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Preseason countdown: No. 21 Ohio State

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Fine, so Ohio State might have just redefined the idea of lack of institutional control, Jim Tressel might have been exposed as a hypocritical gasbag, and the sweatervest of a program keeps on unraveling with every new pull of the thread, but on the field, this really was an amazing run.

The Buckeyes have gone to six straight BCS games, won 66 games over those six years, and won the 2010 Rose Bowl and the 2011 Sugar Bowl (though it was vacated, along with all the wins from last season). During that span they lost 11 games and just two of them – 2009 losses to USC and Purdue – came to teams that didn’t end up in BCS games. Even more impressively, starting with the 2002 national title win over Miami, Ohio State got a BCS invite in eight of the last nine seasons.

OHIO STATE

How big of a monster has Ohio State football been on the field? Over the last 23 years, there have been just two losses to teams that finished the season with a losing record, and 1988 was the last time OSU finished a season with fewer than seven wins.

This isn’t a program that’s used to being mediocre, and considering the Armageddon reaction to the Purdue loss in 2009, this isn’t a fan base that’ll handle any sort of USC-like sanctions all that well, even if they’re not coming from out of left field. Fortunately, if the notoriously pokey NCAA doesn’t drop a hammer in the next few months, the potential is there for one more round of fun.

Judging by the disastrous first press conference, new head coach Luke “I was not informed of any information until it became public knowledge” Fickell is hardly change we can believe in, and while that’ll be a problem for a program that might need to go through a complete overhaul in the near future, his rah-rah, full-steam-ahead attitude should work for 2011.

Forgetting the major off-the-field issues, Ohio State has to deal with the loss of three starters in the secondary, two great linebackers in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, two top defensive linemen in Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, steady placekicker Devin Barclay, two starting offensive guards in Justin Boren and Bryant Browning, and leading receiver Dane Sanzenbacher. And then, of course, there’s the permanent loss of QB Terrelle Pryor, not to mention Tressel, and the absence of top running back Dan Herron, star receiver DeVier Posey, and all-star left tackle Mike Adams for five games. Throw in all the factors, all the controversy, and all the major personnel losses, and it might appear that Ohio State is getting started on the seven-to-nine win plan a bit early.

Not quite yet.

The Big Ten isn’t all that nasty and the Leaders division isn’t the SEC West. The Wisconsin game is at home, Penn State is just okay, and Illinois, Indiana and Purdue are Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue. Even with all the issues and all the drama, Ohio State is still the most talented team in the league thanks to years of loaded recruiting classes, and now Fickell has something that Tressel never had: the “us against the world” rallying cry.

Every coach likes to manufacture reasons for why the entire planet wants nothing more than to see a football team fail, but if Fickell knows what he’s doing, he can really and truly play the disrespect card and get this team to do just enough to win the division. Not having a ton of returning experience might turn out to be a plus; there won’t be any sense of entitlement on a team full of players looking to prove they can play. They’ll buy into the idea that this season really, really matters.

The defense will be its typical swarming, run-stuffing self. The linebackers are going to be terrific, John Simon and emerging tackle Johnathan Hankins will dominate up front, and the secondary will get by on athleticism and raw talent against a schedule with few teams that’ll be able to throw a forward pass on a regular basis.

The offense will be raw, but there’s speed to burn at the skill spots and the line is versatile, big, and great for the ground game. If the quarterback situation can be quickly settled, and if the idea of Tressel Ball is shelved just enough to allow for more downfield passing, the offense will be more than fine.

Even if Fickell is a disaster and even if everyone is flat while they’re waiting for the verdict to come, the Buckeyes will still almost certainly be favored in at least ten of the 12 games. The road trip to Nebraska is a coin-flip, and the showdowns against Miami, Wisconsin, and Michigan State could go either way, but even those games will be relatively even.

And don’t dismiss the idea that the NCAA might be the NCAA. If Auburn could survive the storm and go on to win the national title, there’s a snowball’s chance that Ohio State gets out of this without being blown out of the water. It’s unlikely, but it has to be business as usual for now.

On the field, of course.

What to watch for on offense: Pryor’s replacement. There will be two very interesting and distinct schools of thought on Braxton Miller, the latest quarterback super-recruit. No one stepped up to take over the starting quarterback job this offseason, so if everything is equal, going with Miller over senior Joe Bauserman might make the most sense. However, if there’s a thought that this could be the last hurrah if the NCAA heat is coming, Bauserman could be the call in a rely-on-the-D-and-let’s-win-now sort of way. Miller has the arm, the size, and the mobility to be a franchise-maker, but he’s still just a true freshman and he’s going to make mistakes. Will the coaching staff end up going with a rotation? Will the patience be there to let Miller sink-or-swim? In a division with Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, and Nathan Scheelhaase, Ohio State needs to be able to match up with other good quarterbacks and it can’t get the call wrong.

What to watch for on defense: The linebackers. Ohio State has had a who’s who of all-star linebackers over the years, and every time it seems like someone is irreplaceable, there’s a replacement. The Buckeye linebackers will put up stats, but the often overblown idea of leadership is a big deal with all that’s going on and with Ross Homan and Brian Rolle now out of the mix. The hope is for uber-talented junior Etienne Sabino to start playing like his hair is on fire after being redshirted last year. Storm Klein should be a statistical superstar no matter where he plays, and veteran Andrew Sweat could turn out to be the leader only because he’s the lone returning starter. If the starting threesome is great and the run defense is its normal top-five self, then this really could be a typical Ohio State season.

The team will be far better if: There aren’t a slew of interceptions. Ohio State was fourth in the nation in turnover margin because the offense gave away a mere two fumbles, but Pryor threw 11 interceptions and the team gave away 13 picks. This year’s squad has too much youth in the backfield – at least for the first five games – to expect more fortune with the fumbles, and it’s asking a lot for a green starting quarterback to keep the mistakes to a minimum, but this year’s team can’t afford to give away easy points and easy chances. The quarterbacks don’t have to be special, but they can’t screw things up.

The schedule: All eyes will be on the first five games of the season without Herron, Posey and the other naughty Buckeyes. Very, very conveniently, the suspensions end just before the Big Ten’s showcase game of the year — OSU’s trip to Nebraska. To start, getting past Akron and Toledo shouldn’t be an issue, but the battle at Miami could be a make-or-break moment to see if Fickell can handle himself in a tough spot. Colorado and Michigan State are winnable games at home, but again, the suspensions will be a storyline. The Michigan game at the end of the season won’t be the light scrimmage it has been over the last few years, but the bigger problem from the Legends should be facing the Spartans, along with the date with the Huskers. The Leaders’ game of the year should be OSU vs. Wisconsin, and this year, it’s in Columbus, along with the Penn State showdown.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Herron, or senior OT Adams, or senior WR Posey. It stinks that the three best players on the offense happened to the ones nailed with five-game suspensions. Center Michael Brewster might have something to say about the best player debate, but Herron is a difference maker who carried the offense at times in his breakout junior year; Posey is the veteran No. 1 target the offense desperately needs and Adams might be the best blocking tackle in the Big Ten.

Best defensive player: Junior DT John Simon. This could quickly change with 325-pound sophomore Hankins emerging as a possible star for the defensive interior, and with Nathan Williams a great-looking veteran pass rusher. Simon is a glue type of player with 57 career tackles, 4.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He can play inside or out and he’s always working, always making things happen, and always producing. No, he’s not the defense’s most talented player, but he could turn out to be the difference maker that everything works around.

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Key player to a successful season: Sophomore WR Chris Fields and/or sophomore WR Corey "Philly" Brown. Obviously the quarterback situation is the biggest key to the season, but it’ll all turn out fine as long as the wide receivers aren’t awful. Posey’s absence for five games hurts, while losing Sanzenbacher is a killer. Fields and Brown are smallish, quick targets compared to Posey, and if they can find a groove right away with the new starting quarterback, everything will open up. If they stink and there’s no passing game, Ohio State loses to Miami and Michigan State before Posey and Herron are back.

The season will be a success if: The Buckeyes win the Leaders. Winning the Big Ten title has to be the stated goal with a national title shot a pie-in-the-sky dream for a team with so many concerns both on and off the field. There’s no excuse to not at least win the division with the two biggest games – Wisconsin and Penn State – at home, and there’s no excuse to aim for anything less than a shot at another BCS game with the talent that’s returning. Of course, the NCAA could provide the excuse.

Key game: Nov. 26 at Michigan. The Wisconsin and Penn State games are far more important for the realistic goals of the season, and beating Nebraska on the road would be great, and coming up with a huge road win at Miami would do wonders for the team’s confidence, but with the Buckeye arrow pointing down and things starting to change for Michigan, it would be a disaster to lose the rivalry momentum. Obviously there are a ton of other factors involved and plenty of other things in the 2011 equation, but to lose to the Wolverines in Brady Hoke’s first season would shift the balance of power north. Basically, a loss could mean that Hoke starts doing to Ohio State what Tressel did to Michigan.

Tagged: Troy, Clemson, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State, USC, Oregon, Notre Dame, Ohio, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Andre Ellington, Brandon Thompson, Mike Martin, Nick Perry, Matt Kalil, Andre Branch, Matt Barkley, Tajh Boyd, Denard Robinson, Taylor Martinez, Jared Crick, Cam Newton, Illinois, Purdue, Nathan Scheelhaase, John Simon, DeVier Posey, Nathan Williams, Ross Homan, Dan Herron, Brian Rolle, Dane Sanzenbacher, Mike Adams, Terrelle Pryor, Johnathan Hankins, Braxton Miller

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