"This game will be like the national championship game," Longhorn coach Mack Brown said. "The difference is that the build-up will be a week instead of a month."
One could easily argue that the build-up for this one began as soon as both Texas and Ohio State notched Ws in their respective BCS bowl games last season. This much is certain: tailgates began sprouting around the fringes of the UT campus and state government parking lots as early as Wednesday afternoon. The Austin Police Department issued warnings about the likelihood of fake tickets sold from scalpers. And, weeks ago, UT officials launched a public relations campaign urging Longhorn fans to be good sports (i.e., don't treat visiting Buckeyes as poorly as you were treated in Columbus). There are reports that up to 40,000 Buckeye fans will descend upon Austin, even though Ohio State partisans were allocated just 5,000 golden tickets for Saturday's showdown. ESPN College GameDay broadcasts live from the track-and-field stadium, starting 9 a.m. (CST) Saturday. It all culminates with a primetime, national audience tuning in to witness the biggest home-game in Texas football history, the defending national champ vs. college football's top-rated team, No. 1 vs. No. 2.
"It's a grand stage, but we've been there," DB coach Duane Akina said. "So have they."
Akina added that there is a certain fear-factor in games of this magnitude. But if anyone thinks Texas has developed stage fright just because their leading actor from 2005 has taken his show to the Tennessee Titans, just listen to Vince Young's former roommate. The Horns' level of confidence is just as high as it was this time last year when Texas came out of Columbus with a 25-22 thriller, RB Selvin Young said.
"We expect to dominate the football game every time we step on the field," Young said. "We expect to win the fourth quarter and to be the stronger team at the end. We expect to make big plays and our confidence lies in our expectations. Our expectations have not changed since last year."
If anything, the Horns are determined to prove that last year's national championship team was not a one-man show. Likewise, the Buckeyes are eager to demonstrate that breaking-in nine new defensive starters is a matter of re-loading rather than rebuilding. Given the current rankings, the critics agree.
Many have argued the current BCS system discourages these type of seismic showdowns because, in essence, they function as elimination games. Saturday's game may be the exception, in more ways than one. Unless the game becomes an unexpected blowout, the team on the short end of the stick should still be very much in the mix for the national championship (albeit without room for error). After all, the last time No. 1 and No. 2 met during the regular season was when No. 2 Florida State got past top-ranked Florida, 24-21, in 1996, only to meet again six weeks later for the national championship.
It only adds to the story line of a showdown that requires no other subplots.
It's Texas versus Ohio State.
Let the game begin!
OHIO STATE OFFENSE VS. TEXAS DEFENSE
It's almost unheard of that a team replacing nine defensive starters would begin the season atop the polls, but the Buckeyes are in college football's penthouse because of who they return on offense.
Senior Troy Smith is a Heisman-caliber quarterback who has drawn comparisons to Vince Young in the best, and worst, sense of the word. Like Young, Smith is a dual-threat QB, and thrust himself into the thick of this year's Heisman race by torching Michigan and Notre Dame to cap a 10-2 season in 2005. He was 18-of-25 for 297 yards in OSU's home-opening win against Northern Illinois. Like Young, (or, at least like Young in his earlier days), Smith has been criticized for bailing on a play and trying to make something happen with his feet. It's been noted, however, that he only ran once against Northern Illinois. The good news is that Longhorn defenders have practiced against Vince Young for years; the bad news is they couldn't tackle him.
"They've got a great running game package for Smith, starting with the option," Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chizik said. "Believe it or not, they've got a quarterback power game. Their aim is to spread you out and run power game up inside with him."
The $64,000 Question (not yet adjusted for inflation) around Austin this week would be who is assigned to WR Ted Ginn, Jr., whom many are starting to refer to as the Reggie Bush of pass-catchers. RCB Tarell Brown's suspension on misdemeanor marijuana possession charges is well-documented; it needs no further elaboration other than to say the Horns sure could use their best cover-corner in times like these. Chances are that seasoned LCB Aaron Ross will shadow Ginn and/or a safety will be rolled down. But Texas coaches have, in essence, maintained their stance throughout the week: it takes a village to cover Ted Ginn.
Ginn was limited to just nine yards on two grabs in Texas' win at the 'Shoe, and most assume that Thorpe-Award winning SS Michael Huff single-handedly derailed Ginn's fledgling Heisman campaign. Mack Brown ain't buying it.
"I think it was just a swarming defense," Brown said. "We were fortunate that a couple of passes were high to him."
In the weeks following Texas' win, Buckeye coach Jim Tressel was roundly criticized for under-utilizing Ginn. Since then, coaches have been more diligent in getting the ball into Ginn's hands. They've added more quick-hits (flares, slants), and Ginn now touches the ball on handoffs, punts and kickoff returns. The Ginn that Buckeye fans longed to see showed-up in Ohio State's thumping of Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl when the speedster combined for 240 yards (173 receiving, 67 rushing) and two TDs.
"He can score every time he touches the ball," Brown said. Any time you have to be aware of where a guy is on the field every time he's out there because he can change the game, that's the mark of a dominating player."
Ginn notched 123 yards and two TDs on four grabs against Northern Illinois, one of eight Buckeyes to catch balls.
RB Antionio Pittman may remind Horn fans of Cedric Benson: he's a power back, a slasher and is relatively underrated. He quietly ran for 1,331 yards last season while adding 111 yards on 19 carriers against Northern Illinois. Buckeye fans hope that super-frosh Chris Wells will make everyone forget about Maurice Clarrett. Wells enrolled in the spring and contributed 50 yards and one TD on 12 totes in his collegiate debut last Saturday.
The Buckeyes replace two starters on the O-line, but the unit may be Tressel's best during his nine-year tenure. Doug Datish moveed from tackle to center, filling the cleats of Nick Mangold. Sophomore LT Alex Boone (6-8, 315) may be the next big thing on the Buckeyes' offensive front.
OHIO STATE DEFENSE VS. TEXAS OFFENSE
The Buckeye defense may still be wearing nametags but DT Quinn Pitcock needs no introduction.
The 6-3, 295-pound senior is a pre-season All-American who, along with fellow DT David Patterson, is one of only two returning starters from last year's Buckeye defense. The two are bonafide run-stuffers and may be the best tackle-tandem in college football. Their inside presence may be the reason why the Horns attempted so many stretch running plays in Saturday's home opener. And if there was a rub against Ohio State's stout defense in 2005, it was that the unit lacked speed at the edge. Some have suggested that OSU may be vulnerable up the middle, referencing Garrett Wolfe's 171 yards rushing yards on 26 attempts against the Buckeyes last week, but most of that real estate came after the game was decided.
"I know they lost their linebackers and some people from their secondary, but they're just like us," QB Colt McCoy said. "They're going to have people to replace them who are just as good. From what I've seen on film, they're well-coached. They know what they're doing on their blitzes, and what they do in their secondary is really good."
Last year, the Buckeyes defense caught Texas off-guard by mixing up their looks with their NFL-bound senior linebackers. The outside linebackers were spread wide to try to contain Vince Young while the MLB often lined up between the DTs.
"Their linebacker placement, with those three linebackers, they gave them the freedom to line up wherever," C Lyle Sendlein said this week. "They were capable of ending up wherever the ball was. They were doing stuff we'd never seen before. But then we'd get together on the sideline and figure it out."
It stands to reason that Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock will not stray much from his 4-3 base while breaking-in new linebackers on the road against the defending national champ. The Buckeyes start a pair of sophomores at outside linebacker.
"They're going to try to make you left-handed," Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis said, "which means they're going to try to take away the things they know you want to do."
The Buckeyes replace all four DBs, although sophomore LCB Malcolm Jenkins logged four starts last year. He is the team's leading returning tackler with 37. Senior SS Brandon Mitchell led the team with eight tackles Saturday, creating a mild concern among Buckeye fans that the linebackers didn't combine for more stops. (Note: Texas' three leading tacklers against North Texas were all DBs -- LCB Aaron Ross, SS Michael Griffin and FS Marcus Griffin. The difference is that Co-Defensive Coordinator Gene Chiziks counts on his DBs for run support and has literally said that he considers his safeties as part of the line-of-scrimmage).
On average, the Buckeyes blitzed 41 percent of the time in 2005.
"Most of the time, it's zone behind the blitz," Davis said. "They've got all of the fire-zones that you'd expect from a quality team. They're really good at understanding where the (hot routes) are and where the ball might come if you're in a certain protection versus a certain blitz."