From 2001-2004, Ohio State never finished higher than 65th in the country in total offense. In fact, the Buckeyes fared worse each year statistically (65th in 2001, 70th in 2002, 93rd in 2003, 98th in 2004).
The 2005 season started off much in the same way. The Buckeyes were ranked in the bottom-half of the country in total offense and the calls for Tressel to hire an offensive coordinator from the outside were getting louder.
However, led quarterback Troy Smith and tailback Antonio Pittman, the Buckeyes transformed themselves into an explosive offense for the second half of the season. Ohio State scored 40 or more points in four consecutive games for the first time since 1995.
And the Buckeyes weren't just explosive, they were balanced. If defenses wanted to load up the box to prevent the run (the recipe to stop OSU from 2001-04), OSU was able to move the ball through the air. If teams gave too much respect to OSU's talented receivers, the Buckeyes were content to pound Pittman behind their physical offensive line.
"We needed to find our identity," junior wide receiver Roy Hall said. "We weren't running too well. Once ‘Tone Pittman started running the ball well and we started getting him the ball, defenses had to be honest. They couldn't lock in on our receivers. Then once they started bringing guys into the box, we could throw over the top of them."
Ohio State closed the regular season ranked 37th in the country in total offense (it has since dropped to 38th) with an average of 404.6 yards per game.
The Buckeyes are 30th nationally in rushing offense (189.5 ypg), 68th in passing offense (215.1 ypg) and 27th in scoring offense (32.5 ppg).
It has been by far the best offense of the Tressel era.
But can the Buckeyes keep it going in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame?
The Fighting Irish are known more for their offense this year, and with good reason. Statistically, their defense isn't bad, but it's no better than average on a national scale. Teams have been able to move the ball on the Irish this season.
Notre Dame is ranked 63rd in the country in total defense, allowing 376.9 yards per game. The Irish are ranked 26th in the country in rushing defense (119.4 ypg), 97th in passing defense (257.5 ypg) and 45th in scoring defense (23.6 ppg).
Add in the fact that Ohio State played a more difficult schedule and the numbers definitely favor the Buckeyes in this match-up.
The 6-1, 215-pound Smith closed the regular season with 1,940 passing yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He had a completion percentage of 62.2 percent and his quarterback efficiency rating of 158.45 was the second-highest all-time for an OSU quarterback, behind Bobby Hoying in 1995 (163.43).
Smith also damage on the ground with 545 rushing yards (4.4 per carry) and 11 touchdowns.
"Good year, good year, but I can get a lot better and we can get a lot better as an offense," Smith said. "We're still not where we want to be, not even close. We just need to keep working."
Smith has seen the rankings for Notre Dame's defense, but he knows the Fighting Irish will come ready to play.
"They're good. They're a good defense," Smith said. "Strong, they've got great speed. Their corners and their secondary have good speed. Their linebackers are physical; they can run also. Their defensive line does a lot of slanting and moving, so they've got some athleticism in the front four guys. All around, they're a pretty good team." Notre Dame's leading tackler is senior outside linebacker Brandon Hoyte (6-0, 236). He has 82 tackles (47 solo), 15.5 tackles-for-loss and six sacks.
Senior middle linebacker Corey Mays (6-1, 234) is second on the team with 68 tackles (38 solo), 10.5 tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
The secondary is led by senior cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden (5-11, 197) and Mike Richardson (5-11, 193). Woodon has 67 tackles (56 solo) and two interceptions, and Richardson has 62 tackles (47 solo) and three picks.
Ohio State will have a big size advantage on the line. The Buckeyes' offensive line averages 6-5, 307 pounds. Notre Dame's defensive line averages 6-3, 266 pounds.
But one OSU offensive lineman warns that ND's defensive line can hold its own.
"I think they're all strong players," left tackle Doug Datish said. "They're quick, they do a lot of movement and they're really effective with their movement. And when they play straight, they're effective with that too. They have a good pass rush and good run-stopping ability. It's going to be a big challenge for us."
Although it goes against the strength of Notre Dame's 4-3 defense, conventional wisdom says Ohio State will come out and try and establish a running game early. That translates into a steady diet of Pittman.
The 5-11, 200-pound sophomore had a huge regular season with 1,195 rushing yards (5.4 per carry) and six touchdowns. He has excellent quickness and vision, and this year proved he could be a physical runner as well.
"Playing Notre Dame, they're a great team with great tradition, and we're a great team with great tradition," Pittman said. "Two of the biggest programs in college football history going head to head for the fifth time ever. I'm happy to be a part of it. Coming to Ohio State, we didn't think we'd get a chance to play Notre Dame, but we're getting that opportunity. We're just going to try and play Ohio State football."
And that could mean a smash-mouth running game. But with Notre Dame ranked near the bottom of the country in passing defense, the Buckeyes could choose to come out with an aerial attack.
The weapons are there for the Buckeyes. Junior wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who will likely be playing in his final collegiate game, closed the regular season with 48 receptions for 853 yards (17.8 ypc) and 10 touchdowns.
Sophomore Ted Ginn Jr. had a solid year offensively with 43 receptions for 636 yards (14.8 ypc) and three touchdowns.
And sophomore Anthony Gonzalez stepped up with a fine year in the No. 3 receiver role. He finished the regular season with 27 catches for 358 yards and three scores. His 26-yard leaping reception on the game-winning drive at Michigan will be replayed for years by OSU fans.
Gonzalez knows that Notre Dame has given up a lot of passing yards this year, but he doesn't put too much stock in the numbers.
"Statistics can be deceiving," Gonzalez said. "You look at the teams they played, they played a lot of Pac 10 teams and they throw the ball around a lot. So, statistics can be deceiving. I do feel that they have good athletes. Whether they give up yards in the passing game, it's not because of their athletes. They certainly have good athletes."
Gonzalez says lining up against the Irish will feel like playing a Big Ten game.
"They're a Midwest team and they play kind of a Big Ten brand of football, in my opinion," he said. "I think they're fast, they're physical. They'll come up and smack you around a little bit, which is nothing big, because that's what we're used to. Those games are fun.
"I really feel that their defensive backs are good. Athletically, their sound athletes. You can tell that they're well-coached and they run their coverages well. That will be a good match-up."
Ginn also knows you can throw out the rankings. Notre Dame's defense improved throughout the season and the Irish are determined to play their best game of the season in Tempe.
"They're a pretty good defense," Ginn said. "They played a tough ballgame against USC and some other games. They're going to come out and play hard and we've got to take care of our business."
And that means taking care of the ball and putting up a lot of points on the board. The pressure is on Smith to have a big game and his teammates seem confident that he will.
"With Troy now, you just expect it," Gonzalez said. "Not that we didn't before, but I'd almost be shocked if he doesn't have a big game. Everything just clicked for him the second half of the season."
Ginn, who is close friends with Smith, credits extra film study for Smith's improvement and success.
"Troy's always been a leader. He'll always be a leader," Ginn said. "Troy sat down, watched film and started to see more things from a defensive standpoint. He knew where he wanted to go, he just wanted to make sure everybody who was in that huddle was on the right page. He wants to do everything right."
There's no question that Ohio State fell short of its goals this year. The Buckeyes wanted to be outright Big Ten champions and national champions. But winning the co-Big Ten title and playing Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl is the next best thing.
"Yeah, without a doubt," Pittman said. "Without a doubt it is."