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Big Ten Preview - The Ohio State Buckeyes

It's been a while since I did one of these previews. We're coming up on the beginning of the season and I still have three more to do. Let's knock one out today with the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Team Overview

You all know about the 2006 Ohio State Buckeyes, so I won't bore you too much with the details there. They went into the season the #1 ranked team in the country. With a nasty defense and an offense loaded with NFL talent including Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the Buckeyes cruised through the first eleven games of the season without a challenge. Their matchup with #2 Michigan in week 12 was billed as the game of the century of the year. It was the first time both teams had met while holding the top two spots in the polls. True to expectations, the heavyweights exchanged blows until the end in a 42-39 shootout with Ohio State coming out on top.

It was extremely uncharacteristic of the Ohio State defense to give up so many points. Prior to that game they hadn't given up more than 17 points and held seven opponents to single digits. Most people wrote it off to the high powered Michigan offense, but we would soon find out it was an indication of things to come.

There was much debate in the media about who should have the right to lose to the Buckeyes in the BCS Championship game. Michigan supporters felt they deserved a rematch. Boise State managed to go undefeated but were shut out due to their mid-major status. But on January 8th the Buckeyes squared off against the Florida Gators in the BCS championship game. When Ted Ginn Jr. returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown it looked like the Buckeyes were on their way to their second national championship of the decade. But then the defense that failed to stop the Wolverines once again proved to be as stiff as a wet paper towel. The Gators did virtually anything they wanted to do and routed THE Ohio State University 41-14.

The Buckeyes claim to be a team that reloads rather than rebuilds. We'll find out if that's true as Jim Tressel has to replace a lot of talent.

The Offense

The 2006 Buckeye defense had it all. An effective running game with Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells running behind a solid offensive line. The passing game featured two NFL first round draft picks in Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzales. Throwing them the ball was Heisman winner Troy Smith. Only three opponents held their offense under 20 points: Penn State, Illinois, and Florida. But this year they will have trouble repeating that kind of output. Ginn, Gonzalez, Pittman, and Smith are all gone as are a few key offensive linemen.

The effect Troy Smith had on the Ohio State offense was huge. Jim Tressel always ran conservative power offense designed to eat clock and protect the ball. With Smith, Ginn, and Gonzalez Tressel was able to open up the offense in 2006 like never before. This year I would expect we'll see the return of the double tight end loaded backfield offensive sets. Though it's not certain yet, it looks like junior Todd Boeckman will be put in the unenviable position of having to replace a Heisman Trophy winner. It remains to be seen whether he will be like Steve Young replacing Joe Montana or more like Brian Griese replacing John Elway. I tend to lean toward the latter. But the Buckeyes will do what they always did before Troy Smith. Protect the ball. Don't make mistakes. Feed the ball to the bruising running back. Hope the offense can put 20 points on the board and the defense can hold on for the win.

Boeckman won't have the advantage of having two first round draft picks to throw to. Brian Robiskie gets his chance to take the lead role after settling for Ginn and Gonzalez's sloppy seconds last year. He had pretty good numbers for a third option catching 29 balls for 363 yards and 5 TD. After him the Buckeyes will have to turn to some really unproven talent. Sophomore Brian Harline will probably play the opposite receiver.

Chris Wells figures to take the lead role in the running game. He's a physical running back standing 6'1" and 225 lbs. He's a tough guy with the not-so-tough nickname, "Beanie". Last year he registered 104 carries as a true freshman mostly in short yardage situations. Still he managed to rack up 576 yards and seven touchdowns. He suffered a sprained ankle that forced him to miss much of spring practice. This allowed junior Maurice Wells a chance to show what he can do and he took advantage of the opportunity. He's a smaller guy that relies on speed and making tacklers miss. Look for both of these guys to get a lot of carries.

They will be running behind an offensive line that has some holes to fill. Most notably they have to replace All American right guard T.J. Downing and All Big Ten center Doug Datish. Most of the replacements have good experience and good size. The only position that makes me wonder is center. Jim Cordle is just a sophomore and he only weighs 280 lbs. Look for teams with good defensive tackles to get good penetration up the middle.

Don't look for anything flashy from this offense this year. They will most likely return to the power running game that has served Tressel so well. Take care of the ball and rely on the defense to keep it close.

The Defense

If that is indeed Tressel's plan, the key part of that equation is the defense keeping it close. The question then becomes which defense will we see in 2007? The defense that held every opponent under 17 points in the first 11 games? Or the defense that gave up 80 points in the final two games?

If they are going to continue giving up 3.3 yards per carry on the ground as they did in 2006, they will have to do it without standout defensive tackles Quin Pitcock and David Patterson. In my opinion, they are the biggest losses on the defense for Ohio State. Replacing these guys will be two sophomores: Doug Worthington and Todd Denlinger. Not only are these guys inexperienced, they are pretty small to be playing in the middle. Worthington weighs 274 and Denlinger weighs 280. The good news is the Buckeyes have Vernon Gholston to wreak all kinds of havoc on the outside, but something tells me teams with good offensive lines are going to have success running the ball between the tackles.

I guess the good news for the Buckeyes is they return the most overrated player in the Big Ten if not the country. That's right. I just said James Laurinaitis is the most overrated player in the Big Ten. He was only named All American and won the Nagurski Award because he plays for Ohio State. He was basically riding the coat tails of A.J. Hawk. Four interceptions in the first five games was all Brent Musburger needed to gush over him on national television. Take away his interceptions and let's compare his stats to some of the other linebackers in the Big Ten. See if you can pick out Laurinaitis.

Linebacker Solo Tackles Total Tackles TFL Sacks
Linebacker A
53 115 4.5 4
Linebacker B
69 116 6.5 3
Linebacker C
70 113 4 5
Linebacker D
75 152 15 4
Linebacker E
73 103 12 4
All Show
Can you tell which one is him? Besides being in the right place at the right time for a few turnovers he was just another Big Ten linebacker. He just happened to be the starting middle linebacker on the top ranked team in the nation. They had to hype someone on the defense, and with all the talent that graduated/left the year before, he was the default choice. It also helped that he adopted his dad's professional wrestling nickname. Don't get me wrong. He's good, but he's not great. (If you said Linebacker A put a Buckeye sticker on your helmet. The other linebackers are B - Posluszny, C - Dan Connor, D - J Leman, E - David Harris.)

The secondary will have to replace two All Big Ten players. Free safety Brandon Mitchell and cornerback Antonio Smith will be missed. Anderson Russell will move over to FS after starting four games at strong safety last year. Taking over the vacant corner spot is sophomore Donald Washington. He played in every game last year so the drop off isn't huge, but expect less than an All Big Ten performance. They also return Malcolm Jenkins at corner who might be the second most overrated player in the Big Ten. Overall though the secondary should be a pretty solid unit.

Special Teams

Pettrey and Trapasso return to do the kicking and punting and they should be ok. The real trouble will be in replacing return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. who averaged 11 yards per punt return and 24 yards on kickoffs. If Tressel's offense struggles and he has to rely on the defense to keep it close, special teams are going to be huge. Ginn may be missed more on special teams than he will be on offense.

The Schedule

Tressel is out to dominate the state of Ohio, and Youngstown State, Kent State, and Akron will all be forced to bow and welcome their Buckeye overlords. They travel out to the west coast to play the Washington Huskies which shouldn't be much of a problem for them. The conference schedule looks pretty easy in the early going, but the last four games are at Penn State, Wisconsin and Illinois at home, and then at Michigan. The Illinois game has trap game written all over it. The upstart Illini played the Buckeyes tough last year and this game is sandwiched right between Wisconsin and Michigan. Indiana and Iowa are missing from the schedule this year.

Crown Tressel King of Ohio if...

Todd Boeckman gives a Craig Krenzel-eque performance. Beanie Wells proves to be tougher than his nickname. Robiskie and Hartline manage to get open and catch the ball occasionally. The defensive tackles play 30 lbs bigger than they are. Russell and Washington do an admirable job of replacing Mitchell and Smith. The defense plays like it did in the first eleven games of 2006 and not like the last two.

They sweep the state of Ohio, win out at Washington, and win two out of three against Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan. The best case scenario I can see for the Buckeyes is 11-1 and a BCS Bowl game. If they lose it will be late in the season ruling out any chance at playing for the BCS Championship.

I will smile with glee if...

Boeckman blows. The wide receivers are worse. The ineffective passing game forces the Buckeyes to play Beanie Ball. The Ohio State offense looks much like the 2006 Penn State offense: Run up the middle with a limited passing game. Offensive coordinators pick up things from the 2006 games against Michigan and Florida and rip the Scarlett and Gray defense to shreds.

They still sweep Ohio, but lose to Washington. Teams with exceptional running games control the ball and win easily. This includes Penn State, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Somewhere along the way they could drop one to Purdue, Minnesota or Michigan State. Worst case scenario I could see the Buckeyes going 7-5 with a trip to the Alamo Bowl.

BSD Says...

Choo choo! All aboard the Overrated Express. Next stop Three Losses. The Buckeyes are starting out the season ranked in the top 10. The out of conference schedule features sacrificial lambs Youngstown State, Akron, and Kent St. Washington poses the toughest test early, but get past them and it's a smooth ride all the way to late October. Look for them to cruise into Happy Valley on October 27th with a shiny 8-0 record and a top five ranking. Then the real test begins. The Buckeyes are 2-5 at Penn State in Big Ten play. It's another night game in Happy Valley meaning Beaver Stadium is going to be rocking. The following week they get Wisconsin at the shoe where the Badgers have won three in a row. After the Illinois trap game they finish the season at Ann Arbor. Chad Henne gets his last chance to beat them and this year he's going to do it. The Buckeyes are going 9-3 and finishing in third place in the conference.