In just about 48 hours, Ohio State begins its quest for a third consecutive appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. Since college football switched from the Bowl Coalition to the Bowl Alliance and finally to the current Bowl Championship Series, only one other team has gone to the title game three straight times. Florida State played in the game following the 1998, 1999 and 2000 seasons, winning only the 2000 Sugar Bowl with a 46-29 win over Virginia Tech.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes didn't need anyone's help to get to the title game – they were the only undefeated team from a BCS conference. Last year was a different story. After losing to Illinois in its next-to-last game of the season, OSU fell to No.7 in the polls. Three weeks later, the Buckeyes were No. 1 and headed to New Orleans.
Whether or not they will be in North Miami at Dolphin Stadium next January is anyone's guess. They certainly appear to be one of the favorites, and they certainly appear to be one of the strongest teams – from the top of the roster to the bottom – that Jim Tressel has had since he arrived in Columbus.
There are virtually thousands of components for Ohio State this season if it is to make another run at the national championship, but I have narrowed that list down to just six. IMHO, these half-dozen pieces of the puzzle will be the key factors toward determining whether the Buckeyes can finally bring home the crystal football or spend another offseason filled with "what-ifs."
1. Boeckman's Relaxation – If Ohio State is to accomplish its goals this season, it must get a great deal of leadership from its senior quarterback. In public settings, Todd Boeckman is about as bland as they come. Not so in the huddle, at least according to his teammates, and Boeckman must continually be ready to lead vocally as well as by example.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes fell into place as an offense because Troy Smith took the team by the hand and led it where it needed to go. When he took his eye off the ball between the end of the regular season and the bowl game against Florida, you know what happened.
Boeckman is now in his sixth year in the program and his second as a starter. He has been a quarterback almost from the time he could walk. He doesn't think about his mechanics or his footwork or about how many snaps Terrelle Pryor is going to get. Boeckman needs to relax and let things flow. If he can do that, the problems that occurred at the end of last season will all disappear.
2. Crucial O-Line Play – Boeckman took the brunt of the criticism for the loss to LSU, and it is true that he sometimes held the ball too long waiting for receivers to come open. But if their quarterback is to be as successful as he was for the first nine games of last season, the offensive line simply must play up to its potential. It not only has to give Boeckman time to throw, it has to make him feel so comfortable in the pocket that he never wants to leave it.
For seniors like Alex Boone, Steve Rehring and Ben Person, there simply can be no excuses this year. Every opposing defensive coordinator on Ohio State's schedule has film of Florida whipping the Buckeyes at the point of attack, and every one of them believes they can perfect that game plan.
The simple truth is this: If Ohio State's offensive line plays to its capabilities on Sept. 13 at USC, the Buckeyes will win that game. If it doesn't, it will likely be time to reassess the team's goals for 2008.
3. More Interior Production – During any title run, there is always going to be that close game – the one that could go either way and comes down to who wants it more. Last year, that game was against Illinois, and in the fourth quarter, Ohio State's vaunted defense simply couldn't get the Illini offense off the field.
Obviously, there was plenty of blame to go around in that particular instance, but it underscored a problem the OSU defense has had for the past several years. The interior linemen – defensive tackles, if you will – have to be more active this year.
Last season, the foursome of Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Nader Abdallah and Dexter Larimore combined for just 72 tackles and five sacks. Even in the Buckeyes' defensive scheme where tackles are sacrificed at the line so that linebackers and safeties can clean things up, those are abnormally low numbers. They need to increase by at least 25 percent this season.
4. Better Execution – It's pretty difficult to criticize a unit that has finished at or near the top of college football in nearly every defensive category for the last several years. Yet, there were glaring deficiencies last season, most of which can only be characterized as lapses in concentration.
How many potential interceptions hit OSU defenders squarely in the hands only to fall harmlessly to the ground? A dozen? Two dozen? More? It was astounding last season that a team so gifted could come up with only 11 interceptions in 13 games – and none of those were from a safety.
Also, it's hard to fathom a defense so stout that tackles so poorly. When is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender wrap up an opposing ball-carrier and stop him in his tracks? Now, when is the last time you saw a Buckeye defender lower his shoulder in an attempt to make a big hit and bounce off an opponent? If a championship is truly going to be in the cards, there needs to be much more of the former and a lot less of the latter.
5. Special Teams Had Better Be – Tressel has always had a reputation for being a coach who pays more than his share of attention to special teams. If that is true, he must have been sorely disappointed at what transpired last year.
With the exception of Brian Hartline's record-setting 90-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Buckeyes' return game was practically non-existent. The team's kickoff return average was a paltry 17.6 yards. And that average was compiled in a season when college football moved kickoffs back in order to breathe new life into the return game.
Meanwhile, whatever happened on the field-goal team had better get corrected. Four blocked field goals are simply unacceptable. Blocked kicks are killers, and if you don't believe it, replay the LSU game beginning about midway through the second quarter.
6. Think Outside The Box – My final key is reserved for Tressel and his coaching staff. There is always something to be said for a conservative, straight-up approach to the game of football. I secretly suspect that every coach deep inside would prefer to win the same way the Buckeyes beat Michigan last year – 59 running plays, only 13 passes and a smothering defense that allowed less than 100 total yards.
That kind of game can still win a majority of football games, especially in the Big Ten. This year, Ohio State could easily give the ball to Beanie Wells 30 or more times and chalk up easy victories over the majority of its opponents.
But to win the national championship, there has to be something more. It's not enough to recruit talent. Once you amass that talent, you have to devise ways to best utilize it. You have to be innovative, you have to go against convention, you have to think outside the box.
Fair or not, some of the criticism for losses in the last two BCS National Championships has been directed at the game plan – both offensively and defensively. Two years ago, Florida head coach Urban Meyer as much as said his team knew what was coming. Last year, LSU boss Les Miles intimated the same thing.
I'm not suggesting Tressel take his playbook to the shredder. Likewise, I don't think it's wise to go completely away from your comfort zone. But for heaven's sake, why not go vertical down the middle of the field to the tight end? Why call for a play fake to the fullback when an OSU fullback hasn't carried the ball regularly in years? Why not constantly change defensive alignments? Why not put nine men in the box when it is clear the opposing team is going to run the ball? Why take your foot off the gas in most games and risk not being able to develop a killer instinct?
These are only questions and I realize that Tressel has 208 more career victories (not to mention five more national championships) than I have. What gives me the right to criticize?
It's just that Ohio State has one of the most talented teams it has had in recent memory. It would be a shame if in 2008 all of that talent wasn't brought to bear on opponents each and every down of each and every game.
OSU-YOUNGSTOWN STATE TIDBITS
• Ohio State kicks off its 119th season of intercollegiate football against Youngstown State on Saturday. The Buckeyes have won 29 consecutive home openers, and are 3-0 all-time in home games during the month of August.
• YSU will likely be happy to get Ohio State off its schedule next year. Before last season's 38-6 loss to the Buckeyes, the Penguins had won 10 straight season openers – each of them at home.
• The Penguins are also a perfect 7-0 all-time during the month of August. Each of those vistories has come at home in Stambaugh Stadium, and in those seven games, YSU has outscored its opponents by a combined 236-72 margin.
• Tressel, of course, is once again facing off against the program that he led to four Division I-AA national championships between 1986 and 2000. His record with the Penguins was 135-57-2 and they won I-AA titles in 1991, '93, '94 and '97. They were also national runners-up in '92 and '99.
• The last Ohio State head coach to face a team he previously led was John Cooper. His team took on Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl and defeated the Sun Devils 20-17 thanks to a late touchdown pass from Joe Germaine to David Boston.
• Tressel is 16-5-1 in season openers, including a perfect 7-0 at OSU. The last time he walked off the field with a loss in an opener was 1995 when Kent State handed Youngstown State a 17-14 defeat.
• Did you know the Buckeyes and Penguins are the two winningest football programs in the state of Ohio since 1990? Since that time, OSU has 172 victories and YSU has 162.
• The Buckeyes are 174-48-25 all-time against opponents from the state of Ohio. They haven't lost to an in-state opponent since a 7-6 defeat at the hands of Oberlin back in 1921.
• Ohio State is 379-105-20 in Ohio Stadium since the facility opened in 1922. That is a .772 winning percentage. All-time in Columbus, the team is 522-152-35, good for a winning percentage of .761.
• No one gives Youngstown State any chance to topple the Buckeyes, but Appalachian State put every other I-A team on notice last year with its momentus upset of Michigan. Besides, it's not like the Penguins are chopped liver. They are a very respectable 19-21-1 over the years against Division I-A competition. Their last win against a I-A program came in 2000 over Kent State.
• There are lots of familiar faces in the contest. In addition to Tressel's ties to YSU, Penguins head coach Jon Heacock is the younger brother of OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. Additionally, Youngstown State fullback Ben Lane is the younger brother of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Lane.
• The Penguins are 39-26-2 all-time in season openers and 69-58-5 against teams from Ohio. They play two instate schools this year – Ohio State and Central State – for the first time since 1996. • If you have access to the Big Ten Network, you will be treated to the team of Thom Brennaman with the play-by-play, Charles Davis providing the color commentary and Charissa Thompson on the sidelines. Kickoff is set for 12 noon Eastern.
• Next week, Ohio State stays home to host Ohio University. That game is scheduled to be televised by ESPN with a 12 noon ET kickoff.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
• Former Ohio State head coach John Cooper will be recognized twice season in honor of his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Coop will be honored Sept. 20 by Arizona State when the Sun Devils host Georgia, and again Oct. 25 when the Buckeyes host Penn State.
• Things should be a lot noisier in Las Cruces this season. New Mexico State has begun handing out cowbells to its season ticket holders as part of its "Bring It-Ring It" promotion. The clanging of cowbells coupled with head coach Hal Mumme's wide-open offense ought to make for a more raucous climate in Aggie Memorial Stadium.
• Kansas State and Iowa State recently announced they will play one another in Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium in 2009 and 2010. Guess the Big 12 hasn't heard that college football is best played on college campuses.
• For everyone who figured the SEC would follow the lead of the Big Ten and begin its own network, scratch that. The SEC and ESPN have announced a 15-year partnership, allowing the SEC to slip into the void left when the Big Ten bolted from ESPN and started the Big Ten Network.
• It may interest you to know that Texas is ranked No. 1 in sales of college sports merchandise for the third year in a row, according to research by Collegiate Licensing Co. Michigan is second, followed by Florida, LSU and Notre Dame. Remember, though: Ohio State does not participate in CLC's survey.
We're back for another season of college football forecasting, although we have tweaked the system a little. After five years of picking every game involving ranked teams as well as all of the Big Ten contests, we're going to pare things down this season.
We will just go with the main games each week, making things a little tougher on the crystal ball while weeding out most of the creampuffs. Not that we have done poorly picking games in the past. For the past five years combined, we're 1,184-352 straight-up (77.1 percent) and fairly well above water against the spread at 550-491-16 (good enough for 52.8 percent).
Obviously, this is just for fun and you probably know more about it than I do. Nevertheless, off we go for what we hope will be an outstanding season that winds up in South Florida. (By the way, the rankings are from the AP.)
Here are this week's featured games:
Hawaii at No. 5 Florida: The Rainbows will see what life is like without gunslinging QB Colt Brennan and head coach June Jones. Meanwhile, the Gators would love to make an opening-game statement … Florida 38, Hawaii 17. (ESPN GamePlan, 12:30 p.m. EDT)
No. 3 USC at Virginia: While most of the top teams feast on cupcakes this week, the Trojans travel cross-country to take on the Cavaliers in what could be a trap game. It will be a good tuneup for SC quarterback Mark Sanchez as he tests his tender knee. Also of intrigue: Pete Carroll and Al Groh are each former New York Jets head coaches. Carroll was 6-10 in his only season with the Jets in 1995 while Groh was 9-7 in 2000 … USC 34, Virginia 14. (ABC Regional, 3:30 p.m. EDT)
Utah at Michigan: It's not all that uncommon for a new U-M head coach to lose his debut game. Going back a half-century, Bump Elliott and Gary Moeller lost their openers while Lloyd Carr barely escaped in 1995 with a one-point win over Virginia. It's pretty tempting to take the Utes, but somehow I think the Wolverines prevail … Michigan 26, Utah 23, (ABC Regional, 3:30 p.m. EDT)
Appalachian State at No. 7 LSU: Even as the Tigers break in a new quarterback and replace several other starters, lightning couldn't possibly strike twice, could it? No, probably not … LSU 27, Appalachian State 14. (ESPN, 5 p.m. EDT)
No. 24 Alabama vs. No. 9 Clemson: Nothing like a little opening-night tester to gauge the potential of these two teams. The Tigers may be the higher ranked of the two, but never underestimate Nick Saban under the hot glare of the TV lights … Alabama 20, Clemson 18. (ABC Regional, 8 p.m. EDT)
No. 20 Illinois vs. No. 6 Missouri: We get to find out early just how much the Illini will miss running back Rashard Mendenhall. My guess is that they miss him quite a lot … Missouri 37, Illinois 27, (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. EDT)
No. 18 Tennessee at UCLA: The Volunteers had better be ready to take on a rebuilt Bruin offense under new head coach Rick Neuheisel and offensive coordinator Norm Chow. These are just the kinds of games that Phil Fulmer's team often gives away … UCLA 23, Tennessee 17. (ABC, 8 p.m. EDT, Sept. 1)
Here are the early-week spreads for the aforementioned games: Hawaii at Florida (-36); USC (-20) at Virginia; Utah at Michigan (-3½); Alabama vs. Clemson (-5); Illinois vs. Missouri (-8½); and Tennessee (-7½) at UCLA. Remember: there is no line when Division I-AA teams take on I-A opponents, so there is no spread for the Appalachian State-LSU game.