Buckeyes Have Defied Expectations In 2007

Ranked outside of the top 10 by the Associated Press and picked to finish third in its own conference, Ohio State was not projected to be as big a factor in the national title race as it was a year ago when it spent the entire year as No. 1. With that in mind, this Buckeye team set out to defy expectations nationally that this would be a "rebuilding year."

Jim Tressel's seventh team at Ohio State has defied expectations by reaching the BCS title game, but then again, should that really be that much of a surprise?

After all, how many would have expected two national title game appearances, the school's first title since 1970, three Big Ten titles and four BCS bowl berths during the head coach's first six seasons, all after taking over a team that was a combined 14-10 during the previous two seasons?

In other words, what was a No. 11 preseason ranking and a projected third-place Big Ten finish to overcome for a program that had already accomplished all that in recent memory?

In fact, during the preseason, the Ohio State players knew that preseason talk about this being a rebuilding season for the Buckeyes amounted to nothing but a hill of beans.

"You realize everyone has an opinion and it's really not the end of the world if you're picked third (in the league)," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "You can still finish on top."

But being able to do something and actually doing it are two different things. All Ohio State had to do to get there was replace Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith, steady tailback Antonio Pittman, first-round draft pick wideouts in Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, two dependable offensive linemen and a number of senior defenders, including four defensive linemen.

With those players gone, the Buckeyes would have new starters at the four skill positions, as well as one at the most important spot (center) on the offensive line. On defense, though Ohio State would be returning All-America candidates in James Laurinaitis, Vernon Gholston and Malcolm Jenkins, only one senior – Larry Grant – would be in the defensive two-deep come opening day.

For most schools, that would be the recipe for a rebuilding year. Ohio State, clearly, is not most schools, but a championship berth was still not something that could have been planned.

"Like we've said all along, we thought this team had talent," Tressel said. "We didn't hide our belief in that, but we also knew that we didn't have experience. You never know what's going to happen."

What happened early is what most people probably expected to happen. The Buckeyes handled their first two opponents in Youngstown State and Akron, then went on the road and posted a 30-point second half on the way to overwhelming Washington in game three.

From there – save a blowout of visiting Kent State in mid-October – the Buckeyes had to navigate the Big Ten slate. Included were four road wins, including triumphs over the three ranked teams on the schedule in No. 23 Purdue, No. 24 Penn State and No. 24 Michigan.

Just as importantly, Ohio State fared well enough during its season-ending four-game gantlet. Before the season, many projected that run of Penn State on the road at night followed by Wisconsin and Illinois at home before traveling to Ann Arbor to take on conference favorites Michigan would be what would define the Buckeyes season.

"I thought they handled some situations," Tressel said. "We weren't sure how a young team would handle going to Washington and going to Purdue, going to Penn State, going to Michigan. That's a tough row to hoe on the road."

Along the way, the Buckeyes were able to overcome the truly stunning upset that seemed to mark college football this season. Ohio State was favored on senior day Nov. 10 when Illinois came to town for a 28-21 win, but that loss would not be enough to keep the Buckeyes out of the title game. When it came down to it, OSU was just one of two BCS conference teams – with the other being Kansas – to lose just once during the season.

To get to that point, Ohio State had a number of players step up to replace the ones who had departed. Quarterback Todd Boeckman showed enough to earn the media's first-team All-Big Ten honor thanks to 23 passing touchdowns and 2,171 yards. Tailback Chris Wells earned first-team laurels thanks to nearly 1,500 yards on the ground, while wideouts Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline were as effective as Ginn and Gonzalez the year before.

Defensively, OSU finished first in the nation in scoring and total defense, and Gholston, Laurinaitis and Jenkins played up to the hype by snagging first-team Big Ten honors.

In addition, Boeckman said the Buckeyes were fueled by that original lack of respect from the word go.

"We knew we had some solid guys coming back – senior leaders, guys stepping up," Boeckman said. "I think we used that negative, whatever people were saying about us and I think we let that affect us and we went out there and proved people wrong."

Now, no matter what is said, the Buckeyes will get their chance to make up for last season's end-of-season disappointment quicker than maybe many would have expected – except for those, perhaps, in the locker room.

"I don't know if we overachieved because we were capable of a lot of achievement," Tressel said. "They've been a lot of fun to watch grow and a lot of fun to work with."

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