Five Minute Guide to '99
5 Ohio State
The Buckeyes lost eight starters to the NFL but still have enough talent to make another strong run at the national title
That year Ohio State overcame the losses of Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Terry Glenn and quarterback Bobby Hoying to go 11-1, beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl and come within a loss to Michigan of winning the national title. The Buckeyes think they are up to the challenge again.
"I hope people overlook us, because if they do we'll surprise a lot of them," says senior tailback Michael Wiley. "Sure we lost some great players from last year's team, but everyone in our program is replaceable. We lost Shawn Springs [in 1997] and Antoine Winfield came in and won the Thorpe. We lost Eddie George and Pepe Pearson stepped up. When Pepe left, it was my turn. There is never any panic around here. Every year we lose great players; this year it so happens we have to replace a few more. We have so many potential stars who are just waiting for their opportunity."
While it's true that Ohio State has not been short on talent in recent years, the Buckeyes are still searching for their first national championship since 1968. Last season they were the top-ranked team in the country for 10 weeks and defeated Michigan for just the second time in their last 11 tries. Two weeks before that victory, however, at home against Michigan State, they squandered a 15-point lead and suffered a 28-24 loss that cost them a shot at the title. They finished second in the nation for the second time in three years.
Nearly every day during workouts this summer, junior linebacker Na'il Diggs thought about how close Ohio State had come to winning the title and how he and his teammates had felt after the loss to the Spartans. "We were on top of the world and took Michigan State like just another team," he said. "I'll never forget how awful it felt to lose. After being Number 1 for so long and falling the way we did, everybody is hungry to get back to the top. Last year the only place we could go was down. This year we're going to have to fight to get to Number 1."
To make a strong run at this season's title, Ohio State must find a quarterback. Steve Bellisari, last year's special teams co-player of the year, heads into summer camp with a small edge over fellow sophomore Austin Moherman, who is not as athletic but throws a better ball. Cooper says he doesn't want to alternate quarterbacks, as he did with Germaine and Stanley Jackson in 1996 and '97, but both will probably see action in the first couple of games. Whoever ends up behind center will have the luxury of a veteran offensive line and a pair of deep threats. Receivers Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo could be as dangerous a duo as Boston and Miller. There's also the option of giving the ball to Wiley, a crafty runner with breakaway speed who ran for 1,147 yards last season -- averaging 6.3 yards per carry -- to become Ohio State's fifth 1,000-yard rusher in six years.
"Right now my biggest concern is making sure we're not one-dimensional," says Cooper. "I know we can run the ball, but we must find a passing attack. Otherwise we'll be running uphill."
On the other side of the ball, seven starters are back from a unit that ranked second in the nation in total defense in '98. The front is intact, as is half of a secondary that produced 17 interceptions. Though Katzenmoyer left early and was drafted with the 28th pick by the New England Patriots, the Buckeyes have another stud in Diggs, who was All-Big Ten last season. The 6'4", 230-pound linebacker was second on the team with 74 tackles, six of them sacks. He had one interception, forced one fumble and returned another fumble for a touchdown. "As far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed around here," says Diggs. "We expect to dominate every game, no matter who we put on the field."
As it did in 1996, Ohio State opens in the Kickoff Classic, this time against Miami. The Buckeyes also face UCLA and Wisconsin in the first half of the season and have road games at Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. Given that schedule, Cooper isn't predicting a national title, but he isn't ruling one out either. "Last year's team was the best team I've ever been a part of," he says, "but to win a national championship, a lot of things have to happen. You have to get some breaks, dodge some bullets and have everything fall into place. Look at what Tennessee did last year."
Ohio State in this season's national championship game? It could happen.
-- B.J. Schecter
1998 record: 10-1 (7-1, tied for 1st in Big Ten)
Coach: John Cooper
Aug. 29 vs. Miami
Nov. 20 at Michigan
If Bellisari or Moherman develops a hot hand at quarterback, the Buckeyes could become this season's Tennessee.
Five Minute Guide to '99
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