IF OHIO STADIUM IS THE CATHEDRAL OF BUCKEYES football, then the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is the shrine. Situated at the north end of campus, just a few deep outs to the west of the Olentangy River, the Woody (as it is called by nearly everybody at Ohio State) is the repository of almost every important artifact from the Buckeyes' 118-year gridiron history. Many of these treasures line the walls of the building's immaculate northern corridor. As you walk this hall of heroes, you can't help but catch eyefuls of one of college football's most glorious hoards: Over there in the soaring atrium are the seven Heisman trophies won by OSU players; further down is the 2007 Big Ten championship trophy, not far from the '01 Rimington Trophy awarded to center LeCharles Bentley and close by the Bronko Nagurski Trophy awarded to linebacker James Laurinaitis in '06. The collection is a shining testament to a proud tradition.
But there is room for another trophy, and everybody who's ever semaphored their way through Carmen Ohio knows it. The Buckeyes have reached the BCS championship game in each of the last two years and come away empty-handed each time.
To the delight of Ohio State fans everywhere, the wait may soon be over. With a strong nucleus of returning starters on both offense and defense, as well as an infusion of talent from a bumper recruiting class, the Buckeyes are poised to make another run at the national title. And this time they might just have the talent to pull it off. "A little adversity is always good," says senior left tackle Alex Boone. "This is my last year, and there's no way I'm not going out with a bang. We've got to get it done."
LAST JANUARY, AFTER THE LOSS TO LSU, Boone was one of four junior starters—Laurinaitis, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and receiver Brian Robiskie were the other three—who decided to forgo the NFL draft in order to return for one more run at the BCS. All of the players have been close since arriving in Columbus as members of the 2005 recruiting class, and all share a commitment to dealing with unfinished business. Altogether, 18 starters are back for the Buckeyes this fall. Tressel will have plenty of depth on the bench as well, as he and his staff signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country in February, then improved it six weeks later by persuading the nation's best prospect, quarterback Terrelle Pryor of Jeannette (Penn.) High, to sign with Ohio State. A 6' 6", 235-pound run-pass threat, Pryor is likely to see time in the OSU backfield this fall. Conventional wisdom has Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman utilizing Pryor the way Florida used Tim Tebow in '06, as a short-yardage running back. But Tressel isn't tipping his hand just yet, in part because Pryor's first opportunity to practice with the team will be in August. "Terrelle has a passion to be a great quarterback in every aspect," says Tressel. "We think his future is tremendous."
Tailback Chris (Beanie) Wells should once again be at the center of the Buckeyes' offense. The 6' 1", 237-pound junior emerged as one of the most physical rushers in college football last year, running for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. With Ohio State expected to contend for a national title, the name Wells is sure to be featured on Heisman lists for most of the fall. His candidacy has become a rallying point for the offensive line, which returns four starters from a unit that was one of the best in the country a year ago. "Come December," says Boone, "we want to see Beanie in New York with that trophy." Says Wells, "It's something that I would love to accomplish, but I'd trade it for a national championship. Without a doubt."
With the running game on solid ground, Tressel and Bollman will be looking for quarterback Todd Boeckman to emerge as a playmaker this fall. The fifth-year senior was dependable in his first season as a starter in 2007, leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency and throwing for 25 touchdowns. But he struggled badly late in the season as the competition got stiffer, throwing six interceptions and just two TDs in the final three games, two of which the Buckeyes lost "He studied film all winter," said offensive quality control coach Nick Siciliano. "He had a great spring, and he seems to be more confident, which is huge for a quarterback."
Boeckman will be counted on to adapt to an adjusted offensive attack that will at times feature a two-tailback set Dubbed Pony by coaches, the package will emphasize quick, short passes and is an attempt to remedy Boeckman's tendency to hold onto the ball. Against LSU's speedy defensive front in last season's BCS championship, Boeckman took a season-high five sacks. He's sure to benefit this year from one of the Big Ten's best corps of wideouts, which returns its top two receivers. Robiskie (55 catches, 11 TDs) and junior Brian Hartline (52, 6) figure to improve on their numbers from a year ago.
The defense, which has nine starters back from a unit that ranked first in the FBS last year, will once again be led by Laurinaitis. From his position in the middle, the two-time All-America and reigning defensive player of the year in the Big Ten led OSU with 121 tackles in 2007. Four starters return to the secondary, including Jenkins, a lockdown corner who was also an All-America last season. Despite losing Vernon Gholston to the NFL draft, the defensive line should again be nearly impenetrable as eight experienced players return, including sophomore Cameron Heyward (10 tackles for loss). "We have two different looks [with Gholston gone]," says defensive coordinator Jim Heacock. "One is with Lawrence Wilson at one end and Cameron at the other. We are also working Thaddeus Gibson in there. He's had a great off-season, and he's going to see a lot of action for us."
So many of the pieces are in place—the Buckeyes also have punter A.J. Trapasso and kicker Ryan Pretorius returning—that much of the season's success will depend on the Sept 13 game at USC. If OSU can manage to win in Los Angeles, it needs to only run the table in the Big Ten to reach its third straight BCS title game, which will be played in January in Miami. Sweeping the Big Ten schedule is no small feat, but this is basically the same team that has lost just one conference game in the last two seasons, has won two straight outright Big Ten championships and has beaten the Wolverines four straight years.
" Coach Tressel keeps telling us that nobody has ever won three [outright] Big Ten championships in a row," says Boone. "He keeps telling us that we've never beaten Michigan five times in a row. And he keeps telling us that nobody's ever been to three national championship games in a row. It'd be nicer to say, Nobody's ever won three in a row, but that's in the past. This year is our chance to make history."