Babb: 10 Reasons Why OSU Will Not Win In 2006

The Buckeyes are No. 1, so naturally people are talking national championship. But do they have what it takes? Charles Babb gives his opinions on both the "yes" and "no" sides of the argument in a two-part series. In today's segment, Charles gets the negative out of the way first...

Ten Reasons Ohio State Will NOT Win the National Championship

Pardon the skeptic.  Really, pardon the skeptics, the cynics, and those who are not into Cinderella stories.  Ohio State has been anointed as the top team in the nation to start the 2006 season, but the likelihood they maintain that distinction through the end of the season is just a bit better than Iran welcoming Salman Rushdie back and Tehran officials giving him a key to the city.

Why?

I'll give you ten reasons.

Leadership gap

How do you replace a leader?  Even more important, how do you replace a great leader?

In war, one of the primary objectives is to take out the generals of an opposing force.  If you can neutralize those in charge and then can take out the commanders on the field of battle itself – you are almost assured of victory.  The only way you still lose is if the opposing force is simply so numerous and has a strategic advantage of such extreme measure that it cannot be countered.

Ohio State lost a plethora of leaders from its 2005 squad.  They showed up all over the NFL draft board and included Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, Rob Sims, A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Donte Whitner, Nate Salley, Ashton Youboty, Tyler Everett, Mike Kudla, and Anthony Schlegel – among others. 

Each of these players was capable of being a team leader. 

Yes, others have stepped up, but who among the Ohio State defense is a first round pick in the upcoming draft?  Perhaps David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock might qualify, but these two are in the front of the action.  They are not able to command their troops and place them in the correct position.  Who will lead the linebackers?  Who will lead the secondary?

It takes time to develop leadership.  Players like Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel had put on a physical display for years before they assumed the roles they did in 2005.  The current group of linebackers is led by James Laurinaitis, who started two games in 2005, and both of those were due to Carpenter's broken leg and despite playing in all 12 games logged just 9 tackles.  For perspective, Carpenter had a tackle on the first play of his career and Hawk (as a freshman) logged 26 tackles, including 5 tackles and an interception in his first career start – against Penn State.   Mike Doss was already a two time All American before he was named captain in 2002, but the 2006 secondary is reportedly being led by Malcolm Jenkins, a true sophomore who started due to Tyler Everett's injuries in 2005. 

Other than Troy Smith, this team has a leadership vacuum from their tremendous losses in 2005, and while Smith is a tremendous leader he can't play every position and make every play.  The loss of leadership will be felt and probably sooner than later.

Coaching Health Issues and the Loss of Strength and Conditioning Coach Alan Johnson.

Clearly the Fates were not spinning a favorable future for the Buckeyes this spring and summer.  While everyone was apparently wiping their brow in relief the staff had not been raided once again, it was time for breaking out the Rolaids; Jim Bollman and Joe Daniels were sidelined with health issues and key strength and conditioning coach Alan Johnson resigned.

Bollman suffered chest pains and underwent heart surgery on May 27.  While the surgery went well, it still interrupted preseason preparation, recruiting, and even staff cohesion.  Stories abounded from Buckeye players who went over to visit him.

Projected starter Tim Schafer said, "We all went over together to his house and checked on him and saw how he was doing to try to get him to feel better.  He tells us that his wife has been watching his diet really well for him so he thanks her for that, I guess."

While Bollman may or may not actually thank his wife for helping him stick to the fatless, flavorless diet of a person rehabilitating from heart surgery, from all reports he is progressing well with his rehabilitation.  Indications are, as a heart patient recovers they actually regain strength they haven't had in years prior due to the now normalized blood flow.

Currently all eyes are on Daniels though as he not only suffered a mild heart attack but was also diagnosed with cancer (on June 20).  The situation is serious enough that Ohio State appealed to the NCAA for a waiver if need be so the coach can be replaced if his strength is sapped by the ordeal of treatment and working full time.  Daniels' health appears to be holding for now, but it is not a given that his condition will not worsen.

Finally, the loss of coach Johnson isn't something to simply be glossed over and ignored.  He may not seem to have been critical to the success experienced by Ohio State since Tressel took the reins, but appearances can be deceiving.  For the last five years, injuries have been down for the Buckeyes, and they physically peaked in November while other teams wore down, stumbled, and fell flat on their face.  You rarely saw any Ohio State starters winded with their hands on their hips.  The difference was especially telling in their annual tilt with Michigan; no true Buckeye fan is likely to forget Antonio Pittman or Maurice Hall scampering into the end zone for late scores over a tired Wolverine defense.  Scarlet and Gray legions will forever remember Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez, and Ted Ginn, Jr. flashing by thundering (and plodding) herds of Maize and Blue defenders like bolts of lightning.

Simply assuming new strength and conditioning coach Eric Lichter will be as accomplished or successful is dangerous.  Preparing young men for a single day of draft tests and preparing young men for a grinding three month schedule with three hour games are worlds apart.

Inconsistency by Ted Ginn, Jr. and the Loss of Santonio Holmes

Three years ago, Buckeyes were convinced the loss of Michael Jenkins would not be felt nearly so greatly because of their new superstar, Holmes.  Holmes, they said, would be another Terry Glenn in 2004, torching defenses on his way to a thousand yard season.  In the first half of the season they were right; Holmes put on a show, but then he discovered what it was like to be the victim of the dreaded double team.  It was as fun as a root canal at the local dentist and about as painful.  His body took a beating, and by November he wasn't the same receiver.

Fast forward to 2006 and Holmes (who took the pressure off of Ginn and Gonzalez) is now in the NFL.  This means trouble for his two compadres who will now garner more attention than a case of Godiva at a Weight Watcher's convention.  How they will handle the assignment is not yet known, but what is on tape for all to see is Ginn's sometimes inconsistent ball skills and route running.

For all that many wanted to draw and quarter the offensive coaches at Ohio State in 2004 and 2005 for not getting the football in Ginn's hands more often; the problem did not lie with them but with their speedy wideout and return specialist.  Ginn, a defensive back in high school, was frequently found where he was not supposed to be on the field…and not so frequently found where he was supposed to be.  With his sometimes sloppy route running, Texas Longhorns defensive backs scoffed at the idea he was a great receiver though they clearly respected Holmes.  Ginn did little to disprove their assertions as Texas won the game and largely neutralized him.  Worse, he was prone to fumbling the football on kickoff and punt returns and almost cost his team the game against Michigan. 

The question is – which Ginn will show up for the Buckeyes in big games in 2006?  Will it be the new and improved version that has been touted all spring and summer by teammates and coaches?  Will it be the player who plays to his full potential and makes adult males across the nation suffer a man crush for his abilities?  Will it be the wideout who was more open than the barn door against Northern Illinois?  Or, will it be the Ginn who drops punts because he is thinking about where he will go with the football?  Will it be the Ginn who squanders opportunities and leaves his inexperienced defensive teammates in a no-win situation?  Will it be the Ginn who allows himself to be taken out of the football game by a physical defensive back?

Transfers and Off-Season Personnel Losses. 

Just when it appeared several key players would (or at least should) finally step up and be ready to contribute to the Ohio State team in 2006, they transferred or left school.  Granted, there are transfers and those with grade problems every season, but normally there isn't a mass exodus.  This off-season brought a flood to the point where one began to wonder if the last one out the door would turn out the lights.

First is the case of Sian Cotton.  If there has been a more physically gifted defensive tackle at Ohio State in the Tressel era, I haven't seen him.  Cotton had first round pick written all over every inch of his mammoth body.  He could plug the run or rush the passer with ease.  The problem is he underachieved.  He remains the only player I have personally seen defy the Ohio State coaches during a practice, and finally, with the depth at defensive tackle in need of his presence, he took his marbles and went elsewhere.

Chad Hoobler is also a loss for this team.  When he showed up on the scene, he looked like the middle linebacker of the future for Ohio State.  Then, somewhere along the way, the plan went awry.  An underachieving 2005 left lingering questions; fans (and undoubtedly coaches) were disappointed to see him passed by virtually every player on the depth chart – many of whom were younger and had had less time to learn the defense.  Finally, when the coaches requested he change positions to help the team, he transferred.  What started out as a bang with a bright career ended with a fizzle and not a sizzle.

Then there are Marcel Frost and Erik Haw, still teammates but now at Jackson State instead of Ohio State.  These two also had tremendous potential (and still do).  Frost, his high school coach said, could do things that were simply not natural for a man his size.  Indeed, his speed at the tight end position had the potential to change games.  Lined up against many linebackers, he could beat them to the football and then smash into small defensive backs in the secondary for chunks of yardage.  Haw too was a physical freak with a body almost the size as Chris Wells but the speed of Maurice Wells.  He languished on the bench at Ohio State, and instead of gutting it out and forcing his way to the top of the depth chart, opted to transfer.  His loss would have been more critical in 2005 with only Pittman and Maurice Wells carrying the ball in front of him but even so – he represents one less weapon for the Ohio State team.

Nor does this touch the others.  Michael Roberts, a defensive back who might have contributed in a young secondary, left for Indiana State.  Sirjo Welch, a one time special teams demon deeply missed in 2005, is no longer playing football for the Buckeyes.  Brandon Maupin, another defensive tackle with talent, like Welch, is no longer on the team.  Devin Jordan, Curt Lukens, and Mike D'Andrea have all been forced to leave their playing days behind due to injuries.

Taken individually, none of these players are key to winning a title.  Taken as a whole, their departure hurts the Buckeyes in key positions.  Frost, Cotton, D'Andrea, and Haw in particular might have come on down the stretch to put this team over the top like a Kenny Peterson/David Thompson or Maurice Hall or Mangold/Sims.

Nor is it just the loss of talent.

Redshirt senior Norman admits, "I think for us, we are always sad to see guys go because we are family, and it is like a brother leaving.  Any time a member of your family leaves it is disappointing you feel bad for them. You run your heart out to them and would do anything you could to help them, but there is that fine line of you have to get back to business and back to work.  I think when something like that happens you lend your hand out to the guy who is leaving and say, ‘Hey, if there is anything we can do we would love to help you.'  Stay in touch with them but then get back to work.  We have 12 teams on the schedule that are coming after us.  It will be a challenge every week."

It will now, arguably, be an even bigger challenge.

Pressure and Rankings

When asked about the lofty start of being proclaimed number one before the first games have even been played, head coach Jim Tressel said, "Really, at the beginning I don't know what it can do for you.  There is a target (already) on our chest when the silver helmets come out there."

Players like it and coaches admit it is flattering, but the reality is – most fans hope their team is named No. 2 or No. 3 to start the season.  Being number one is tantamount to Kevin Costner's ride to start the movie, Dances with Wolves.  It is not simply everyone is shooting at you as normal for an Ohio State or USC or Texas.  Other teams gun for you as if their season depended on it. 

No team in Columbus has ever started and ended No. 1.  On every previous attempt, the story ends with heartbreak.  The two most painful are arguably 1969 and 1998.  I could rehash the details, but honestly – why?  Most Ohio State fans already know the whole story by heart.

Will 2006 join the litany of memories and almost but no cigar?

Night games

Superman had his kryptonite, Spiderman wanted to be a regular guy, Wonder Woman was useless with her wrists tied, and Tressel has night games on the road.

During his tenure, the Buckeyes have played night games at UCLA, Wisconsin, Northwestern (twice), and Penn State.  They are 1-4 with their lone victory coming over a hapless 2002 Wildcats squad that finished 3-9 with blowout losses to Air Force and TCU and only one Big Ten Conference victory  (a 41-37 squeaker over Indiana).  The Wisconsin loss in 2003 and the 0-2 mark at night in 2005 cost the Buckeyes a shot at two more national titles.

This year, in preparation for their scheduled match ups with Texas and Iowa, Ohio State coaches have held not one but two night practices.

According to Tressel after the August 21 scrimmage, "You know, most of our guys played under the lights in high school.  We wanted to get out here.  We don't have lights on our practice field so typically we don't get night rehearsal so we just thought it would be a good idea.  A couple of the upperclassmen mentioned this winter and during some of our evaluations, ‘Hey coach, why don't we get a workout under the lights?'  So, I think your juices get flowing a little bit.  I think they had a lot of fun, and it was unbelievable to see how many people came and got the kids autographs and just enjoyed the evening."

Sure, people say this is overblown and to an extent, it is.  However, the fact remains that Ohio State has not performed up to expectations in night road games since 2002.  Nor should one be fooled; Tressel is highly strategic in everything that goes into the program.  If he thought it would give his players an advantage, he would buy a different kind of shoe laces, and you can bet the new policy of night practices – and even one in a field across town – is designed to correct a perceived weakness.

Ohio State coaches are well aware of the hurdle they must leap to be a national champion contender, and they know it has been a flaw.  They are trying to overcome it, but the question is – will they?

Turnover margin

Every year in the last four, the Ohio State defense has been producing fewer turnovers.  Perhaps the scheme has grown a tad stale and opposing teams have adjusted to the Mark Dantonio/Mel Tucker/Mark Snyder/Jim Heacock designed defense.  Perhaps the lower production is indicative of what became of the 1996 Fred Pagac philosophy when other coaches figured out a way to first slow, and then nearly halt the bleeding.

Perhaps this is about the players.  The 2002 defense had Chris Gamble, Will Allen, Mike Doss, Will Smith, Darrion Scott, and Dustin Fox – all of whom could force turnovers in a heartbeat.  The 2003 defense had most of those players but deeply missed Mike Doss opposite Will Allen.  In 2004, the Buckeyes lacked pressure up front for most of the season and even went without Dustin Fox who was injured.  Their greatest playmaker was Hawk.  In 2005, the Buckeyes were loaded with talent, but few of their defensive leaders other than Hawk and Whitner could force – or did force – turnovers.

The players and coaches have taken note and according to David Patterson, "This year we are really making a bigger emphasis on turnovers.  We always make an emphasis on turnovers, but last year we didn't make as many as wanted to so this year we want to increase our turnovers a lot and give our offense more chances with the ball to give us a better chance to win."

That sounds wonderful, but against Northern Illinois, the Ohio State offense turned the ball over twice and the Buckeye defense only forced a turnover once.

In short, Ohio State is already in the hole -1 on turnover margin, and at this rate will be bringing up the bottom of Division I-A once again.

Field Goal Kicking

There may be no worries at punter with the return of A.J. Trapasso, but five years of Josh Huston and Mike Nugent has left Ohio State spoiled.  Since 2002, those two kickers combined to hit 87 field goals on 102 attempts.  For the non math majors, that is a percentage of 86%. 

Flat out, that is almost mind boggling when you consider these are 18-22 year old young men.  They trot out onto the field with millions of dollars on the line for their school as well as the hopes and dreams of tens of millions of fans.  Then they are asked to kick a ball upwards of 150 feet through winds while 11 angry behemoths are trying to rip their head off.  The ball must go high enough to evade the sasquatch types on the defensive line whose upraised arms could scratch a giraffe's chin but still be accurate enough to split a pair of uprights that seem impossibly far away.

Consider in 2004, the Oregon State kicker missed more field goals in a day than Nugent did in an entire season.  Consider that while Bobby Bowden and Lloyd Carr have lost more games to kicking than they can shake a stick at, the Buckeyes have done the exact opposite; in 2003 they won three games without the benefit of an offensive touchdown.

While Aaron Pettrey and Ryan Pretorius are both gifted place kickers who have performed at or above expectations leading up to the game against Northern Illinois, the fact remains they are unproven.  The fact remains; neither has claimed the job as the field goal kicker because neither has actually kicked a field goal in 2006.  Nobody – including their coaches – knows how they will perform when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, and they must either nail a kick or go home a loser.

The Schedule

You show me a team that is playing Ohio State's schedule, and I will show you one with several losses – at least two and possibly more.  I don't care if it is the 2002 Buckeyes or the 1972 Dolphins; this is a brutal slate they have to face.  Before they even leave September they play two teams which won their conference championship (Penn State and Texas), another team projected in the top 10 (Iowa), a strong MAC program which played for and barely lost their league title in the waning seconds (Northern Illinois), and a pesky team whose players all carry a grudge against Ohio State since they would have loved to play for the Buckeyes (Cincinnati).  This is a recipe for disaster.  Maybe it is not the Hindenburg, but it clearly isn't going to be the smoothest sailing.

All told, Ohio State faces six teams which went to a bowl in 2005 and two who finished in the top five.  Add the Buckeyes, and that accounts for 60 percent of the top five teams from last season.

When asked, Tressel did not deny the task will be like scaling Everest without oxygen. "No. It will be brutal," he said.

Are you going to tell me – realistically and with a straight face – that Ohio State is going to go undefeated?  If you can, I either need a sample of whatever you are taking or I need to consider entering you in some sort of poker tournament.  Sure it could happen, but the odds are long. 

Defensive Losses

I've heard it all before. 

"Sure, we lost nine starters, but the players behind them were good too!  The Buckeyes don't rebuild they just reload."

Problem number one is if the players behind the starters were so good last year, then why weren't they starting?  Seriously.  Think about that one for a moment.  If they are so absurdly talented then why didn't Salley and Whitner sit the bench while Nick Patterson and Brandon Mitchell started?  Why didn't Laurinaitis step over the supposedly ‘step slow' Anthony Schlegel like one of the boars the latter hunted and gutted on vacation in Texas?  Why wasn't Jenkins blazing by Ashton Youboty or Hawk forced to watch John Kerr or Marcus Freeman take away his playing time?

This spring, Carpenter commented about the new defensive crew; "I talked to Troy and hopefully the offense will put up 35 for a while and give the defense a little bit of a learning curve. Talent is great but nothing replaces experience. I would take a less talented who had more experience in a game because when the bullets start flying out there it is tough to make calls, checks, and get everyone lined up. I think that is something that really helped our defense this year. We had a lot of three-year starters out there who had played together. They had been through the fires of the Big Ten season."

Bottom line – you don't replace nine starters as easily as some are projecting.  It just doesn't happen.  While the media and fans may fawn over this fantastic offense, the coaches know they have a top rate challenge to just survive their first five games without flaming out in a blaze of glory defensively.

When asked, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock admitted, "I think we have a huge challenge ahead of us.  You can't for a minute think there isn't.  We have some young guys.  We have some guys who haven't played a whole lot of college football and maybe the last time they played was in high school."

The last time some of these starters played extensively was high school, and right out of the gate they are facing Texas, Penn State, and Iowa? 

Reality check:  the last two times Ohio State had to replace this many quality players on defense – 1999 and 2004.  The former team ended in a 6-6 debacle while the latter managed to win 5 of their final 6 to reach 8-4.

Particularly distressing for those who follow the Buckeyes should be the defensive secondary.

According to Malcolm Jenkins, "It all depends on how we work throughout camp, how good we get and how many quality repetitions we get, but I have a positive outlook on it.  We'll just see how good we are as the season progresses."

Hmm…

We'll see?

What about Tressel?  Surely he will be brimming with confidence as he was prior to last season.  What are his thoughts?

"I think we have the makings of a good defense.  Every week when you face something a little different and people have some special things for you and you have to learn on the run, that will be the biggest challenge.  Most everything that both the offense and the defense faced today, they have seen for a couple of weeks and have rehearsed it, etc. I think it means we are going to have a competitive defense."

On the surface that is reassuring until one remembers Tressel is the consummate wordsmith.  When he chooses words and phrases like ‘makings' and ‘learn on the run' and ‘competitive' it means while he has confidence in his players, the jury is still out on this team's defense.

A quote just before they faced Northern Illinois says it all, "I think what it says is you really don't know until you play games, because it's very difficult to know for sure, and we're going to play a number of players.  I think when you look at our depth chart, maybe at the start of the Big Ten schedule; you'll really see what our depth chart is. I don't know that there will be great changes, I'm not saying that, I'm saying I think we'll know."

 

The painful bottom line…at this point not even the coaches are 100 percent sure who is going to be starting in two weeks.




Buckeye Sports Top Stories

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Pardon the skeptic.  Really, pardon the skeptics, the cynics, and those who are not into Cinderella stories.  Ohio State has been anointed as the top team in the nation to start the 2006 season, but the likelihood they maintain that distinction through the end of the season is just a bit better than Iran welcoming Salman Rushdie back and Tehran officials giving him a key to the city.

Why?

I'll give you ten reasons.

How do you replace a leader?  Even more important, how do you replace a leader?

In war, one of the primary objectives is to take out the generals of an opposing force.  If you can neutralize those in charge and then can take out the commanders on the field of battle itself – you are almost assured of victory.  The only way you still lose is if the opposing force is simply so numerous and has a strategic advantage of such extreme measure that it cannot be countered.

Ohio State lost a plethora of leaders from its 2005 squad.  They showed up all over the NFL draft board and included Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, Rob Sims, A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Donte Whitner, Nate Salley, Ashton Youboty, Tyler Everett, Mike Kudla, and Anthony Schlegel – among others. 

Each of these players was capable of being a team leader. 

Yes, others have stepped up, but who among the Ohio State defense is a first round pick in the upcoming draft?  Perhaps David Patterson and Quinn Pitcock might qualify, but these two are in the front of the action.  They are not able to command their troops and place them in the correct position.  Who will lead the linebackers?  Who will lead the secondary?

It takes time to develop leadership.  Players like Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel had put on a physical display for years before they assumed the roles they did in 2005.  The current group of linebackers is led by James Laurinaitis, who started two games in 2005, and both of those were due to Carpenter's broken leg and despite playing in all 12 games logged just 9 tackles.  For perspective, Carpenter had a tackle on the first play of his career and Hawk (as a freshman) logged 26 tackles, including 5 tackles and an interception in his first career start – against Penn State.   Mike Doss was already a two time All American before he was named captain in 2002, but the 2006 secondary is reportedly being led by Malcolm Jenkins, a true sophomore who started due to Tyler Everett's injuries in 2005. 

Other than Troy Smith, this team has a leadership vacuum from their tremendous losses in 2005, and while Smith is a tremendous leader he can't play every position and make every play.  The loss of leadership will be felt and probably sooner than later.

Clearly the Fates were not spinning a favorable future for the Buckeyes this spring and summer.  While everyone was apparently wiping their brow in relief the staff had not been raided once again, it was time for breaking out the Rolaids; Jim Bollman and Joe Daniels were sidelined with health issues and key strength and conditioning coach Alan Johnson resigned.

Bollman suffered chest pains and underwent heart surgery on May 27.  While the surgery went well, it still interrupted preseason preparation, recruiting, and even staff cohesion.  Stories abounded from Buckeye players who went over to visit him.

Projected starter Tim Schafer said, \"We all went over together to his house and checked on him and saw how he was doing to try to get him to feel better.  He tells us that his wife has been watching his diet really well for him so he thanks her for that, I guess.\"

While Bollman may or may not actually thank his wife for helping him stick to the fatless, flavorless diet of a person rehabilitating from heart surgery, from all reports he is progressing well with his rehabilitation.  Indications are, as a heart patient recovers they actually regain strength they haven't had in years prior due to the now normalized blood flow.

Currently all eyes are on Daniels though as he not only suffered a mild heart attack but was also diagnosed with cancer (on June 20).  The situation is serious enough that Ohio State appealed to the NCAA for a waiver if need be so the coach can be replaced if his strength is sapped by the ordeal of treatment and working full time.  Daniels' health appears to be holding for now, but it is not a given that his condition will not worsen.

Finally, the loss of coach Johnson isn't something to simply be glossed over and ignored.  He may not seem to have been critical to the success experienced by Ohio State since Tressel took the reins, but appearances can be deceiving.  For the last five years, injuries have been down for the Buckeyes, and they physically peaked in November while other teams wore down, stumbled, and fell flat on their face.  You rarely saw any Ohio State starters winded with their hands on their hips.  The difference was especially telling in their annual tilt with Michigan; no true Buckeye fan is likely to forget Antonio Pittman or Maurice Hall scampering into the end zone for late scores over a tired Wolverine defense.  Scarlet and Gray legions will forever remember Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez, and Ted Ginn, Jr. flashing by thundering (and plodding) herds of Maize and Blue defenders like bolts of lightning.

Simply assuming new strength and conditioning coach Eric Lichter will be as accomplished or successful is dangerous.  Preparing young men for a single day of draft tests and preparing young men for a grinding three month schedule with three hour games are worlds apart.

Three years ago, Buckeyes were convinced the loss of Michael Jenkins would not be felt nearly so greatly because of their new superstar, Holmes.  Holmes, they said, would be another Terry Glenn in 2004, torching defenses on his way to a thousand yard season.  In the first half of the season they were right; Holmes put on a show, but then he discovered what it was like to be the victim of the dreaded double team.  It was as fun as a root canal at the local dentist and about as painful.  His body took a beating, and by November he wasn't the same receiver.

Fast forward to 2006 and Holmes (who took the pressure off of Ginn and Gonzalez) is now in the NFL.  This means trouble for his two compadres who will now garner more attention than a case of Godiva at a Weight Watcher's convention.  How they will handle the assignment is not yet known, but what is on tape for all to see is Ginn's sometimes inconsistent ball skills and route running.

For all that many wanted to draw and quarter the offensive coaches at Ohio State in 2004 and 2005 for not getting the football in Ginn's hands more often; the problem did not lie with them but with their speedy wideout and return specialist.  Ginn, a defensive back in high school, was frequently found where he was not supposed to be on the field…and not so frequently found where he was supposed to be.  With his sometimes sloppy route running, Texas Longhorns defensive backs scoffed at the idea he was a great receiver though they clearly respected Holmes.  Ginn did little to disprove their assertions as Texas won the game and largely neutralized him.  Worse, he was prone to fumbling the football on kickoff and punt returns and almost cost his team the game against Michigan. 

The question is – which Ginn will show up for the Buckeyes in big games in 2006?  Will it be the new and improved version that has been touted all spring and summer by teammates and coaches?  Will it be the player who plays to his full potential and makes adult males across the nation suffer a man crush for his abilities?  Will it be the wideout who was more open than the barn door against Northern Illinois?  Or, will it be the Ginn who drops punts because he is thinking about where he will go with the football?  Will it be the Ginn who squanders opportunities and leaves his inexperienced defensive teammates in a no-win situation?  Will it be the Ginn who allows himself to be taken out of the football game by a physical defensive back?

Just when it appeared several key players would (or at least should) finally step up and be ready to contribute to the Ohio State team in 2006, they transferred or left school.  Granted, there are transfers and those with grade problems every season, but normally there isn't a mass exodus.  This off-season brought a flood to the point where one began to wonder if the last one out the door would turn out the lights.

First is the case of Sian Cotton.  If there has been a more physically gifted defensive tackle at Ohio State in the Tressel era, I haven't seen him.  Cotton had first round pick written all over every inch of his mammoth body.  He could plug the run or rush the passer with ease.  The problem is he underachieved.  He remains the only player I have personally seen defy the Ohio State coaches during a practice, and finally, with the depth at defensive tackle in need of his presence, he took his marbles and went elsewhere.

Chad Hoobler is also a loss for this team.  When he showed up on the scene, he looked like the middle linebacker of the future for Ohio State.  Then, somewhere along the way, the plan went awry.  An underachieving 2005 left lingering questions; fans (and undoubtedly coaches) were disappointed to see him passed by virtually every player on the depth chart – many of whom were younger and had had less time to learn the defense.  Finally, when the coaches requested he change positions to help the team, he transferred.  What started out as a bang with a bright career ended with a fizzle and not a sizzle.

Then there are Marcel Frost and Erik Haw, still teammates but now at Jackson State instead of Ohio State.  These two also had tremendous potential (and still do).  Frost, his high school coach said, could do things that were simply not natural for a man his size.  Indeed, his speed at the tight end position had the potential to change games.  Lined up against many linebackers, he could beat them to the football and then smash into small defensive backs in the secondary for chunks of yardage.  Haw too was a physical freak with a body almost the size as Chris Wells but the speed of Maurice Wells.  He languished on the bench at Ohio State, and instead of gutting it out and forcing his way to the top of the depth chart, opted to transfer.  His loss would have been more critical in 2005 with only Pittman and Maurice Wells carrying the ball in front of him but even so – he represents one less weapon for the Ohio State team.

Nor does this touch the others.  Michael Roberts, a defensive back who might have contributed in a young secondary, left for Indiana State.  Sirjo Welch, a one time special teams demon deeply missed in 2005, is no longer playing football for the Buckeyes.  Brandon Maupin, another defensive tackle with talent, like Welch, is no longer on the team.  Devin Jordan, Curt Lukens, and Mike D'Andrea have all been forced to leave their playing days behind due to injuries.

Taken individually, none of these players are key to winning a title.  Taken as a whole, their departure hurts the Buckeyes in key positions.  Frost, Cotton, D'Andrea, and Haw in particular might have come on down the stretch to put this team over the top like a Kenny Peterson/David Thompson or Maurice Hall or Mangold/Sims.

Nor is it just the loss of talent.

Redshirt senior Norman admits, \"I think for us, we are always sad to see guys go because we are family, and it is like a brother leaving.  Any time a member of your family leaves it is disappointing you feel bad for them. You run your heart out to them and would do anything you could to help them, but there is that fine line of you have to get back to business and back to work.  I think when something like that happens you lend your hand out to the guy who is leaving and say, ‘Hey, if there is anything we can do we would love to help you.'  Stay in touch with them but then get back to work.  We have 12 teams on the schedule that are coming after us.  It will be a challenge every week.\"

It will now, arguably, be an even bigger challenge.

When asked about the lofty start of being proclaimed number one before the first games have even been played, head coach Jim Tressel said, \"Really, at the beginning I don't know what it can do for you.  There is a target (already) on our chest when the silver helmets come out there.\"

Players like it and coaches admit it is flattering, but the reality is – most fans hope their team is named No. 2 or No. 3 to start the season.  Being number one is tantamount to Kevin Costner's ride to start the movie, Dances with Wolves.  It is not simply everyone is shooting at you as normal for an Ohio State or USC or Texas.  Other teams gun for you as if their season depended on it. 

No team in Columbus has ever started and ended No. 1.  On every previous attempt, the story ends with heartbreak.  The two most painful are arguably 1969 and 1998.  I could rehash the details, but honestly – why?  Most Ohio State fans already know the whole story by heart.

Will 2006 join the litany of memories and almost but no cigar?

Superman had his kryptonite, Spiderman wanted to be a regular guy, Wonder Woman was useless with her wrists tied, and Tressel has night games on the road.

During his tenure, the Buckeyes have played night games at UCLA, Wisconsin, Northwestern (twice), and Penn State.  They are 1-4 with their lone victory coming over a hapless 2002 Wildcats squad that finished 3-9 with blowout losses to Air Force and TCU and only one Big Ten Conference victory  (a 41-37 squeaker over Indiana).  The Wisconsin loss in 2003 and the 0-2 mark at night in 2005 cost the Buckeyes a shot at two more national titles.

This year, in preparation for their scheduled match ups with Texas and Iowa, Ohio State coaches have held not one but two night practices.

According to Tressel after the August 21 scrimmage, \"You know, most of our guys played under the lights in high school.  We wanted to get out here.  We don't have lights on our practice field so typically we don't get night rehearsal so we just thought it would be a good idea.  A couple of the upperclassmen mentioned this winter and during some of our evaluations, ‘Hey coach, why don't we get a workout under the lights?'  So, I think your juices get flowing a little bit.  I think they had a lot of fun, and it was unbelievable to see how many people came and got the kids autographs and just enjoyed the evening.\"

Sure, people say this is overblown and to an extent, it is.  However, the fact remains that Ohio State has not performed up to expectations in night road games since 2002.  Nor should one be fooled; Tressel is highly strategic in everything that goes into the program.  If he thought it would give his players an advantage, he would buy a different kind of shoe laces, and you can bet the new policy of night practices – and even one in a field across town – is designed to correct a perceived weakness.

Ohio State coaches are well aware of the hurdle they must leap to be a national champion contender, and they know it has been a flaw.  They are trying to overcome it, but the question is – will they?

Every year in the last four, the Ohio State defense has been producing fewer turnovers.  Perhaps the scheme has grown a tad stale and opposing teams have adjusted to the Mark Dantonio/Mel Tucker/Mark Snyder/Jim Heacock designed defense.  Perhaps the lower production is indicative of what became of the 1996 Fred Pagac philosophy when other coaches figured out a way to first slow, and then nearly halt the bleeding.

Perhaps this is about the players.  The 2002 defense had Chris Gamble, Will Allen, Mike Doss, Will Smith, Darrion Scott, and Dustin Fox – all of whom could force turnovers in a heartbeat.  The 2003 defense had most of those players but deeply missed Mike Doss opposite Will Allen.  In 2004, the Buckeyes lacked pressure up front for most of the season and even went without Dustin Fox who was injured.  Their greatest playmaker was Hawk.  In 2005, the Buckeyes were loaded with talent, but few of their defensive leaders other than Hawk and Whitner could force – or did force – turnovers.

The players and coaches have taken note and according to David Patterson, \"This year we are really making a bigger emphasis on turnovers.  We always make an emphasis on turnovers, but last year we didn't make as many as wanted to so this year we want to increase our turnovers a lot and give our offense more chances with the ball to give us a better chance to win.\"

That sounds wonderful, but against Northern Illinois, the Ohio State offense turned the ball over twice and the Buckeye defense only forced a turnover once.

In short, Ohio State is already in the hole -1 on turnover margin, and at this rate will be bringing up the bottom of Division I-A once again.

There may be no worries at punter with the return of A.J. Trapasso, but five years of Josh Huston and Mike Nugent has left Ohio State spoiled.  Since 2002, those two kickers combined to hit 87 field goals on 102 attempts.  For the non math majors, that is a percentage of 86%. 

Flat out, that is almost mind boggling when you consider these are 18-22 year old young men.  They trot out onto the field with millions of dollars on the line for their school as well as the hopes and dreams of tens of millions of fans.  Then they are asked to kick a ball upwards of 150 feet through winds while 11 angry behemoths are trying to rip their head off.  The ball must go high enough to evade the sasquatch types on the defensive line whose upraised arms could scratch a giraffe's chin but still be accurate enough to split a pair of uprights that seem impossibly far away.

Consider in 2004, the Oregon State kicker missed more field goals in a day than Nugent did in an entire season.  Consider that while Bobby Bowden and Lloyd Carr have lost more games to kicking than they can shake a stick at, the Buckeyes have done the exact opposite; in 2003 they won three games without the benefit of an offensive touchdown.

While Aaron Pettrey and Ryan Pretorius are both gifted place kickers who have performed at or above expectations leading up to the game against Northern Illinois, the fact remains they are unproven.  The fact remains; neither has claimed the job as the field goal kicker because neither has actually kicked a field goal in 2006.  Nobody – including their coaches – knows how they will perform when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, and they must either nail a kick or go home a loser.

You show me a team that is playing Ohio State's schedule, and I will show you one with several losses – at least two and possibly more.  I don't care if it is the 2002 Buckeyes or the 1972 Dolphins; this is a brutal slate they have to face.  Before they even leave September they play two teams which won their conference championship (Penn State and Texas), another team projected in the top 10 (Iowa), a strong MAC program which played for and barely lost their league title in the waning seconds (Northern Illinois), and a pesky team whose players all carry a grudge against Ohio State since they would have loved to play for the Buckeyes (Cincinnati).  This is a recipe for disaster.  Maybe it is not the Hindenburg, but it clearly isn't going to be the smoothest sailing.

All told, Ohio State faces six teams which went to a bowl in 2005 and two who finished in the top five.  Add the Buckeyes, and that accounts for 60 percent of the top five teams from last season.

When asked, Tressel did not deny the task will be like scaling Everest without oxygen. \"No. It will be brutal,\" he said.

Are you going to tell me – realistically and with a straight face – that Ohio State is going to go undefeated?  If you can, I either need a sample of whatever you are taking or I need to consider entering you in some sort of poker tournament.  Sure it could happen, but the odds are long. 

I've heard it all before. 

\"Sure, we lost nine starters, but the players behind them were good too!  The Buckeyes don't rebuild they just reload.\"

Problem number one is if the players behind the starters were so good last year, then why weren't they starting?  Seriously.  Think about that one for a moment.  If they are so absurdly talented then why didn't Salley and Whitner sit the bench while Nick Patterson and Brandon Mitchell started?  Why didn't Laurinaitis step over the supposedly ‘step slow' Anthony Schlegel like one of the boars the latter hunted and gutted on vacation in Texas?  Why wasn't Jenkins blazing by Ashton Youboty or Hawk forced to watch John Kerr or Marcus Freeman take away his playing time?

This spring, Carpenter commented about the new defensive crew; \"I talked to Troy and hopefully the offense will put up 35 for a while and give the defense a little bit of a learning curve. Talent is great but nothing replaces experience. I would take a less talented who had more experience in a game because when the bullets start flying out there it is tough to make calls, checks, and get everyone lined up. I think that is something that really helped our defense this year. We had a lot of three-year starters out there who had played together. They had been through the fires of the Big Ten season.\"

Bottom line – you don't replace nine starters as easily as some are projecting.  It just doesn't happen.  While the media and fans may fawn over this fantastic offense, the coaches know they have a top rate challenge to just survive their first five games without flaming out in a blaze of glory defensively.

When asked, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock admitted, \"I think we have a huge challenge ahead of us.  You can't for a minute think there isn't.  We have some young guys.  We have some guys who haven't played a whole lot of college football and maybe the last time they played was in high school.\"

The last time some of these played extensively was high school, and right out of the gate they are facing Texas, Penn State, and Iowa? 

Reality check:  the last two times Ohio State had to replace this many quality players on defense – 1999 and 2004.  The former team ended in a 6-6 debacle while the latter managed to win 5 of their final 6 to reach 8-4.

Particularly distressing for those who follow the Buckeyes should be the defensive secondary.

According to Malcolm Jenkins, \"It all depends on how we work throughout camp, how good we get and how many quality repetitions we get, but I have a positive outlook on it.  We'll just see how good we are as the season progresses.\"

Hmm…

We'll see?

What about Tressel?  Surely he will be brimming with confidence as he was prior to last season.  What are his thoughts?

\"I think we have the makings of a good defense.  Every week when you face something a little different and people have some special things for you and you have to learn on the run, that will be the biggest challenge.  Most everything that both the offense and the defense faced today, they have seen for a couple of weeks and have rehearsed it, etc. I think it means we are going to have a competitive defense.\"

On the surface that is reassuring until one remembers Tressel is the consummate wordsmith.  When he chooses words and phrases like ‘ and and ‘ it means while he has confidence in his players, the jury is still out on this team's defense.

A quote just before they faced Northern Illinois says it all, \"

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