Big Ten Football Previews – Ohio State Buckeyes
Editor's Note: This is the tenth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...
Team: Ohio State Buckeyes
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Fiesta
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo
2003 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (1st) / 11-2, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 11-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 14-0, 8-0 (T-1st), National Champs
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 7-5, 5-3 (3rd)
Returning Starters: 8 offense, 2 defense, 1 kicker
Key Returnees: QB Troy Smith, WR Ted Ginn, TB Antonio Pittman, FB Stan White, RT Kirk Barton, DT David Patterson, DT Quinn Pitcock, P A.J. Trapasso
Key Losses: WR Santonio Holmes, C Nick Mangold, OG Robbie Sims, DE Mike Kudla, LB A.J. Hawk, LB Bobby Carpenter, LB Anthony Schlegel, SS Donte Whitner, FS Nate Salley, CB Ashton Youboty, PK Josh Huston
Looking Back ... A few plays away. Much like Penn State, that’s how close and just how far away Ohio State was from taking the stage in the National Title game last season. There was the tough home loss to eventual champ Texas and a hard-fought road “L” at Penn State. That was how close the Buckeyes were to getting a shot at a second national title in four seasons. Not too shabby, eh? Last season’s team was built around a defense that fielded three of the NFL Draft’s first 18 picks in April. Ohio State landed five first round picks in all. The offense might have been the story late, but it was the defense that made the scarlet and gray a contender all season long, and that led the Buckeyes to yet another win over arch-rival Michigan.
Jim Tressel now has five seasons under his belt, and he has led OSU to three double-digit win seasons, a pair of Big Ten crowns, a national title and four, count ‘em, four wins over the despised Wolverines. All of it has Ohio State fans in a frenzy and ready to repeat all of the above in 2006. Given what the Buckeyes lost on defense, that may be easier said than done but so what if you give up closer to 20 points per contest (it was 15.2 in ’05) if you can score well over 30 points yourself (it was 32.7 ppg last season)? The Ohio State offense only got better as young stars like Smith, Pittman and Ginn all got on the same page. Imagine what an offense that did the damage that the Buckeyes did and returns several starters might do in ’06. 2006 might just see OSU gain those few extra plays needed to win the scarlet and gray yet another trip to the National Title game at the Bucks’ favorite January destination of late – Tempe.
Outlook - Offense ...There might not be a more potent group of starters returning in the Big Ten than what Ohio State brings back this fall. Top notch quarterback? Check. Unsung tailback? Check. A pair of wideouts that can make almost any football slinger better? Check, check. Folks, if Ohio State was as good as it was last season because of the defense, this year’s team will be in the same position because of the offense. Yes, it is that good. From the skill players to the trenches, this team might run circles around most of the opposition it faces. Brace yourself, a team that scored over 30 points in eight of 12 contests last year will be even better this season…
There isn’t a team with a better quarterback situation in the Big Ten. First, there is Troy Smith, the dual threat signal caller that has quietly become one of the nations’ best. Why quietly? Two words – Justin Zwick. Remember, not so long ago, Zwick was the next coming – at least as anointed when an incoming freshman. Zwick never completely materialized, in part because Smith became such an intriguing weapon. Just think, with a game under his belt instead of having served a suspension in the opener, Smith may have been able to lead OSU to a victory over Texas instead of a close but not cigar early season loss. Smith is widely thought to be the best of a strong lot in the Big Ten and with an experienced and hungry Zwick still on his heels, the Buckeyes are enjoying a great problem to have – two starting caliber players on the depth chart. Smith can run and throw and has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Zwick has adjusted to his role and is more than ready to step in at a moments notice. Both are seniors, which means players like Todd Boekman and Rob Schoenhoft might steal some of Zwick’s mop-up time, but no matter how you slice it, OSU can win this conference with its first or second string QB at the helm.
Much like at quarterback, it isn’t a one man show at running back either. Antonio Pittman quietly (notice the theme here?) put up 1,331 yards rushing to go with seven scores. The junior might be the most unheralded, big statistics producer for any of the big time programs in college football. He has a terrific blend of speed and power but doesn’t have to do it all himself, which means he can go full bore all the time. There is a stable of quality backing Pittman up, starting with sophomores Maurice Wells and Eric Haw. Both are more than capable of being the go-to back if something happens to Pittman. However, freshman Chris Wells might not give them a chance. Wells is considered by many to be the best incoming tailback in the country with size, speed and a nose for the endzone. Back to Pittman, he could be an all-league player this season if he can provide more scoring punch for the offense. Speaking of unheralded, is there a position in football that gets less spotlight than the fullback? And yet the lead blocker who is lucky to get a tote here or there or catch a screen pass on occasion is a main reason for the success of a running game. Senior Stan White is that guy for the Buckeyes. He is a tremendous blocker who will go mostly unnoticed due to a lack of carries and catches. OSU can go even bigger if they wish with Dionte Johnson. Either way, with Pittman leading the way, this will be one of the best running attacks in the Big Ten.
Some might think that losing a receiver like Santonio Holmes would be a big dent to a team’s passing attack. Those that do haven’t seen Ted Ginn. Ginn is easily the most electrifying player in college football. A cousin of mine, who plays at DII Ashland and was in the same class as Ginn told me I’d never seen anyone with his speed or ability, and he was right. Ginn is flat out a game changer. With the steady, speedy Holmes leaving early and sporting the colors of Super Bowl champ Pittsburgh, the go-to guy is Ginn. The nice thing is, he’s not alone. Anthony Gonzalez is quick, had tremendous hands and is not afraid to make the tough catch. He’ll fill Ginn’s role with Ginn moving to Holmes’ spot. The Buckeyes also have the luxury of four long, back-up receivers in senior Roy Hall (who will start in three receiver sets), sophomore Devon Lyons, redshirt freshman Brian Hartline and sophomore Brian Robiskie. While none evoke the fear that Ginn or even Gonzalez do, they each bring their own benefits the to table. One area that the Buckeyes will need to shore up is tight end. With the recent suspension of Marcel Frost, starter Rory Nicol is going to have to shoulder even more of the load. In the meantime, Ohio State will look to some other youngsters to help get more production out of the tight end position.
Of course the key to any good offense is to have a line that can be relied upon for pass protection and solid run blocking. It seems like it’s been a while since Ohio State has churned out a superstar on the offensive line but yet the unit quietly gets the job done and done well. This year will be no different and in fact this might be the best line of the Tressel era. Three seniors and a junior anchor the line, with a bevy of talented sophomores filling in the other slots and the depth chart. Dan Datish might be the most versatile player of the lot. He can play guard or center but is currently penciled in at center. Senior guard T.J. Downing could have a break through season and play on Sunday’s in the future. Senior Tim Schafer holds down the left guard position. While both are fifth year players, they will have to work hard to stave off sophomores Jon Skinner and Kyle Mitchum. Both are up and coming talents with size and offer OSU the luxury of depth at a position that is always giving and taking a beating. The best of the front five may be the tackles. Kirk Barton is a sure-fire NFL talent. The junior will hold down the right tackle spot. Sophomore Alex Boone will get the nod at left tackle, but the equally as imposing Steve Rehring will be right on his heels. The bottom line? This is another unsung unit that might not get a lot of praise but that will have a huge hand in any offensive success this team has all fall.
Outlook - Defense ... As potent as the offense was last year, the defense carried this team to another double-digit win total. Fast forward to ’06 and the shoe is firmly on the other foot. The OSU offense is the strength of this year’s team. Does that mean the defense won’t have success or create the next superstar Buckeye defender? Hardly. The scarlet and gray always field a good defense and despite the loss of key players to the NFL, this season will be no different. Yes, new players or former role players will need to step up, but with a seasoned power like Ohio State, that is the norm, the expectation, not the exception.
The good news heading into this season is that despite losing three linebackers to the NFL the player that gave each of those ‘backers the opportunity to shine returns. Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock has the speed to play end but the strength and size to be one of the top tackles in the nation. With him bottling things up in the middle, the rest of the speedy OSU defenders can make the plays. He is joined inside by another player with end quickness and inside size – David Patterson. Patterson is a good run stopper but most notably gives the Buckeyes an inside pass rusher and someone the coaches can move around a bit to keep teams guessing. That leaves the end positions to senior Jay Richardson and sophomore Lawrence Wilson. Richardson is rangy but not all that quick and is in the mix more for his run stopping than pass rushing prowess. Wilson is a tall speed rusher that could develop into the next superstar. The depth chart isn’t anything to write home about, but there is a little bit of experience to mix with potential and up and coming talent. Tackle Joel Penton will see a bit of time as will end Vernon Gholston. Todd Denlinger and Alex Barrow round out the two-deep.
There was a boatload of amazingly talented linebackers in the Big Ten last season, but none as collectively disruptive and game-changing as the trio Ohio State sent to the NFL. Most teams would be scurrying to fill one of the positions vacated by that level of talent, let alone three, but not Ohio State. There is plenty of experience in the mix and incredible potential too boot. The anchor this year will be former Indiana starter John Kerr. The middle linebacker is a tough hitter that will finally get a chance to play after sitting behind A.J. Hawk. His backup Mike D’Andrea is another fifth year senior that if he had stayed healthy, might have been every bit as good as Hawk. He’ll also get one more go at making something out of what has been a somewhat frustrating career. Two speedy sophomores make up the other starting slots. Marcus Freeman has a world of upside with speed and size to drool over. James Laurinaitis is penciled in at the strong side for now, but he’ll have to hold off late recruit, heralded JUCO LB Larry Grant. Curtis Terry and Ross Homan make up the rest of what is another part of the depth chart filled with talent.
Much like the linebacking corps in front of them, all of the starters from last year’s secondary have moved on to the next level. Ordinarily, that would throw up major red flags, especially considering the fact that there are so many experienced pitch and catch combos around the Big Ten. However, thinking that of Ohio State is a mistake. When haven’t the Buckeyes replaced NFL talent with NFL talent? This year is no different. Four new starters, same potential. Perhaps the only concern is the youth. But then, if there is talent and it is fast and ready to play, who cares about the experience level? The elder statesman will be senior corner Antonio Smith. While a little on the small size (5-9) he is a good hitter and has great speed. He’s more likely to get picked on by opposing QBs given the size and speed of fellow corner, sophomore Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins is the next bit thing in the defensive backfield and could garner all-conference honors this season. Another pair of sophomores start at safety – Nick Patterson is another big, speedy DB and he’ll only get better as he works to hold off senior Brandon Mitchell for the free safety spot. Jamario O’Neal is a physical player, with – surprise, surprise – tremendous speed. Redshirt freshman Anderson Russell will push O’Neal for time. Donald Washington is probably the first corner off the bench, and he too provides size and speed to this group. New or not, look for the Ohio State secondary to shine as the season goes on.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Another strong, reliable place-kicker has moved on in the person of Josh Huston. Who wins the job is still somewhat up in the air between sophomore Ryan Pretorius and redshirt freshman Aaron Pettrey. Pettrey has the better leg but Pretorius was steadier in spring ball and looks to hold the job heading into the season. One area that isn’t a concern is the punting game. A.J. Trapasso had a solid first season and should only get better as he gets older. Also, how can you not mention the explosive return game? Ginn already has taken five punts back for scores and gobbles up return yards in droves.
9/2 – NORTHERN ILLINOIS
9/9 – at Texas
9/16 – CINCINNATI
9/23 – PENN STATE
9/30 – at Iowa
10/7 – BOWLING GREEN
10/14 – at Michigan State
10/21 – INDIANA
10/28 – MINNESOTA
11/4 – at Illinois
11/11 – at Northwestern
11/18 – MICHIGAN
Key Games: 9/9 – at Texas, 9/23 – Penn State, 9/30 – at Iowa, 11/18 - Michigan
Prediction ... This isn’t a slam dunk schedule for the Buckeyes by any stretch. Northern Illinois is perennially one of the better teams in the MAC, Texas is the defending national champion, and Cincinnati and Bowling Green are hungry, in-state schools looking to pluck off the team that calls itself the Ohio State University. Despite the potential pitfalls OSU faces OOC, I expect the Buckeyes to run through that slate unbeaten. In conference, Purdue and Wisconsin are off the slate, but Penn State and Iowa come on back to back weekends, there is a tricky trip to East Lansing and the annual battle with Michigan. I think the games will all be tight this year with a young defense, but expect the only black mark to occur when the scarlet and gray visit Iowa City. Other than that, another ten-win plus season and another trip to a BCS bowl keeps the Buckeye fans ecstatic.
B10: 7-1 (lone loss at Iowa)
Overall: 11-1, T-1st in the conference, Orange Bowl berth