As this week’s Big Ten meetings in Chicago have reinforced, the expectations are again high for Ohio State’s football team this fall.
Despite losing star tailback Chris Wells, top receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline and three of its defensive leaders in linebackers Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, the Buckeyes were picked Monday by a panel of medial members who cover the conference to win the Big Ten.
It’s not a big surprise. Ohio State has won or shared four straight Big Ten titles. The Buckeyes also return arguably the most dynamic player in the conference in sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who was selected the conference’s preseason offensive player of the year.
The Buckeyes’ first-place ranking also says a little bit about the state of the conference. Penn State has a good chunk of talent back from its Rose Bowl team of last year and Illinois possesses a lethal pass-catch combo with quarterback Juice Williams and receiver Arrelious Benn.
However, the Big Ten as a whole is still lacking elite level teams. Minnesota and Michigan State are on the rise, but Michigan is still going through a massive overhaul and Wisconsin continues to slip from its status as a conference power.
From an outsider’s perspective, voting an Ohio State team hit hard by graduation as the conference’s best does not look like a very good endorsement to the expectations for the rest of the teams in the league.
But delving deeper into what Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel has done with young teams in the past gives merit to the Buckeyes being considered as the team to beat in the Big Ten.
In 2002, Tressel took a team with just a couple of seniors in the starting lineup to a perfect 14-0 season and a national title.
After losing Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith, starting tailback Antonio Pittman and explosive wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. after the 2006 season, Tressel guided the 2007 squad to a second straight national championship game appearance.
This year’s team is similar to those of 2002 and 2007. There is a lot of young talent on the team, but there are also a lot of question marks. With so many young players, there is the possibility of being inconsistent.
There are also questions regarding how much Tressel will open up the offense to allow Pryor to utilize all of his abilities, how well running backs Daniel Herron and Brandon Saine can perform as replacements for Wells, how quickly a rebuilt linebacking unit can gel and if there are enough receiving weapons to help Pryor.
Rebuilding has been kind to the Buckeyes in recent history, though. And with what Tressel has accomplished in the past in similar situations, another Big Ten title looks to be on the horizon.