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The Contenders: Ohio State

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Making the case for Number One.

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This was supposed to be the Year of Dreams even before last year’s run, before potential liability Todd Boeckman led the conference in efficiency and every other passing stat that matters, and before Terrelle Pryor, just based on the sheer amount of experienced talent across the board: the offense loses a tackle and a fullback, the defense loses an end (an early departure, at that) and a linebacker. That’s all. This team would be in everybody’s top three if it went 9-4 last year, like it was supposed to, instead of wiping out almost everybody and backing into another championship game.


Despite the crowded field of potential Number Ones this year, based on those credentials, I think OSU would be a near-unanimous favorite if it had won either of its last two season finales. The hesitancy is mainly about finishing.


Bow Down. On paper, this is pretty easily Jim Tressel’s best team, particularly in two very Tressel-esque ways:


1. The defense – fifth in the nation in scoring and total D in 2005, fifth again in scoring D and top 15 in every major category in 2006 – led the nation in scoring and total defense and was in the top eight in every category last year, including sacks and tackles for loss; it was even first in passing yards allowed, the one area that’s usually skewed for good teams that face a lot of teams trying to throw their way out of a hole. Ten starters back: the entire secondary, and their backups, and two all-America-quality linebackers. 


2.  Nobody yet has stopped any significant dose of Beanie Wells since about midway through his freshman year, and that includes LSU: even taking away his 65-yard touchdown run on the first drive (totally never happened), he averaged 4.2 on 19 carries for the rest of the game. He delivered a series of knockout blows when the Buckeyes fell behind in the fourth quarter against Wisconsin and broke long, demoralizing runs two years in a row to beat Michigan. The only games he didn’t dominate last year were the auto wins he could afford to leave early. He has four returning starters on the line, three of them (the left side and the center) leading the way for the third straight year. 


We're going to try something a little different here. right for a change.
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Seriously: everybody is compelled to mention him, but unless he shows up as a fully-formed Vince Young before he even gets his first buckeye (or at least late 2004 Vince), Pryor is a complete afterthought for now.


Bust Out. There’s that reason everyone is compelled to throw Pryor’s name into the mix out of the gate: Boeckman, for his impressive efficiency, didn’t win much confidence last year, especially in a few tough spots late in the year. When OSU fell behind against Wisconsin and found itself in a no-scoring slog at Michigan two weeks later, it turned to Wells, who delivered on both occasions with minimal help from the passing game. When the Buckeyes did call on Boeckman against Illinois and LSU, he committed a pair of critical second half turnovers in the former game and threw two more picks in the championship, besides looking indecisive and incapable of challenging the Tigers’ man coverage downfield. He threw a lot of interceptions (14) and had four multi-INT games, including low-pressure walks over Akron and Purdue.


Everyone will concede that Boeckman is ‘solid’ or ‘adequate,’ but that may only be with the luxury of the most consistent, attention-consuming power running game in the country.


Truth in Blasphemy.  For the Big Ten, and tradition, and regional pride, and another year of Ohio’s birds chirping, flowers blooming, babies laughing, etc., OSU still has to beat Michigan on Nov. 22. But this is about getting back to the mythical championship, and where national ambitions are concerned, beating Michigan is already necessary – if for no other reason than it’s the last game of the season, and therefore a loss that can’t be overcome with time in the polls – and, for once, completely expected, as the Wolverines’ stock during the coaching transition there is temporarily at the lowest it’s been (or probably will be again) in decades. From a realpolitik perspective of the BCS, and its computers which know nothing of petty human emotions, Michigan is a fringe team, likely no more valuable a victory this year than Illinois or Wisconsin; just a means to an end. 


But by any reasonable standard, as far as it can be predicted, the only thing standing between OSU and the championship game in Miami is the Sept. 13 date with USC. As I’ve suggested a couple times before, the stakes of a top five, intersectional showdown and the lingering images of the last two championship games make that game probably more important than any single game has been for any single team in years. I don’t think Ohio State can overcome any loss there; a bad loss, when Michigan is down and Illinois, Wisconsin and Penn State are just hanging out at the fringes of the polls and USC has already shed rivers of Big Ten blood in the last two Rose Bowls in atonement for the sins of its own weird losses and Lindy’s magazine is calling the entire Big Ten "Charmin soft," would be debilitating in a way no other inidividual defeat would be for any of the other contenders. Especially in September. 


Notre Dame’s demise meant the Big Ten had zero impressive non-conference wins last year, and another fiasco in L.A. is just another excuse to write off the entire league, particularly its eventual champion. Which will be Ohio State, big game choker. 


Of the seven mainstream polls I’ve seen at this point, there’s not one yet that ranks USC ahead of OSU, which means either the Buckeyes are the favorite in the Coliseum or no one has any faith in the Trojans to drop their schizo act against the middle dwellers of their own conference. By all means, if you think the Buckeyes have the goods to overwhelm the Trojans’ noobed-out offensive line and pound Beanie Wells through the slugfest of the century, in the stadium where SC has lost once in the last six years, they should be your Number One. I notice most of the early ballots still have the Buckeyes at No. 2, though – all but CBS Sportsline and College Football News, which opened with OSU on top – since the projected Georgia-Florida winner (usually Georgia) is by far the popular kid of the process so far.