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Posted: Wednesday May 12, 2010 10:28AM; Updated: Wednesday May 12, 2010 11:38AM
Stewart Mandel

Pryor ready to lead Ohio State to national title; more Mailbag

Story Highlights

Deep, talented Buckeyes can go far if Terrelle Pryor makes smart decisions

Dooley may eventually be a great coach, but Vols could have an awful year

Plus: Mike Leach's future, reason to love Iowa, an epic Week 2 slate, more

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Ohio State proved its confidence in Terrelle Pryor by allowing the then-sophomore QB to air it out against Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State proved its confidence in Terrelle Pryor by allowing the then-sophomore QB to air it out against Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
John W. McDonough/SI

From the time he burst onto the scene as a nationally decorated recruit, Terrelle Pryor hasn't been able to walk, talk or throw a touchdown pass without eliciting the inevitable Vince Young comparison. It's fitting, therefore, that this week's Pryor-themed Mailbag lead comes to us from ... Texas.

I'm a Buckeyes fan in Texas and I'm tired of hearing how great Texas and Oklahoma will be in 2010. Was Terrelle Pryor's Rose Bowl performance an anomaly, or is he really ready to lead OSU to the national championship game? Basically, can I start talking trash and feel confident that Pryor will back it up?
-- Scott, Arlington, Texas

Yes, Pryor's Pasadena performance was an anomaly -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Many dubbed the then-sophomore quarterback's 338-yard day in the Buckeyes' 26-17 victory over Oregon as his "coming out party." For a variety of reasons, Jim Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman chose the bowl game as their opportunity to unleash a Pryor-centric game-plan for the first time since Pryor's midseason debacle at Purdue. The result: career highs in pass attempts (37), completions (23) and passing yards (266). In the two games immediately prior to the Rose Bowl (against Iowa and Michigan), Pryor was limited to just 17 attempts in each.

There were presumably game-specific reasons why Tressel chose to air it out (Oregon's young secondary, the extra prep time, etc.), but what really matters is that after two, often erratic seasons, he sent a signal that he finally had full faith in his quarterback. And with good reason. Pryor's entire demeanor seemed to change after that Purdue game, both on the field and in interviews. Perhaps the loss was the wake-up call he needed. And let's not forget most of Pryor's equally young supporting cast (running backs Brandon Saine and Boom Herron, top receiver DeVier Posey, several offensive linemen) also stepped up over the second half of the season.

But anyone who thinks Pryor is going to attempt 37 passes and 20 rushes every week next season is setting himself up for disappointment. And the Vince Young comparisons? Bury them for good. Pryor is a tremendous athlete, but it's clear by now that OSU's coaches don't intend to turn him into a Young- or Pat White-like runner (nor does he want them to). And with two solid tailbacks plus more coming up the ranks, Pryor isn't going to be asked to zing it every week. All Ohio State needs is for him to keep making smart decisions and not agonize over mistakes (as he's tended to do at times), because the Buckeyes have more than enough pieces on both sides of the ball to make a title run. I believe Pryor can do that, and thus, Ohio State is one of five teams I'm considering picking to win the national title.

(What, you thought I was going to list the other four? Not a chance. I've got four more months of Mailbags to fill ...)

The second Saturday of the season (Sept. 11) is going to feature several great nonconference games: Florida State at Oklahoma, Miami at Ohio State, Oregon at Tennessee, Penn State at Alabama and Michigan at Notre Dame. Which of these games would you most like to see in person? Can you remember another early-season date so loaded with interesting matchups since you began covering college football?
-- Drew, Norman, Okla.

Hey now, don't forget about Presbyterian at Clemson.

It's a tough call (and one I'm going to eventually have to make, because I will attend a game in person that weekend). Purely for the sake of atmosphere, I'd want to be in Tuscaloosa for the Tide's first big game at Bryant-Denny post-championship. I fear, however, that it could be a bloodbath with Penn State starting a very green quarterback against a very good defense. That's why football-wise, I'd be more inclined to choose Miami-Ohio State, which should be a better barometer for both teams -- the Buckeyes to prove they're a title favorite, the 'Canes to make a statement that they're finally "back." It's also the teams' first matchup since their controversial Fiesta Bowl classic eight years ago.

But as juicy as that lineup looks (and I'd throw USF-Florida and Iowa State-Iowa into the mix as well), it's going to have a hard time topping Sept. 16, 2006. You may remember that day, which featured seven matchups between ranked teams (albeit a couple of them intra-conference games): No. 2 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Michigan; No. 3 Auburn vs. No. 6 LSU; No. 4 USC vs. No. 19 Nebraska; No. 7 Florida vs. No. 12 Tennessee; No. 12 Louisville vs. No. 17 Miami; No. 15 Oklahoma vs. No. 18 Oregon and No. 20 TCU vs. No. 24 Texas Tech. Of the games Drew mentioned, only three might fit that bill, since Tennessee and Michigan are unlikely to be ranked in Week 2.

What stands out upon looking back at that 2006 slate is that the most surprising result at the time was Michigan trouncing Notre Dame (en route to an 11-0 start), while by far the most memorable game, Oklahoma-Oregon (a.k.a. the "replay game"), had very little buildup. (I was at Michigan-Notre Dame.) There's no predicting which of this year's games will end up fitting those scripts.

Stewart, I have been following your columns for almost nine years now, ever since I moved from my beloved Knoxville to Denver. Derek Dooley, I believe, will be the perfect fit for Tennessee. We've been known for years as an overachiever/underachiever. Whenever we are ranked in the top 10 preseason, we fall apart. But this year, everyone is picking us to finish third or fourth in the SEC East. With no pressure to speak of, do you think we have the chance to finish with 10 wins?
-- Michael Jackson, Denver

You'll notice I allowed Michael a pass from my longstanding "No 'we'" rule when discussing one's team. That's because Michael's (much longer) e-mail also mentioned he was a walk-on for Phillip Fulmer's 1998 national title team. Congrats, sir.

Unfortunately, I don't share the perennial optimism that surely comes with having actually donned the orange and white. While I have no reason to believe Dooley won't make a fine SEC coach -- eventually -- there's a strong possibility his first Vols team will be downright awful. Even before He Who Must Not Be Name ditched Knoxville, Tennessee had a lot to replace in 2010, most notably on the offensive and defensive lines. (And, oh yeah, Eric Berry.) Then its lone returning O-line starter, freshman All-America Aaron Douglas, elected to transfer, creating a bad backdrop for breaking in a new quarterback (most likely Louisville/juco transfer Matt Simms, possibly true freshman Tyler Bray). To their credit, former coach Lane Kiffin and Dooley reeled in consecutive top 10 recruiting classes, but a freshman-heavy team is unavoidably going to struggle in the SEC.

As for the notion that Tennessee perennially defies preseason expectations, one way or the other -- that was absolutely true for most of Fulmer's tenure, but doesn't necessarily carry over from coach to coach. Kiffin's team went 7-6, which was almost exactly what most would have predicted in August. It's kind of like Clemson. For years, the Tigers' most heavily hyped teams either choked or couldn't quite get over the hump -- and then Dabo Swinney comes in and wins the division in his first full season. Turns out it was a Tommy Bowden thing, not a Clemson thing. We'll find out soon enough whether Fulmer shared the same gene.

As to what should happen if there aren't bowl-eligible teams to fill 70 slots, I would submit that a good I-AA school should step in and clean some underachieving I-A school's clock.
-- Ray Works, Kathleen, Ga.

No way. Those teams are spoiled enough, what with their fancy-dancy "playoff" and all those mid-December weekends in Montana and Chattanooga. Why should they get to have their cake and eat it too?

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