Target Planted On OSU's Back In Chicago

Ohio State left Chicago's Big Ten media kickoff with a target firmly stenciled on its back thanks to sweeping the league's preseason awards. The Buckeyes had varying reactions to the plaudits, while teams from across the league also had reactions on the Buckeyes' dominance in the Second City.

CHICAGO – In a certain sense, the members of the Ohio State football team in Chicago for the Big Ten media days and kickoff luncheon were the rock stars of the event.

The acclaim started when, in the hours leading up to the two-day extravaganza held downtown in the Second City, Ohio State was chosen as the league's preseason favorite. The awards continued when tailback Chris Wells and linebacker James Laurinaitis were tabbed as the league's preseason offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively.

Then at the print and radio interview session held Friday morning, Ohio State players entered with an audience already surrounding their tables. Rarely were there gaps at the tables holding Laurinaitis, quarterback Todd Boeckman, defensive back Malcolm Jenkins and head coach Jim Tressel, with the head man and Laurinaitis drawing the biggest crowds.

Only few others – such as media magnets Joe Paterno, Rich Rodriguez, the retiring Joe Tiller, and scandal-beset Kirk Ferentz – could hold such power over the room. If the Big Ten truly is the "big stage" it advertises itself as, the Buckeyes held the lead role at this event.

The happenings, in a sense, kicked off what figures to be a year of expectations during which the Buckeyes constantly will have the spotlight pointed in their direction. Laurinaitis, for one, said he's fine with the glare.

"You'd rather be talked about than not talked about," he said. "You'd rather they're saying good things than we don't know who this guy is. I go back to my sophomore year when people didn't even know how to spell or pronounce my name. That keeps me motivated. But with expectations and all of this stuff, you have to enjoy it because you never know how long it is going to last."

Of course, being slotted near the top of the heap in the Big Ten is nothing new for the Buckeyes, who have been in the top three in the preseason conference media poll all but one year since 1996.

Those predictions have a checkered history of success. Three times since 1996 – 2006, 2003 and 1998 – Ohio State has been chosen as the league champion; the '06 squad did win the crown outright, while the '98 team tied for it and the '03 team finished in a tie for second.

On the other hand, the Buckeyes were selected to finish second in 2002 and third in 2007, both of which are years in which they actually won outright conference titles. The 1996 team that tied atop the league with Northwestern and went to the Rose Bowl was predicted to finish third as well.

Perhaps that's why Jenkins had a less than stellar opinion of the preseason awards.

"I laugh at those awards," the cornerback said. "You can't really have a preseason player of the year, you know? We don't really get too much into that stuff because the reality is we can go stink it up and none of that stuff matters."

If it's up to Laurinaitis, stinking it up will not be an option simply because of the responsibility that comes with such high expectations.

"It makes me work harder," Laurinaitis said. "I know I have to work harder to uphold those, and I know people are going to hold me to a higher standard. You could have a good game and people already are going to expect that from you."

One thing that will come with the potential of having a great team is the fact that the Buckeyes will sport a bull's-eye square on the back of their scarlet jerseys. Just ask last year's team, which even coming off of a national title game appearance was still slotted third in the conference during the preseason.

"We felt like we could be No. 1 if we played how we wanted to, but to know that everybody else didn't think so was comforting to us because now we had the extra chip on our shoulder," Jenkins said. "We had some things to put on the bulletin board."

Assuredly, some other teams in the league will have the same outlook toward the Buckeyes this year. Both Minnesota pass catcher Eric Decker and Northwestern wideout Eric Peterman said that the Buckeyes do have the proverbial bull's-eye, though Peterman said that the Buckeyes certainly do deserve their plaudits.

"They've been No. 1 in the Big Ten for the past three seasons, in the national championship game the last two years," Peterman said. "They deserve their respect. They should be ranked first in the Big Ten."

However, Peterman cautioned that just because the Buckeyes return a wealth of talent all over the field, success isn't automatic, a thought that might give hope to the rest of the squads in the conference.

"As Coach Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) likes to say, all 11 teams are undefeated going into the 2008 season," he said. "It's a new start. It's a new team. Although they do have 20 returning starters, it's a different team than last year."

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