The question is how badly the Gators want another title. There is a reason why no team has ever won back-to-back BCS championships: it's damned hard. If wanting the title and fielding a veteran team was all there was to the equation, Ohio State would be defending the championship.
I went back to read what I wrote about the Buckeyes heading into last season and a lot of it is downright painful. Under the headline "Time For Ohio State To Prove It's The Best," I wrote an open letter to the 2008 team, a squad filled with veterans who had watched other teams before them squander national championship possibilities.
"No team in college football in 2008 has more talent than you," I wrote. "No team has more experience than you. No team has more returning starters than you. No team has more candidates for postseason awards than you. And no team has the chance to make more history than you.
"I know that you have already made the sacrifices necessary to go for a national championship. I know about the countless hours in the weight room since late January, the gallons of sweat you've spent on the practice field during 7-on-7 drills this summer, the hours upon hours of film study.
"But listen up, guys. Every young man who plays major college football makes those sacrifices. Those things alone don't make national champions. You have to want it. You can't just talk about wanting it. You have to want it – you have to want it so deep within your bone marrow that you'd walk through hell in a gasoline suit to get it.
"If you don't want it that badly, you can resign yourself to personal glory and soothe yourself with a nice, fat NFL contract next year. After all, only one of Ohio State's six Heisman Trophy winners ever won a national championship ring. Most of them came close, of course, but no one gets a trophy for getting close.
"If you want it – truly want it – go out and get it. No team on your schedule – not even supposedly mighty USC – is as good as you are.
"On paper, you are the best team in college football. All you have to do is go out and prove it."
Hindsight being 20/20, we know that the 2008 Buckeyes did not "go out and get it." On paper, they may have stacked up well against any other team in America, but where it mattered – on the playing field – there were three losses. Last time I checked, you don't win a national championship with three losses.
Now, in less than 48 hours, the 2009 title chase begins. The championship talk centers around Florida, and if by some off-chance the Gators stumble, most of the so-called experts look for No. 2 Texas or third-ranked Oklahoma to make a title run. (Can't be both, of course. They play one another Oct. 17.)
The rest of the top 10 is a flawed bunch, which includes No. 6 Ohio State and its relatively inexperienced lineup.
On the surface, the preseason No. 6 ranking would seem a little high. Where are the points going to come from? No proven tailback, no proven receiver and a young, still-improving quarterback working behind a revamped offensive line. Even the defense, which should be considered the strength of the team, must shake off the losses of All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis and Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
Of course, trying to figure out which teams will peak in which years is kind of like trying to time the stock market. Every member of the Buckeye Nation knows the team was primed for a national championship run in 2003, yet won it all a year before. On the surface, OSU would appear to be a stronger candidate for BCS honors in 2010 that it does this season.
And yet there are possibilities. Very real ones.
The schedule is certainly friendly enough. With the exception of the Nov. 7 visit to Penn State, the games against the perceived toughest opponents – USC, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa – will all be in Ohio Stadium.
Additionally, with all of the inexperience comes a boatload of talent. According to Scout.com, over the past three recruiting seasons, the Buckeyes have signed 41 players with four- or five-star ratings. Over the same span, Big Ten rival Penn State has signed 29. Meanwhile, Texas has signed 45 players with four or five stars, Florida has signed 44, USC has signed 41 and Oklahoma has signed 33.
I know that recruiting is an inexact science, but you, me and Aunt Martha can pretty much separate the four- and five-star performers from the rest of the pack. And you're telling me Ohio State shouldn't be able to compete for the national championship against those other media darlings?
Why not this year? Terrelle Pryor is a superstar in the making. Neither Dan Herron nor Brandon Saine are the bruiser Beanie Wells was, but they have a lot of talent and both seem eager as hell. For all of the hand-wringing we've done since spring about the offensive line, do you honestly think guys like Justin Boren and Jim Cordle are going to let that unit underachieve?
I don't want to want to climb out on any limbs and predict a national championship run for the 2009 Buckeyes. There are just too many variables, too many things that have to fall into place, too many bounces that have to bounce the right way. Besides, take another look at what I wrote about last year's team and tell me how adept I am at telling the future.
Somehow, though, I just have this nagging feeling that this could be a season where the Buckeyes confound their critics. I guess we'll begin to find out in about 48 hours.
PLAYING SERVICE ACADEMIES
Throughout the first part of its existence, and especially during World Wars I and II, Ohio State squared off against many teams made up of military personnel. However, when the Buckeyes host the Midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy on Saturday, it will mark only the second time a service academy team has played at Ohio Stadium and only the fifth time ever Ohio State has played an academy team.
OSU and Navy have met three times previously in football matchups with the Buckeyes holding victories in all three games.
The teams first met in 1930 when the Buckeyes took a 27-0 win over the Midshipmen. The game, played at the old Municipal Stadium in Baltimore, snapped a three-game non-winning streak for Ohio State. After beginning the 1930 season with home shutouts over Mount Union and Indiana, the Buckeyes lost a 19-2 decision at Northwestern and a 13-0 verdict at home to Michigan before playing Wisconsin to a 0-0 tie.
Against the Middies (who know prefer to be known simply as the Mids), Ohio State rediscovered its offense and scored four touchdowns. One of those was a scoring pass from three-time All-American Wes Fesler to receiver Dick Larkins, who would later serve 23 years as OSU athletic director.
The following season in 1931, Navy came to Columbus and was victimized by another well-known Ohio State All-American. Sid Gillman gathered in a tipped pass for a 35-yard touchdown reception as the Buckeyes rolled to a 20-0 homecoming victory in Ohio Stadium.
OSU and Navy would not meet again for 50 years until the Liberty Bowl matched the two schools following the 1981 season. The underdog Midshipmen erased an early 10-0 deficit and stormed to a 20-17 lead midway through the third quarter.
But the Buckeyes came back with a 2-yard touchdown run by Jimmy Gayle to regain the lead with two minutes left in the third period, and then Art Schlichter threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Anderson early in the fourth quarter. It was Schlichter's 50th career TD pass, a school record that would stand until Bobby Hoying broke it in 1995.
Navy made things interesting with a touchdown and two-point conversion with eight seconds left to make it 31-287, but OSU recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock. The win snapped a string of four consecutive bowl losses for the Buckeyes and began a postseason stretch that saw Ohio State win five of six bowl games.
OSU's other contest against service academy competition would just as soon be forgotten by most Buckeye fans. That one occurred after the 1990 season and resulted in a 23-11 Liberty Bowl loss to Air Force.
The Buckeyes had missed out on a chance to go to the Rose Bowl that season following a 31-3 loss to Michigan, and the team was bitterly disappointed at being relegated to the Liberty Bowl. That disappointment showed in their performance although OSU actually enjoyed an early 5-0 lead in the game. They got a safety in the opening minutes and a 28-yard field goal from Tim Williams later in the opening period, but the Falcons scored touchdowns in the second and third quarters to build a 13-5 lead.
OSU cut the margin to 13-11 early in the fourth quarter on tailback Robert Smith's 29-yard run, but the Buckeyes would get no closer. Air Force sealed the win in the final three minutes with a 47-yard field goal and a 40-yard TD on an interception return.
The Buckeyes totaled only 214 yards of offense in the game, including 80 on the ground. Meanwhile, the Falcons' wishbone attack was worth 254 rushing yards.
The outcome had far-reaching repercussions for head coach John Cooper's program at Ohio State. The Buckeyes suffered through one of their worst recruiting seasons in recent memory – many experts rated their efforts as only sixth-best in the Big Ten.
** Ohio State kicks off its 120th season of intercollegiate football against Navy on Saturday. The Buckeyes have won 30 consecutive home openers, not tasting defeat since a 19-0 loss to Penn State in the 1978 season opener. OSU is also 2-0 all-time on Sept. 5 – a 20-19 win over Louisville in the 1992 home opener and a 34-17 victory at West Virginia in 1998.
** OSU head coach Jim Tressel is 17-5-1 in season openers, including a perfect 8-0 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.
** The Midshipmen are led by second-year coach Ken Niumatalolo who is 8-6 overall at Navy. Niumatalolo is the first coach to lead Navy to a bowl game in his inaugural season as head coach.
** Navy has won three straight season openers and is 6-1 in the triple option era. The only loss during that span was a 23-20 defeat to Maryland in 2005. This, however, is the first time since 1999 the Mids have opened the season against a ranked opponent. That season, Navy dropped a 49-14 decision to No. 10 Georgia Tech.
** While the Buckeyes are 3-1 all-time against service academies, the Midshipmen are 26-40-3 all-time against teams from the Big Ten. Navy last played a Big Ten opponent in 2002 when it lost a 49-40 shootout against Northwestern in Annapolis. The Mids haven't enjoyed a victory over a Big Ten team since 1979 when they took a 13-12 win at Illinois.
** Navy last defeated a top-10 team on Nov. 17, 1984, when the Mids upset No. 2 South Carolina, 38-21, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
** Ohio State is 385-106-20 in Ohio Stadium since the facility opened in 1922. That is a .773 winning percentage. All-time in Columbus, the team is 528-153-35, good for a winning percentage of .762.
** Over the past six seasons, the Buckeyes have enjoyed a 38-4 record at home, good for a .905 winning percentage. Since 2003, that is the fourth best home mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision (better known as Division I-A). Only Boise State (38-1, .975), Oklahoma (37-1, .974) and USC (35-1, .972) have done better over that same time frame.
** No one gives Navy much of a chance to topple the Buckeyes, but everyone who takes the Midshipmen lightly does so at their own risk. Not only has the Naval Academy led all Division I-A teams in rushing in each of the past four seasons, it is also working on a streak of six consecutive years with eight or more victories.
** Navy is trying to win a record fifth straight NCAA rushing title this year. Before the Midshipmen's current streak, no team had ever won the rushing title more than twice in a row.
** The Mids own 13 victories over BCS-conference opponents since 2003. That number is tied with Utah for the most by a non-BCS team over the last six seasons.
** Congratulations to Ohio State's newly minted captains – defensive lineman Doug Worthington, linebacker Austin Spitler and safety Kurt Coleman. The last time the Buckeyes had an all-defensive lineup at captain was in 2002 when Donnie Nickey and Mike Doss helped lead the team to the national championship.
** ESPN will have the telecast of the Ohio State-Navy game. The announce team will feature Dave Pasch with the play-by-play and a pair of former Big Ten All-Americans – OSU's own Chris Spielman and Bob Griese of Purdue – providing the color commentary. Kickoff is set for 12 noon Eastern.
** In addition to his ESPN duties, Spielman will be honored at the Navy game for his election to the College Football Hall of Fame. On hand to help honor Spielman will be National Football Foundation board member and Hall of Fame running back Archie Griffin.
** Saturday's pregame will also feature a flyover conducted by The Fighting Bengals of VMFA(AW)-224 stationed at MCAS Beaufort in Beaufort, S.C. The Fighting Bengals just returned from a deployment to Iwakuni, Japan. One of the pilots will be former Navy offensive lineman Grant Moody, who lettered for the Midshipmen in 2003.
** Next week, Ohio State stays home to host Southern California in one of the most eagerly anticipated matchups of the young season. That game will also be televised by ESPN with a kickoff scheduled shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern.
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
** Twenty-five years ago today, Miami (Fla.) notched its second straight victory over a No. 1-ranked team. Eight months after knocking off top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and winning their first-ever national championship, the Hurricanes dealt preseason No. 1 Auburn a 20-18 loss in the 1984 Kickoff Classic, held at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. A late fumble by Auburn running back Bo Jackson led to the go-ahead field goal by Miami freshman kicker Greg Cox.
** Also occurring during this week in college football: On Sept. 2, 1989, Southern Mississippi quarterback Brett Favre threw for 282 yards and two touchdowns, including a 2-yard score with 23 seconds remaining, to lead the Golden Eagles to a 30-26 win over No. 6 Florida State; on Sept. 4, 1993, Penn State scored its first Big Ten victory with a 38-20 win over Minnesota; and on Sept. 5, 1981, Lamar (Texas) University engineered one of the biggest upsets in college football history, beating defending SWC champion Baylor, 18-17, in Waco. Lamar kicker Mike Marlow booted a 42-yard field goal with three seconds left to account for the winning points. It was the first time in history that a Division I-AA school had beaten a I-A school. Lamar, which ended its football program in 1989, is scheduled to resume intercollegiate play in 2010.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** You may want to keep tabs on Lane Kiffin's first season as head coach at Tennessee. The Volunteers currently hold the distinction of being the major college program with the longest streak since back-to-back losing seasons. Tennessee, which went 5-7 last year to get Phil Fulmer fired, hasn't had back-to-back losing seasons since 1910 and '11. Which team currently has the second-longest streak? That would be Ohio State, which hasn't posted back-to-back losing campaigns since 1923 and '24.
** College teams playing in NFL stadiums is becoming popular. Colorado and Colorado State recently agreed to play the next 10 games in their series at Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos. A little closer to home, Indiana and Penn State will play in 2010 at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. That is technically a home game for the Hoosiers even though FedEx Field is some 700 miles from Bloomington.
** Fact: NCAA rules stipulate no football player can spend more than 20 hours per week, and no more than four hours per day, during the season on "controlled activities." Fact: The 20-hour rule is one of those "don't ask, don't tell" rules that every program bends. Fact: The excuse that "everyone else does it" is no excuse at all. Fact: Michigan should have gone ahead, bit the bullet and hired Les Miles. Fact: Rich Rodriguez should have remained at West Virginia.
** Welcome to five institutions who field intercollegiate football programs for the first time in 2009. The newbies are Old Dominion in Division I-AA, the University of New Haven (West Haven, Conn.) and the University of the Incarnate Word (San Antonio, Texas) in Division II, and Anna Maria College (Paxton, Mass.) and Castleton (Vt.) State College in Division III. Anna Maria and Castleton kick off their inaugural seasons playing one another Saturday in Castleton.
** In case you haven't heard, I have a book coming out. It is called "The Die-Hard Fan's Guide to Buckeye Football," and is scheduled for release Sept. 8. You can purchase it now (at a discount) at such online booksellers as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Check it out.