With every major skill position contributor and two returning defensive All-Americans among the 18 starters coming back, Ohio State was expected to have a better team than the one that made the national title game last season for the second campaign in a row.
Thus, for many the campaign has been a disappointment for the 7-2 Buckeyes, but at least one team member says that this team is, in fact, superior to the last year's title contender.
"I think we're a better team than last year, but we just couldn't get the wins when we needed," defensive back Kurt Coleman said. "I think this final stretch, we're going to really have to show everybody what we can really bring."
Coleman's remarks might sound quizzical to some, or the opinion of a player unable to come to terms with the state of the team this season to others, but the junior safety stuck to his guns when asked how the Buckeyes are better.
"I think we're a much more experienced group – that's just a given," Coleman said. "I think we're playing a lot better as a team. But I think the competition has also risen to the occasion this year, which is why there's a difference in the record. I think as a team we're a lot more unified and we're playing a lot better as cohesive unit."
The fact that the competition is better than it was a season ago is undeniable. Ohio State's run to the title game a season ago was aided by a schedule that was made easier by a weak Big Ten and a down Washington team, which was supposed to be the marquee nonconference opponent the Buckeyes play each season.
When Ohio State finished the regular season 11-1 and moved into the title game thanks to a stunning compilation of losses by top teams during the season's final three weeks, the Buckeyes still had not yet played a team that was ranked in the top 20 of the Associated Press poll at the time of the game. Purdue and Michigan both were ranked 23rd at the time of their games with OSU, making them the highest-ranked teams the Buckeyes played on the season.
Things have been different this time around, as four of the team's first nine opponents were ranked when playing the Buckeyes. The team's losses came to top-three teams in No. 1 USC and No. 3 Penn State, while Ohio State earned road wins over No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 20 Michigan State.
That the schedule would be improved in '08 did not come as a surprise to Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who pointed to that fact as one reason he hasn't been so stunned by his team's record.
"In fact, one of the things we talked a lot about beginning last March is that 2008 was going to be much more challenging than 2007," Tressel said. "I mean, it wasn't even going to be close, all the way from the schedule to the expectations to the individual expectations, all of those things. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest."
Those expectations also have made the season look like a disappointment, whereas last year's was a bit of a success compared to the initial polls. In fact, the seasons nearly mirror one another; the Buckeyes opened last year 11th and lost the national title game, while this year's group started second and now is 12th.
"You can never really look in the future and find out what's going to happen," senior defensive tackle Nader Abdallah said. "We just took it one game at a time and that's the way it turned out. We wish we'd have never lost those games, but you just have to finish it out right."
The accomplishments of a season ago – a campaign in which the Buckeyes had to make heavy changes on 2006's potent offense – in fact might have hurt this Ohio State team. The Buckeyes were 7-1 in Big Ten play and won a third straight league title, making them a hunted team when it comes to both the national and conference races.
"Coming off of last year, where everybody had kind of written us off early and didn't really expect much from us, it was easy to come into a lot of games and surprise some people," wideout Brian Robiskie said. "But coming off of last year and going into the year with everybody coming back, people had a lot of expectations. Like it is with Ohio State, people are always going to come in and give you their best game."
And as some pundits say the Buckeyes have looked lethargic in some games and impotent offensively in others, Coleman stuck to his guns with his belief that the team has mostly played well but just not come through in certain situations.
"We've shown up for all of the games," Coleman said. "They've just beaten us. That's just something that you have to work through, but I honestly think as a team we're working a lot better together and playing a lot better."