Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, reputations are at stake – reputations for the program, the players and the head coach. If the Buckeyes find a way to do what few other teams have been able to accomplish – beat USC at home – they will have gone a long way toward rebuilding what has become a tarnished image.
As much of shock to the system that national championship game against Florida was, it will be nothing compared to what will happen if something similar happens this weekend. You can dust off your 2002 championship hats, sweatshirts and DVDs all you want, but that storybook run will be further ridiculed as nothing more than a fluke that was punctuated in the title game by a questionable pass interference call.
The notion will be that Ohio State cannot win a game on the big stage and the program's prosecutors will have the Florida, LSU and USC games as Exhibits 1, 2 and 3.
By losing to the Trojans on Saturday, many of the players who returned to the Buckeyes for their senior seasons will likely take a hit in the wallet. Over the past several years, Ohio State has been able to keep up with Southern Cal in terms of the overall number of NFL draft picks. But over the past five drafts, USC has totaled 22 picks in the first and second rounds while OSU has counted 12 such picks.
A loss this weekend will put another crack in the once-invincible armor of Jim Tressel. With 210 victories and five national championships during a 23-year career, Tressel's record speaks for itself. But ask yourself a question. When was the last time his team won a big game? – and I mean a really big game, not the one in Texas in 2006 against a depleted Longhorns squad that was breaking in a freshman starting quarterback.
I suppose you could make the case that every Michigan game is a big game although the Wolverines have finished with three losses or more every season that Tressel has been in Columbus except one. You could make the big-game argument for the 42-39 win over a previously undefeated U-M team in 2006 or the 34-20 victory over Brady Quinn-led Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. As difficult as it may be to remember, the Irish were ranked No. 6 in the country at that time.
Still, I think you have to go back to the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to find the Buckeyes rising to meet the challenge of playing and beating a team no one gave them a chance to beat.
Obviously, no team can expect to win every "big" game in which it is involved. For that very reason, Ohio State has won only four of 12 contests when it played the nation's No. 1-ranked team. Likewise, if the desire is to continue to be thought of as one of the elite programs in college football, sooner or later you must win a nationally televised game against a higher-ranked opponent that is perceived to be the stronger team.
Will that be Saturday night for Tressel and the Buckeyes? I thought so until last week when they stumbled all over each other before taking a disinterested 26-14 victory over Ohio University. Now … I'm not so sure. In fact, I've got a bad feeling about this game. Then again, I felt good about Ohio State's chances against Florida and LSU, so what do I know?
I know every college football writer from Astabula to Anaheim is going to analyze this game six ways to Sunday.
They're going to obsess over the health of Beanie Wells. (Hint: He played rather well against LSU and see where that got the Buckeyes.) They're going to tell you to watch for USC's Joe McKnight on kickoff and punt returns. (Don't waste your time – Tressel isn't going to kick to him). And they'll wring their hands in anticipation of matchup between laid-back surfer Pete Carroll and straight-laced, sweater-vested Jim Tressel. (Neither guy is going to play a single snap.)
For me, the game comes down to just a handful of key matchups.
1. Todd Boeckman vs. Mark Sanchez – Quarterback performance is going to go a long way toward determining how this game plays out. Based upon what has been seen so far this season, the edge has to go to Sanchez.
Despite suffering a dislocated kneecap in fall camp (an injury that sounds painful just thinking about), Sanchez completed 26 of 35 attempts for 338 yards and three touchdowns in USC's opener, a 52-7 piledriver at Virginia. The 6-3, 225-pounder wore a brace on his bum knee, but looked none the worse for wear. The few times the Cavaliers mounted any kind of pressure, Sanchez simply rolled out and away from the rush. The one time he did scramble, he picked up 6 yards.
Of course, you really don't know what kind of competition Virginia gave to Sanchez and his teammates. We do know the kind of competition Boeckman has faced so far in completing 30 of his 45 passes, good for 297 yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps best of all, the 6-4, 244-pound senior co-captain has yet to throw an interception.
But make no mistake – Boeckman did not look particularly comfortable in the pocket in either the 43-0 opener against Youngstown State or Saturday's mish-mash against Ohio. He appears to be thinking too much rather than letting his ability dictate the natural flow of the game. He sometimes locks in on a primary receiver, seems to be paying far too much attention to his footwork, almost stubbornly refuses to throw the ball away when his receivers are covered, and evidently would rather take a big hit from an opposing linebacker or safety rather than safely slide after a scramble.
I have been one of Boeckman's staunchest supporters. I went so far last year as to suggest that he might be a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2008. But the Ohio State quarterback is most definitely staring his destiny squarely in the eye. If he cannot produce Saturday night against USC, he must know that Tressel may try to jump-start the offense with freshman Terrelle Pryor.
If that happens, the writing is on the wall for Boeckman no matter how Pryor performs. If he can't get anything going, it probably spells defeat for the Buckeyes. If the freshman succeeds, it could mean the beginning of the end of the Boeckman era. And if you don't think they replace senior co-captains as the starting quarterback at Ohio State, ask Greg Hare. He started for the Buckeyes in 1972 and was voted team captain in 1973 only to cede his position to sophomore Cornelius Greene.
The bottom line is this: Is Boeckman the next Craig Krenzel or the next Greg Hare? Most people think they already know the answer. We'll see on Saturday night.
2. James Laurinaitis vs. Rey Maualuga – These two guys are purportedly the best linebackers in college football, and they get to make their respective cases on Saturday night.
Maualuga had a relatively quiet game against Virginia with only two solo tackles, but both were bone-jarring stops – the kind designed to get and hold the attention of anyone who would dare come into your area again. He is a 6-2, 260-pound ball of dynamite who is coming off a Rose Bowl performance against Illinois during which he forced a fumble, registered three sacks and picked off an interception. Simply put, Maualuga loves to blitz, loves to make big hits, and the Buckeyes had better account for him at all times.
Likewise for Laurinaitis, who comes into the game as Ohio State's leading tackler even though 10 of his 14 stops have been assists. In the first two games, the Buckeyes have run most of their blitzes from the edges with cornerbacks, safeties and defensive ends. That could be why the defensive unit has more interceptions (4) than sacks (3) at this point. And while Laurinaitis remains an important part of pass coverage, especially on running backs and tight ends – and USC throws effectively to both – a great tone-setter would be the 6-3, 240-pound senior co-captain shooting a gap early in the game to knock Sanchez into next week.
Then again, we could just put these two guys in an octagonal cage and let them decide things UFC style.
3. OSU's OL vs. USC's DL – As far as I'm concerned, you can take all of the analysis you're going to hear about this game and stuff it in the garbage can. This is the key matchup in the entire game because if Ohio State can't protect Boeckman and create holes for Wells, the Buckeyes cannot win this game.
Specifically, the right side of the OSU line – guard Ben Person and tackle Bryant Browning – must play the games of their lives. Last week, during the Buckeyes' first offensive possession, Ohio came with a third-quarter blitz that resulted in a sack. That blitz came right at Browning, who was double-teamed and in a split-second of indecision let the defenders play him.
The Buckeyes had better prepare for that to happen again Saturday against the Trojans until they prove they can stop it. Obviously, Browning is a good, young talent, but he can't take on a double-team by himself. That will require help from Person, who will be locked up with responsibilities of his own, as well as chip blocks from whichever tight end happens to be on that side.
In one way, USC's speed rushers could mean a long night for Browning and his line mates. In another way, if Ohio State manages to use the Trojans' speed against them, it could be a key to victory. Under a hard rush, the Buckeyes would be wise to scrap their deep passing game and attack the short and medium-range zones. Quick passes to hot receivers can keep a speed defense honest and also help open the running game.
Of course, if Tressel decides that he can beat Southern Cal with only what he has shown so far offensively against Youngstown State and Ohio, it may be a long night. Here's hoping it isn't.
OHIO STATE-USC TIDBITS
• As successful as Tressel has been at Ohio State, it is somewhat remarkable that his record with the Buckeyes in road openers is just 4-3. That mark includes wins over Cincinnati (23-19 in 2002), North Carolina State (22-14 in 2004), Texas (24-7 in 2006) and Washington (33-14 in 2007) as well as losses to UCLA (13-6 in 2001), Wisconsin (17-10 2003) and Penn State (17-10 in 2005). OSU's all-time record in road openers is 63-48-7.
• In terms of percentage with a minimum of five years experience, Pete Carroll of USC is the winningest active coach at the Division I-A level. Carroll's record of 77-14-0 equates to an .846 percentage, easily outdistancing Bob Stoops of Oklahoma (99-22-0) and Urban Meyer of Florida (72-16-0), who are tied for second at .818. Tressel ranks eighth on the list with a 210-73-2 career mark, good for a .740 winning percentage.
• In home openers, USC currently has a 10-game winning streak and sports an 88-18-7 record overall. The last the Trojans lost a home opener was a 14-7 defeat at the hands of Florida State in 1997. Southern Cal is also coming off an open week following its 52-7 manhandling of Virginia. The Trojans are 88-43-4 all-time after an open week.
• Southern Cal also has several other streaks on the line Saturday. The Trojans have won 11 straight nonconference games at home, nine straight nonconference games overall and 14 in a row during the month of September.
• Ohio State is 9-11-1 against USC in the all-time series. That breaks down to a 6-7-1 mark in regular season games vs. the Trojans and 3-4 in the Rose Bowl. Overall against Pac-10 teams, the Buckeyes are 50-23-2, including a 44-16-2 mark in regular-season contests.
• Southern Cal is 65-27-2 against the Big Ten, which includes a 48-18-2 mark in the regular season. The Trojans are also on a seven-game winning streak against Big Ten teams, games in which they have outscored the opposition by an average of 27.8 points.
• The Trojans have won each of the last five meetings in the series, including three straight Rose Bowls between 1974 and '84 that were determined by three points or less. Ohio State hasn't beaten USC since a 42-21 win in the 1973 Rose Bowl, and hasn't tasted victory over the Trojans in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since a 21-0 shutout in 1946. The closest OSU has come since was a 13-13 tie in 1949.
• Fifth-ranked Ohio State has played the nation's No. 1 team on 12 previous occasions and has a 4-8 record. Meanwhile, the top-rated Trojans have a 7-6 record against the No. 5 team in the rankings. USC is also 66-5-2 in games when it is ranked No. 1.
• The Buckeyes have a 16-13-1 record in games played in the state of California, including a loss in their most recent visit – that 2001 loss to UCLA that was postponed due to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 of that year.
• Night games are becoming increasingly more prevalent in college football and Ohio State is 31-12 all-time in contests that kick off at 5 p.m. or later local time. The Buckeyes play twice more at night this season – at Wisconsin on Oct. 4 and at home against Penn State on Oct. 25.
• Kickoff against the Trojans is set for about 8:15 p.m. Eastern. (If you're lucky enough to be going to the game, that's 5 p.m. local time.) ABC will telecast the game to a nationwide audience with the familiar announce crew of Brent Musberger (play-by-play) and Kirk Herbstreit (color analysis). And the game is of such magnitude it will require two sideline reporters – Erin Andrews and Lisa Salters get those assignments.
• If you can't get to a television, ESPN Radio will have the call. That is available is most major markets as well as on Sirius satellite radio on channel 123. As a last resort, you can always listen to the radio call by telephone. Call 1-800-846-4675 and dial extension 5933.
• Next week's game will be back home against Troy. Kickoff is scheduled for shortly after 12 noon Eastern, and the game will be broadcast by the Big Ten Network.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
• Congratulations to the Big Ten, which went undefeated this past weekend for the first time in two years. Doing that one better, though, was the Big 12. Its teams went 12 for 12 on Saturday, the first time that has ever happened since the conference realigned 13 years ago. (If you want to get technical, the Big Ten won 11 games last weekend on the same day for the first time ever. In 2006, the conference went perfect in nonconference games but two of those wins came on Thursday night.)
• Purdue hosts No. 16 Oregon this week in Lafayette and a victory would give Joe Tiller his 85th victory with the Boilermakers. That would allow Uncle Joe to pass Jack Mollenkopf and become the winningest coach in Purdue football history.
• NCAA and Pac-10 representatives are saying that the excessive celebration penalty called last weekend against Washington quarterback Jake Locker was correct. In case you haven't seen the play – the one that ultimately cost the Huskies in a 28-27 loss to BYU – Locker jubilantly flipped the football high in the air before celebrating with his teammates after he had scored a late touchdown. Out came a penalty flag, U-Dub was backed up 15 yards on the PAT, and the kick was blocked. Enough of this "that was the rule, so it had to be called" BS. If that is a rule, it needs to be changed. You can never eliminate emotion from college football, and I wish the powers-that-be would stop trying.
• Thanks to that victory over Washington, BYU was able to extend the Division I-A's longest current winning streak to 12 games. Oklahoma currently has the longest home winning streak after extending it to 20 with last week's win over Cincinnati.
• Think that Florida's 26-3 win over Miami set a trend? Well, you're half right. The Gators did manage to break the Hurricanes' six-game winning streak in the overall series. But the victory by the Urban Legends kept alive another streak – the higher ranked team has now won nine straight in the series.
• When East Carolina rolled to a 24-3 win over West Virginia, it was the first win for the Pirates over a top 10 team since 1999. That season also marked the last time now No. 14 ECU was ranked.
• Twenty-six years ago today, USC suffered one of the biggest upset losses in its history when unranked Florida pulled off a 17-9 win over the No. 10-ranked Trojans. Florida linebacker Wilber Marshall – who would go on to a stellar NFL career with the Chicago Bears and Washington Redskins – was a one-man wrecking crew for the Gators, registering 14 tackles and four sacks. The Trojans totaled only 84 yards rushing in the game.
• Also happening during this week in college football history: On Sept. 8, 1990, Virginia ended a 29-game losing streak to Clemson by handing the Tigers a 20-7 loss in Charlottesville; on Sept. 10, 1983, Ray Perkins won his debut as Alabama head coach (and Bear Bryant's successor) with a 20-7 victory over Georgia Tech; on Sept. 13, 1986, Lou Holtz became the first Notre Dame head coach since 1934 to lose his debut game in a 24-23 loss to Michigan in South Bend; and on Sept. 14, 1991, San Diego State freshman Marshall Faulk came off the bench to rush for seven touchdowns and a NCAA-record 386 yards in a 55-34 win over Pacific.
• Also, just to prove the theory that seemingly unbeatable No. 1 teams do get upset, on Sept. 9, 1972, unranked UCLA stunned No. 1 Nebraska, 20-17, ending the Cornhuskers' 23-game winning streak. QB Mark Harmon engineered the final scoring drive for the Bruins that resulted in a 30-yard field goal with just 22 seconds remaining. Yes, that's the same Mark Harmon whose dad was Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon, and the same Mark Harmon who now stars on television's "NCIS."
For the second week in a row, the crystal ball did well. In seven games, we missed only East Carolina's upset of West Virginia straight up and Oregon State failed to cover as the road dog at Penn State. Yes, we picked Ohio State to win big, but 34½ points was a sucker spread.
For the week, we went 6-1 straight up to push to 12-2 for the young season. We also went 6-1 against the spread, making us 10-3 ATS out of the box for 2008. Here's what's we like this week.
No. 13 Kansas at No. 19 South Florida: Every year, some team's worst nightmare comes true when it visits USF. Could that "some team" be the Jayhawks in 2008? Vegas thinks so but I don't. I think Kansas and quarterback Todd Reesing may be one of the most underrated teams in America and I think they take care of business in Jacksonville … Kansas 28, South Florida 20. (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)
No. 2 Georgia at South Carolina: With all of the talk about USC and Oklahoma, the Bulldogs get a national stage to argue their case for being No. 1. It's their SEC opener against a South Carolina team that has been all over the board in its first two games of the season. If the Dawgs are truly going to contend for the national championship, they should win this one with ease … Georgia 31, South Carolina 14. (3:30 p.m. EDT, CBS)
Arkansas at No. 8 Texas: Coaching vagabond Bobby Petrino landed at Arkansas over the winter and gets to throw his kitchen-sink offense at the Longhorns. The Razorbacks have won their first two games under Petrino – albeit by a combined five points – but they are taking a huge step up in competition. This week begins a four-game stretch against ranked teams – all in the top 11. I wouldn't be surprised if Arkansas hangs with the Longhorns, but an upset would be a little too much to ask … Texas 34, Arkansas 30. (3:30 p.m. EDT, ABC Regional/ESPN GamePlan)
UCLA at No. 18 BYU: Two of college football's luckiest teams take on one another in Provo. The Bruins somehow beat Tennessee in their opener while officials helped the Cougars maintain their winning streak last week at Washington. The luck has to run out sometime for one of these two … BYU 27, UCLA 14. (3:30 p.m. EDT, Versus)
Michigan at Notre Dame: Some of my more sharp-witted friends are calling this the Meteor Bowl – as in they hope a meteor hits … well, you get the idea. I can't remember the last time these two met when at least one wasn't ranked, leading me to believe the game will be borderline unwatchable. But since someone has to win, I will begrudgingly state that it appears the Irish are marginally better than they were a year ago. Therefore … Notre Dame 17, Michigan 16. (3:30 p.m. EDT, NBC)
No. 3 Oklahoma at Washington: I have a feeling the Sooners will be airing things out at Husky Stadium on Saturday night. Sophomore QB Sam Bradford has picked up where he left off last season, and the one-two running back punch of DeMarco Murray and Chris Brown already have seven touchdowns. Since U-Dub is already on a downer after last week's emotional loss, this one could get real ugly real fast … Oklahoma 49, Washington 14. (7:45 p.m. EDT, ESPN)
No. 10 Wisconsin at No. 21 Fresno State: Is it possible to win your first two games by a combined score of 89-31 and still have problems? The answer is yes if you're the Badgers. Wisconsin looked disinterested at times against both Akron and Marshall, but it had better be ready for the Bulldogs. Pat Hill's team seems to play its best in these kinds of games … Fresno State 26, Wisconsin 24. (10:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN2)
No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC: I wasn't going to pick this game but decided that would be a major cop-out. As previously stated, I don't have a good feeling about this game. I think the Trojans are eager to make a statement and I have my doubts about whether or not the Buckeyes feel the same way. Still, I just can't believe that I have so poorly misjudged this team and this coaching staff ... Ohio State 23, USC 20. (8 p.m. EDT, ABC)
Here are the early lines for the aforementioned games: Kansas at South Florida (-3½); Georgia (-6½) at South Carolina; Arkansas at Texas (-24); UCLA at BYU (-8); Michigan (-1) at Notre Dame; Oklahoma (-19½) at Washington; Wisconsin (-2) at Fresno State; Ohio State at USC (-11).
Enjoy the games, keep your fingers crossed, and we'll visit again next week.