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Eyes on the prize (cont.)

Posted: Thursday November 16, 2006 12:31PM; Updated: Thursday November 16, 2006 7:11PM
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Despite the success he's had against the Wolverines, Smith says it isn't going to make things any easier when they meet Saturday afternoon in Columbus for the Big Ten title, and more importantly, a spot in the BCS title game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

"I think it makes it even more tough," said Smith, who with a win would be the first OSU quarterback to beat Michigan three times since Tippy Dye (1934 through '36). "Once you have a great game against somebody, when you get the chance to play them again, everybody is going to be looking to see what you do."

Together Smith and Tressel have caused a seismic shift in college football's biggest rivalry, and their secret to controlling the Wolverines lies not in some flawless strategy, but simply in the intangibles. The duo gives the Buckeyes a quarterback and coach who may be the best in the country when it comes to big game performances -- just look at the last two Michigan games, the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame and this year's games against Texas and Iowa. Smith has grown into an on-field version of Tressel, sans the sweater vest. It's evident in his cool, calm leadership as well as the customary, team-first answer to every question.

"My success is credited to everyone around me," Smith said. "It is not just me who is 2-0 versus Michigan. It is everyone who was on the field."

How has Ohio State been able to dominate the series lately?

"I think one thing would have to be our added emphasis on ending the season on a positive note for our seniors," Smith said.

Coach and quarterback may churn out more vanilla than Breyers, but they've brought an unflappable and nearly invincible demeanor that has kept the Buckeyes on target during their 18-game winning streak.

"Coach Tressel and Troy do a great job of keeping us focused," defensive tackle Jay Richardson said.

As key as the Tressel-Smith relationship has been to Ohio State's performances against Michigan, Tressel has also helped to bring an emphasis to a rivalry that Cooper wanted no part of. Cooper famously tried to downplay the importance of the rivalry, saying it was just another game on the schedule. But Tressel, an Ohio native who served as an assistant under former Buckeyes coach Earl Bruce from 1983-85, knew the importance of the rivalry, and he wasted little time letting the fans know what his focus was after returning to Columbus.

"Now they know and they can get ready for it," Tressel joked after giving the impromptu pep rally on that January night.

With four wins in five games, Tressel has turned the tables. But he's not letting that success affect preparation for what is arguably the biggest game in the rivalry's 103-year history.

"It has nothing to do with 2006," Tressel said. "That's the biggest feeling."

It's as plain an answer as you'd expect from a coach who's so calculated in his responses that people call him Senator Tressel. He's passed this approach on to a Heisman-worthy quarterback who brings that same levelheaded cool to operating the Buckeyes' offense.

There's no doubt about it: Smith and Tressel have made vanilla the flavor of choice in Columbus.

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