of: Ohio State

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By popular demand... - - -

The least you should know about Ohio State... What's Changed: I spent all of last fall up to his Heisman-sealing brilliance against Michigan trying to keep Troy Smith in perspective - any and all comparisonstoVince Young were absurd from the beginning for a fundamentally within-the-offense manager who neither looked nor played like Young and had nowhere near VY's unprecedented junior numbers - but the Jason White-like freefall in Smith's status post-mythical championship now has me thinking a defense is in order of Sir Troy's value since he became the full-time starter midway through 2004:
2006 Record
12-1 (8-0 Big Ten, Champions)
Past Five Years
52-9 (33-7 Big Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (6 Offense, 6 Defense)
Best Player
James Laurinaitis was deemed by a certain subset of voters to be the best defensive player in America last year based on high tackle totals and immediately gushing praise from announcers seeking a new annointee on a marquee defense, but though Lil Animal did an admirable job as a roving clean-up man, OSU’s tremendous success (7.8 points per game through the first eleven) began with pressure and penetration on the front four. A lot of that is gone with Quinn Pitcock, but Vernon Gholston led the team in sacks and tackles for loss and, like all good linemen, had an impact far beyond the numbers in his ability to force bad throws, draw double teams and redirect running backs into the arms of, say, James Laurinaitis. Athletically, Gholston is this year’s platonic ideal of unblockable size, quickness, power and, as shown at right, old fashioned physique.
Bizarre Tradition
Everything here revolves around playing Michigan, and though the gold pants is a unique memento for UM-OSU winners to treasure the rest of their lives, it can’t match this blog’s sentiment for nubile November shirtlessness, on display at the end of every "Michigan Week" in the campus’ Mirror Lake:

The most popular sentiment in that clip, for the cubicle-bound without the benefit of sound, is evolving a mute-friendly (though equally NSFW) tradition of its own, which also earns the blog’s hearty endorsement.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
If you’d like to know the very specific, detailed criteria OSU uses to issue its helmet-clogging Buckeye stickers, well, you are given instructions usually reserved for Michiganders regarding the performance of certain improbable acts upon yourself, unless you’re willing to plunk down $50 for a "sideline pass" to We know Ted Ginn Jr. led the team in buckeyes last year for mostly team-centric accomplishments, but that’s about it, as far as I can find. Certainly some very devoted Ohians not beholden to the loyalties of coachtressel membership dues are sitting on at least a speculative list in a message board trove somewhere, if they’re feeling generous about it, but hell if I’m getting near that wormhole.
OSU Offense Under Jim Tressel, Before/After Troy
B.T. (2001-04) A.T. (2004-06)
Pass Yds. 186.3 209.0
Comp. % 55.7 63.6
TD/INT 51/36 (1.4:1) 56/14 (4:1)
Total Off. 345.3 393.7
Scoring 29.0 32.7
vs. Big Ten 23.3 34.1
40-pt. Games 4 8
vs. Big Ten 1 8
Record 35-10 (.777) 27-4 (.871)

All of the figures in the right hand column are skewed downward by the inclusion of Smith's maturation period over the second half of `04, especially passing yards, but the general trend is obvious: Ohio State prior to Smith was a low octane team that tended to clam up and rely on its defense in big games, where the offense under Smith was at its most prolific on the biggest stages (until, of course, the very biggest); he had three nearly flawless games against Michigan and was equally ablaze at Texas last year and in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

Etc. etc. The point here is to get an idea of the Buckeye offense sans Smith, who obviously had such an impact on the status quo in both style and competence, and the general concept is there in the left column - the freewheelin', minimum-protection shotgun days on dazzling display against Texas and Michigan give way to a quarterback actually manufactured from sections of dense marble slab (Todd Boeckman or, less likely, Rob Schoenhoft) who will be given the task of handing off behind a wall of veteran blockers and making fast, easy throws that require no elusive creativity in the pocket in the hopes he'll be a stronger-armed Craig Krenzel (yay!) rather than a slightly less-hyped Justin Zwick (boo!). This might be different if either Ted Ginn or Anthony Gonzalez had returned to lend some stability to the receiving corps, but non-fraidy cat defenses won't be yielding such respectful cushions to Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, or to the vision of Boeckman lumbering into the open field with the secondary's back turned. They'll be crowding the box, hoping to match up against OSU's offensive line and sending the house to force the statuesque one(s) to do something about it. Smith and his blazing wideouts did, repeatedly, so the dogs limped back quickly into their bend-don't-break zones, but they'll be back. They always come back, until driven away again.

What's the Same: The transfer of responsibility to the young induces universal handwringing in all cultures and walks of life, inducing vision quests, rites of passage, internships, etc., but there aren't many better feelings in any kind of establishment than that of the kids made good. So it is with the OSU, where nine departing starters - like, awesome starters, A.J. Hawk, Ashton Youboty, and so on - turned the defensive keys over a set of cocky noobs who could have trashed the place, but instead left it with a suspiciously lemon-y scent. Almost...too clean. And so, after leadig the nation in scoring defense through the first three months, the other shoe dropped like a grenade against Michigan and Florida: where the Buckeyes were allowing barely a touchdown per game, the Wolverines and Gators scored 39 and 41; where it had induced 27 turnovers and never finished on the negative side of that margin since the opener, giveaways dried up enitrely. After a year of dominance, it suddenly looked like a young defense for the first time, and at the worst possible time, bailed out by the offense against Michigan but unable to overcome the betrayal from that side in the championship.

They're not kids anymore, though, at least not in the back seven, where all the first-year sophomore starters are juniors now (none of the six returning starters across the defense are seniors; not accounting for early departure, at least on the front line and most of the two-deep will be back in '08) and presumably on more solid footing with the year under their belt.

There's a precedent for Todd Boeckman's role in the offense, but the line is a fine one.
If that's not the case in the handful of games it will matter, the most likely culprit will be the absence of Quinn Pitcock in the middle of the line - most of the time, the Buckeyes were so far ahead they just got after the quarterback and created chaos in predictable passing situations, but when there was an issue, it was clearly with stopping the run (Northern Illinois, Texas, Iowa, Bowling Green, Illinois and Michigan averaged around four and a half per carry; Florida was effective on the ground until late in the bowl game), something that didn't really bite them until the last two, competitive games but that could be a bigger issue without its best run-stuffer inside and especially without an offense as likely to put the opponent so quickly into must-pass holes.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: The offense had a chance to go in an entirely different direction with Antonio Henton, scrambler/Troy Smith clone, in the quarterback mix, and technically still does, as Tressel didn't officially lock down middle-of-the-road competence (Boeckman) over  either of the potential extremes (speed in Henton, arm strength in Schoenhoft). But Henton was alternately exciting and impatient in the spring game, a much less preferable combination under the circumstances than "unusually old and not interception-prone." In reality, all three of them had their ugly moments, though Boeckman's were mostly Mike Conley's fault.

The "mover" of the spring may have been Maurice Wells, cast off with the arrival of Chris Wells last fall and white hot recruit Brandon Saine this fall, who shunned a perfectly understandable transfer and ran his way back into the rotation with his namesake sitting the drills out. No rest for the weary defenses bidding a fond farewell to Antonio Pittman, the one of the big-name offensive departures OSU is in a position not to miss.

Ohio State on YouTube: Michigan and Ohio State is about passion, and intensity, and pride, and commitment to excellence. And, as I'm demonstrating over and over again here, somebody flashing their lily white Midwestern ass:

Without questioning the burning fires of hatred in the souls of Auburn-Alabama partisans, or in those of other Southern rivalries, I can say confidently that their bets don't end that way. In death, occasionally, but never in a bikini.

See Also: Tressel drops his usual patronizing tone to respond to the championship blowout, and to early bird fans in better times ... The very sobering saga of Maurice Clarett (who is indeed strange) ... Meet Roy Hall ... And you didn't think you could get away without seeing this, did you?

Conventional Wisdom: It seems like a bit of a snub given the last couple years that no one has OSU among the top two in the league, where Michigan is a mainstay along with Penn State or, more often, Wisconsin. But where the universal assessment is "rebuilding," nobody drops the Buckeyes any lower than fourth (Phil Steele and Atlhon still have them third in the Big Ten, and in the top 15 nationally), or outside of the top 20. New Year's plans should be made for another SEC date (whee!) in either the Outback or Citrus Capital One bowl.

Not back to the drawing board, exactly, but to the old playbook, the one that doesn't include "Troy Smith runs around and does something awesome."
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Best-Case: The first eight games could be a breeze, leaving a three-game run in the last four at Penn State and Michigan and against Wisconsin in Columbus as the arbiter of fortune or doom. Knee-jerk respect for OSU's consistency says undefeated is a possibility in that scenario, but this isn't in the zip code of the offense of the last two years (I don't think it's quite on the level of the ridiculous defenses of 2002-03 and 2005, either, though it's probably closer) and there's at least one loss in that triumverate. Depending on how the tiebreaker schedule falls, there's no reason not to have another Big Ten championship/BCS bid in the sights, though another mythical championship appearance seems off the radar.

Worst-Case: Even the pessimist in me is not willing to pull the trigger on an upset at Washington, but someone among the midseason run of Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan State could present a problem, especially one of the two with an unpredictable new coach buzz. A struggling, low-octane offense could go down in flames in any of those games, a la at Northwestern in 2004, but it's hard to conceive OSU being worse than 7-1 going into the last four games, or worse than 8-4 coming out of them (much as I think Illinois will be vastly improved, and as close as it played the Buckeyes last year, the Illini aren't winning in Columbus).  There are less comforting consolations in rebuilding years than the Alamo Bowl.

Non-Binding Forecast: I'm not very enthusiastic about this team, in relative terms, because it looks much closer on paper to the 2004 Alamo Bowl team than any of the BCS teams around it - an OSU fan might argue it looks like the 2002 championship team, but the quarterback situation is just hoping for competence and has a chance to become a liability, and the offense one-dimensional, while the defense might have problems against upper echelon running games. There are no teams on the schedule, though, in any position to exploit the issues until nine games in, at which point they may or not still be issues. This strikes me as a three-loss team that could wind up in the Alamo again, but the schedule makes 8-0 all but inevitable and out of Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan down the stretch, OSU has to get the benefit of the doubt in one of them, most likely the Badgers at home. So while I don't think this is a BCS contender with all the lost firepower on offense, OSU could easily win ten and be in one of the Florida bowls in January.

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Previous assessments, absurd, reasonable and otherwise:

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International
June 27: Oregon State July 2: Michigan July 6: Washington July 9: Boise State
July 11: Georgia Tech July 12: South Carolina