Bucknotes: Unreasonable Expectations?

Despite losing five first-round NFL draft picks, Ohio State is considered one of the favorites to win the national championship this season. Well, at least in the eyes of the people who create betting lines for a living and put their own money on the line. But are the Buckeyes overrated? Dave Biddle tackles that question and more in this edition of Bucknotes.

On the surface, it sounds a bit ridiculous. A team loses five first-round NFL draft picks, and yet is still expected to contend for college football's national championship.

But Ohio State is not only considered a possible contender, the Buckeyes are touted as one of the odds-on favorites.

Browsing various online sportsbooks, for entertainment (and research) purposes only, OSU is a consensus No. 2 in the country (11-2 odds to win the national title), trailing No. 1 Notre Dame (5-1).

Anyway, why are these rankings relevant? These are the people who are putting their own money on the line.

The Irish and Buckeyes are followed by No. 3 Oklahoma (13-2), No. 4 USC (17-2), No. 5 West Virginia (10-1), No. 6 Texas (12-1), No. 7 Florida (12-1), No. 8 LSU (12-1), No. 9 Michigan (14-1) and No. 10 Miami (15-1).

So is Ohio State overrated? Absolutely not. In a typical year, losing five first-round picks would likely translate into a re-building year. When OSU set the NFL record with 14 draft picks in the spring of 2004, the Buckeyes struggled to an 8-4 record the following season.

So why could this year be different? Well, obviously the most glaring answer is the return of senior Troy Smith, who has the very realistic chance of going down as the best quarterback in OSU history with another strong year. The Buckeyes return nine offensive starters in all, including tailback Antonio Pittman and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.

In addition, there doesn't appear to be any great teams across the country this year. If Notre Dame is the odds-on favorite to win it all, that indicates it is pretty open race. Ohio State beat ND 34-20 in Tempe last year, and I didn't get the impression it was a one-game wonder, despite OSU's losses to the professional ranks. Could there be a rematch this year in Glendale? Fans from both sides would want nothing less.

Oklahoma will also be strong with a healthy Adrien Peterson, and I also like Florida's chances of enjoying a big year. But there doesn't appear to be a team that will cakewalk through the season on its way to the BCS championship game. In fact, I think we might see a pair of one-loss teams meet up for the title this year. And one of them could very well be Ohio State.

I'm sure OSU head coach Jim Tressel would like nothing more than to fly under the radar entering the 2006 season and allow the Irish, Sooners, Gators and others to have all the attention. The 2002 national champion Buckeyes began the season ranked No. 12 in both major polls, then proceeded to win 14 consecutive games.

Tressel has no such luxury this year. Despite breaking in a young defense – including nine new starters – the Buckeyes are expected to be one of the dominant teams in the country. And they are expected to be good from day one. ("Don't forget about those five first-round picks," you can almost hear Tressel say.)

And therein lays the concern for the Buckeyes: There is no grace period with the way the schedule is set up. They better be good from the start or they could be knocked out of the title race a month into the season like last year.

Early road trips to Texas and Iowa for night games will likely determine whether Tressel is able to remain in contention for his sixth national championship, and second at OSU. If the Buckeyes win both of those games, they will be sitting pretty. If they go 1-1, they will still be in it, but would need to run the table the rest of the way and hope no one finishes the regular season undefeated. If they go 0-2 (like the night games with Texas and Penn State last year) you can pack it in and go home… at least from the perspective of winning a national championship.

So can the Buckeyes do it? Of course. They are loaded offensively and the inexperienced defense could pleasantly surprise OSU fans this year. But like any championship team, it will take a lot of luck.

It will be interesting to see where the Buckeyes are ranked in the major preseason polls (AP and Coaches) but it will likely be similar to the Vegas "rankings." Look for OSU to be ranked right around that No. 2 mark.

HAWK SIGNS

Former OSU All-American linebacker (and newlywed) A.J. Hawk signed a six-year, $37.5 million contract with the Green Bay Packers on Friday. The signing bonus was undisclosed at that time. Hawk – the fifth overall pick of the draft – became the fourth of OSU's five first-rounders to ink their rookie deals just in time for training camp.

Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, the 18th pick of the first-round, signed a five-year, $11 million contract (including $7.5 in guarantees) with the Dallas Cowboys. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes – the 25th pick of the first-round, signed a five-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Center Nick Mangold, the 29th pick, inked a five-year deal with the New York Jets. Terms of Holmes' and Mangold's contracts were undisclosed.

That leaves safety Donte Whitner – the 8th pick of the first round by the Buffalo Bills – as the lone unsigned former Buckeye.

BENTLEY ON THE SHELF

When former OSU center LeCharles Bentley signed a six-year, $36 million deal (including $12.5 million in guarantees) with the Cleveland Browns in March, I thought it was the best free agent pickup in the NFL. Not as high-profile as Edgerrin James in Arizona, or Terrell Owens in Dallas, but the best.

Although my allegiance is with the Cincinnati Bengals, it was upsetting to see that Bentley will miss the entire 2006 season with a torn patellar tendon (knee) suffered during the first day of camp. Bentley is/was arguably the best center in pro football. Strong enough to neutralize big nose tackles, nimble enough to pass block, and fast enough to pull. And just as tough as they come.

The Browns are still headed in the right direction. Running back Reuben Droughns is primed for a big year (that's a hint for you fantasy football geeks like me) and the defense will be solid. Charlie Frye might struggle in his first full year as the starter in a tough division, and losing his center won't help matters, but Romeo Crennel has this franchise on the right track. They were a good team by the end of the 2005 season, almost spoiling the Bengals' hopes for a division title.

MEN IN STRIPES (That's in jail and on the gridiron)

As for the Bengals, let me chime in on their ugly offseason. Yes, it's been embarrassing. And yes, they need to do a better job of evaluating character prior to the draft. And yes, I will take this any day of the week over the 4-12 offseasons of years past.

That's right: Just win baby. In college, it's "not just about the ball." But in the NFL, it's all about the W's. Plenty of good men have been fired for going 4-12.

In addition, I'd be much more concerned if the actual star players on the team were getting into trouble. Guys like Carson Palmer (whose knee injury is still my No. 1 concern, despite the positive reports), Chad Johnson, Rudi Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, Deltha O'Neal, Odell Thurman… whoops! OK, scratch that last one.

It reminds me of what OSU went through in the not-too-distant past when Tressel had the faulty reputation of not being tough enough on his players. Too many of them were getting into trouble off the field and Tressel's discipline was called into question. It was a one-year aberration and I think the same will prove to be true with the Bengals. Well, maybe after they cut Chris Henry.

O-LINE CHATTER

I leave you with some thoughts on Ohio State's 2006 offensive line.

When Doug Datish was initially slotted as the starting center during the spring (even though he missed the spring with a shoulder injury) I thought it looked like a temporary move. But as time passed and Jim Cordle didn't lock down the job, it became clear that Datish would likely start as his third position in as many years.

Playing Datish at center is good for OSU for a few reasons. First, and most-importantly, it allows the Buckeyes to get their five best linemen on the field together. From left to right, they are Alex Boone, Steve Rehring, Datish, T.J. Downing and Kirk Barton. All five of which are likely headed for NFL careers at some point.

Also, Datish is the most-experienced out of the group. He and Downing will each be entering their third seasons as starters (Downing cracked the starting lineup around midseason in 2004) and Datish will have no trouble making the line calls. He won't be as polished as Mangold, but it won't be a huge drop-off.

And credit Datish for his attitude. During winter conditioning I asked him where he thought he would play this year and he said, "I don't know. They'll say ‘Doug go here' and that's where I'll go."

As a fifth-year senior it would be easy for him to say that he's comfortable at guard, or comfortable at tackle, but Datish is a team player and is a major reason OSU could have the best line in the Big Ten this season.

You also have to like what the other four bring to the table, especially the right side with Downing and Barton. The mammoth left side with Boone and Rehring (each 6-8, 330) will also be opening up plenty of running lanes for Pittman and Chris Wells.

And if injuries pop up, sophomore Jon Skinner could be one of the most valuable players on the team. He can play all five spots, and can play them well. It's also nice having a fifth-year senior with starting experience in Tim Schafer off the pine.


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