A WARNING TO those suffering from Buckeyes Fatigue Syndrome: You could be in for another long season. Following lopsided losses to SEC powers Florida and LSU in the last two BCS championship games, Ohio State is back this fall with essentially the same lineup it fielded a year ago and appears more than capable of earning a third crack at the national title in three years. The roster is flush with 47 fourth- and fifth-year players, and nine starters are back on each side of the ball, including left tackle Alex Boone, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins—all of whom gave up the chance to be first-day picks in the NFL draft and returned for their senior seasons. "We all wanted to go out with a bang this year," says Boone.
Perhaps the most important returning player is tailback Chris (Beanie) Wells. A 6'1", 237-pound junior, Wells averaged nearly six yards a carry last season in rushing for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. Against Michigan, Wells carried 39 times for 222 yards and two touchdowns. It's little surprise that he's on the short list of candidates for the Heisman Trophy.
If anything, the Buckeyes had to rely too much on Wells last season. Quarterback Todd Boeckman, in his first year as the starter, opened strong but faded as the schedule got tougher. Wells had a total of 79 carries in Ohio State's last three games, while Boeckman threw only 62 passes in that time (two touchdowns against six interceptions). Against LSU in the BCS title game, he was sacked a season-high five times, in part because he wouldn't get rid of the ball. To help Boeckman, a sixth-year senior, the coaches experimented in the spring with a two-tailback set that emphasizes short, quick passes. "Todd already showed us he was a great leader," says Wells. "He worked himself hard this spring. We all did."
Another new wrinkle could come from highly touted freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who endeared himself to scarlet-and-gray fans when he chose the Buckeyes over Michigan (and Penn State). A 6'6", 235-pound run-pass threat in the mold of Vince Young, Pryor should play this fall, though coach Jim Tressel has been vague about his plans.
Some fans might groan at the prospect of seeing Ohio State back in the title game, but the Buckeyes could care less. "We want to prove ourselves to the world," says Wells.