Coach: Jim Tressel (5th season, 40-11) 2004 record: 8-4 (Beat Oklahoma State in Alamo Bowl) Big Ten finish: 4-4 (t-5th) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 70th (145.4 ypg) Passing: 97th (175.4 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 35th (130.4 ypg) Passing: 41st (201.6 ypg)
San Diego State
at Penn State
Depth Chart: Offense
8 returning starters in red
Ted Ginn Jr.
Depth Chart: Defense
10 returning starters in red
Ted Ginn Jr.
Ted Ginn Jr.
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You have to forgive Ohio State fans for noticing the similarities. The Buckeyes entered what would be a fantasy-like 2002 season appearing loaded on defense, having concerns about special teams, returning several key figures on offense and hoping to enjoy the benefit of a forgiving schedule filled with early home games. Also, there was a big question at quarterback: Could someone emerge to lead a very talented Buckeyes team to glory?
The answer, as we now know, was a resounding "yes" as signal-caller Craig Krenzel made all the right plays and the Buckeyes plucked every team on the ledger en route to the national championship.
Three years later, Troy Smith and Justin Zwick -- who were wide-eyed redshirts on that 14-0 team of 2002 -- will head into the fateful fall with hopes of being the point man. Smith appeared to end the controversy last year when he put together a banner day with 386 total yards in the surprise blowout of Rose Bowl-bound Michigan. However, he re-opened the door days later when he accepted money from a booster and was suspended from the Alamo Bowl. Zwick gutted out a damaged hamstring and led OSU to a drubbing of Oklahoma State.
Smith's suspension carries into the season opener with Miami of Ohio. That means intense speculation is ahead, especially since Smith returns just in time for a key brouhaha with Texas.
So who will emerge?
"It doesn't matter to me," superstar wideout Ted Ginn Jr. said. "We proved we could win with both of them, so I don't think it really matters."
An evolution could be afoot for the Ohio State offense, which was plodding at best during the first half of last season yet grew into the unit that destroyed Michigan and Oklahoma State to close the 2004 campaign. Coach Jim Tressel wants to continue to put pressure on opposing defenses with spread formations that create space for tailbacks Antonio Pittman and Erik Haw and create matchup problems on wideouts Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez and Ginn, who could have a breakout season in an expanded offensive role. Tight ends Ryan Hamby and Marcel Frost will also be involved in the passing game.
Expect Smith to reprise his role as a playmaker after serving a suspension for the season-opener. Zwick will be at the ready if Smith struggles to shake off rust or the coaches opt for a quarterback shuffle.
The offensive line returns four starters, led by left tackle Rob Sims and center Nick Mangold, a pair of battle-tested seniors.
The strength of the Ohio State defense will be a trio of savvy senior linebackers who will form one of the nation's top units. Anthony Schlegel missed almost all of spring practice after having a knee scoped, but he should be ready to man the middle. Bobby Carpenter reclaims his role on the strong side, where he is as adept at handling tight ends in pass patterns as he is shedding blocks and disrupting run plays. Meanwhile, A.J. Hawk could be as effective a defender as there is in college football.
The Buckeyes also boast experience at safety while Ashton Youboty appears to be a rising star at cornerback. The other spot could be up in the air, but don't discount at least a part-time appearance there by Ginn.
The effectiveness of the front four could be a huge key as Jay Richardson, Marcus Green, Quinn Pitcock and Mike Kudla bring experience but are coming off a season in which they combined for just nine sacks. Richardson could become a presence with some sustained intensity.
The Buckeyes' season very well may rest on the kicking game. No one expects Josh Huston to make people forget about last year's Lou Groza Award winner, Mike Nugent, but the sixth-year senior will have a prominent role just the same considering all the close games in which the Buckeyes often find themselves. Also, A.J. Trapasso will need to be a capable punter in his first year on the job, as Tressel loves to play the field-position game.
The return teams should sparkle with both Ginn and Holmes set in deep return mode on kickoffs and punts.
Even with an expected dropoff at placekicker and running backs who have yet to prove they are up to the lofty standard, it's hard to look at the Buckeyes (and their schedule) and not think they are a serious threat to win the Big Ten.
Talent drips at the skill positions and in the linebacking corps, the defense is stacked with veterans and the offensive line looks as sturdy as it was when OSU won the 2002 national title. Still, the offense needs to find another gear, the defensive line needs to be more forceful and this team has to prove it has the cohesiveness to flirt with greatness.
A shot at the Rose Bowl will depend on how well the Bucks fare in a late-September showdown with Iowa and a trip to Ann Arbor in November.