And so another season is nearly upon us.
The shortest and the most intense, the sweetest and the scariest. College football. Back. For us. For them. For everyone!
OK, I just wasn't sure how to start this column, the first of the year about Ohio State football.
This is certainly a unique season, isn't it? Yes, we are only three years removed from the odd 2011 campaign, when the Buckeyes began the year under a cloud of NCAA punishment with an interim coach but remaining aspirations for big things. That year turned out to be the worst in more than 20, too.
We are all a product of our experiences, and remembering how often things were actually on the brink of working out that year can lead to positive feelings about 2014, when only the quarterback is missing and a solid coaching foundation is in place.
If those Buckeyes were that close to winning nine or even 10 games, what should the expectations be for this squad? Well, the reality is it probably doesn't matter. That was then and this is now. They were still expected to win -- and in control of the division with three games left in the season -- and so is this team.
I am a believer the talent level is higher than it has been the past few seasons. The many flameouts of the 2008 and '09 classes set the program back in ways that were often subtle, especially when expectations never change and almost everyone is highly regarded coming out of high school anyway. There are degrees of high regard, but those can be hard to ascertain or remember as things move along, and of course plenty of players outperform their recruiting rankings and many more disappoint for one reason or another.
But the buzz is real for this squad. They just haven't done anything. And really the last two Ohio State teams didn't do much when you get right down to it. Yes, a record winning streak is nice, but the competition was mostly poor. Blame the narrative all you want, but it's largely true.
The 2012 team showed plenty of gumption in the way it went about its business (thanks in large part to some of the last holdovers of the 2008 and '09 recruiting classes), but it was also in close games against some inferior teams. The 2013 team largely avoided those situations, to its credit, but maybe it could have used another test or two along the way to the disappointing end to the season.
Whatever you want to make of the Big Ten Championship Game, the fact is Ohio State battled back from a very poor start to wrest control of the game -- then the Buckeyes completely collapsed. They lost the lead and gave up a put-away score on defense when the other team was just trying to bleed clock, and the offense had no answer after its first rally proved not to be enough.
Ohio State also rallied then gave up the lead in the Orange Bowl, but I am one of those who doesn't put a lot of stock in the results of non-championship games bowls. Of course, if the Buckeyes had defied expectations and taken down Clemson, it would be easier to look at the loss to Michigan State as an aberration, but regardless some change was evidently necessary, especially recalling the near debacle at Michigan.
I have often wondered if one of the problems from last season was a simple mix of messages between the Tressel and Meyer years. Both of Ohio State's past two full-time head coaches are northeast Ohio natives who put a lot of stock in running the ball and playing great defense, but they seem to have a very different approach to motivation and desire a different kind of attitude.
For as much as Ohio State won under Tressel, there was always a little bit of a sense of, 'Nice guys finish last,' in the way of the program. Were they too nice? Was there a swagger missing? Did he do too good a job convincing his players to be well-rounded? Who knows. It's hard to say. I was actually a believer the 2008 class, mostly from out of state and full of confidence from the beginning, was going to bring a needed new attitude to the program, and that was obviously a major miscalculation on my part. Instead, they ruined it. Regardless of how Ohio State landed on its feet with Meyer, that is how things ended with that group. They're fortunate the damage wasn't worse.
But what did Jim Tressel know about managing a swaggering team? It wasn't him. His teams got by on strong, fundamental play, lunch-pale stuff. Play hard, do the right thing and be opportunistic. Hope things work out for the best. They usually did, too, especially in November.
Meyer, meanwhile, wants maximum effort all the time. Take someone down, and it's OK if you let them know about it a little bit as you do it. Go hard or go home. It makes sense if these messages meshed poorly.
I remember some of us who covered the team were curious if Tressel's stressing of the importance of avoiding mistakes served to hold back the team -- or at least some players. Would they would perform better without the fear of failure? Once, Tressel's brother, Dick (who was running backs coach for the Buckeyes), was asked if players could get confused by being told too often they can't make mistakes. He scoffed at that notion. I mean completely ignored it as if nothing could have less merit. His explanation was that they simply knew better than to take the message that way. Some did, I'm sure, but I've never been quite certain he was correct.
So from that standpoint, it would not be surprising if there were some things lost in translation as Tressel's former players became Meyer players, especially with the defensive coordinator being a guy who spent most of his coaching career under Tressel's tutelage. I also wondered last year if co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers had a communication problem with his safeties, who never took to the quarters defense he brought with him from North Carolina, and I suspected neither he nor Fickell had full confidence in the players they had to play such a style. For Fickell, it wasn't something he had coached while learning under Jim Heacock, and for Withers these weren't the same players he had at his previous stop.
Whatever Ohio State was trying to do defensively last season, it wasn't executed. And when the chips were down in 2013, the Buckeyes folded on both sides of the ball.
A lot of time the talk in the offseason is just that. There is always an overriding message that emerges, and this year it is all about effort, togetherness and ignoring mistakes. If players buy into those messages, they will not have a fear of failure that has at times plagued the program since it finally got over the hump and won a national championship in 2002.
Will it work? The natural born talent of the players -- many of whom are new from last season -- will probably be the No. 1 determining factor, but I am curious to find out.
New message, new players, new result?
What we can expect to learn this week: This game against Navy is no average opener. Not by a long shot.
Even before the Braxton Miller injury, I wondered how the Buckeyes would look in this game with so many new parts on offense and a defense breaking in a new style of play. Ohio State should out-talent Navy, but the Midshipmen are no joke. They can execute and shorten a game, reducing the number of chances the offense has to work out any kinks.
I also wonder how the downhill attacking style of play new defensive line coach Larry Johnson is emphasizing will look against the triple option and Navy's cut blocks. Will the Buckeyes play into their hands, or does Ohio State's team speed simply overwhelm the Midshipmen? Time will tell.
Of course for all the emphasis on the new style of play in the secondary, the shift to a more aggressive pass defense opens up the possibility for big players over the top (not that Ohio State was good at preventing these recently anyway). Guess where Navy wants to attack in the passing game? That 2009 game that nearly ended in disaster for Ohio State featured an 85-yard touchdown pass when a safety got too close to the line of scrimmage, for what it's worth. Prior to that, the young Buckeyes had a 15-point lead.
This team is going to be pretty young, too, but that's no precursor to failure, last year's Florida State squad being an example.
It probably does mean there will be more bumps in the road than last year, when it felt like the Buckeyes were on autopilot more often than not. This season is already defined by adversity, but no one seems to have changed their expectations much -- do they ever? How the Buckeyes handle whatever else arises over the next three or four months will determine how it will be remembered.
Let's get started.
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