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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

OSU_Mich5It’s Game Week in Columbus, and while the expectations for the Ohio State football team have occasionally been higher than they are this year, never has the end of the off-season been a more welcome sight. Later this week I’ll be back with a preview of the OSU-Akron game, and before you know it, it’ll be Thanksgiving and the Buckeyes will be putting it to the Wolverines all over again. So let’s hurry.

We’ve spent considerable time and thousands of words in this column during the spring and summer talking about who will play where for the 2011 Buckeyes... on offense and on a look at how the new-look Big Ten shapes up. In other words...serving up plenty of opportunities to be proven wrong by events as the season unfolds. It’s a given that during the course of the season there will be surprises...unforeseen events and developments, injuries...disappointments...upsets...

If you’ll forgive a brief foray into Rumsfeldese, those things are the “unknown unknowns”.....the things we don’t even know that we don’t know. It’s next to impossible though, to write a column about them. As with any sports season about to begin, a number of key questions present themselves as the “known unknowns”. That is to say, the things we know that we don’t know. And the upcoming Ohio State football season appears to have a bunch of them.

Here are a few of the “known unknowns” about the 2011 OSU season that I’ve been kicking around...:

Fickell2rWill Luke Fickell’s time as OSU Head Coach consist of an “era” or just a year? - In the last 60 years, there have been just four head coaches at Ohio State. That is, until Luke Fickell becomes the fifth as he takes the field Saturday at Ohio Stadium to coach his first game for the Buckeyes. Among Fickell’s four predecessors in that span, Earle Bruce’s nine-year stint in Columbus was the shortest, but the unique circumstances of Fickell’s tenure could knock years off the average term of Ohio State coaches in the modern era.

In 2011, Fickell will be coaching for a contract extension, but the realities of big time college football suggest that even a 9-3 or a 10-2 season record might not be enough to assure his retention at OSU. Just as surely as fans are speculating about a possible big-name successor to Jim Tressel in 2012, OSU officials, boosters, and trustees must be putting out private feelers to some of those same big names to gauge their interest in the Ohio State job. If they get a positive response from a major “player”, it might not matter how well the team performs on and off the field under Fickell this season.

In Fickell’s favor is the high esteem in which he is held by players, coaches and administrators alike at Ohio State. He has handled an extremely difficult situation about as well as anyone could have....with grace, humility, selflessness, and a forward-looking focus that is more difficult to pull off than it is to simply articulate, in light of constant reminders of what has happened in the last nine months. There is a very broad contingent of the OSU family that wants to see Luke Fickell become the long term answer to the Ohio State coaching question. Watching it play out over the next four months should provide high drama.


Where will the points come from in the Buckeye offense? - The 2011 Buckeyes seem to have plenty of offensive playmakers, but at least for the first five games, the guys scoring touchdowns for Ohio State will not be your household names. Returning players (eligible before Game Six) accounted for just four of OSU’s 26 rushing TD’s in 2010, only two of their 29 TD passes, and five of the 29 TD receptions.

The numbers look better when Dan Herron (16 rushing TD’s in ‘10) and DeVier Posey (7 TD catches) return, but by the time they’ve played their first game, the season will be half over. Fans who complained about Terrelle Pryor’s erratic performance as a passer may be remembering him more fondly by then. (The fact that Pryor tied the OSU career TD pass record of 57 without playing his senior season escapes some folks).


Bauserman2rHow long will it take Braxton Miller to adjust to college football, and take over as the starting QB? - It is a near certainty now that senior Joe Bauserman will take the first snaps from center against Akron this Saturday, but it is equally certain that freshman phenom Braxton Miller will see action at quarterback in the opener as well. Bauserman (pictured) has the best grasp of the OSU playbook, but the next time he does something on the field that elicits a “Wow” from the fans will be the first. (When he threw a pick in relief of an injured Pryor at Illinois last year there were some exclamations of a different sort being thrown around)

With Miller, the “Wow” factor was already in evidence in the spring game, and again last week in the jersey scrimmage. Miller seems to have it all, including the intangibles in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, and the only question seems to be when, rather than if, he assumes the starting job. The answer to this question will go a long way toward determining the kind of season Ohio State has in 2011.


Can we get used to this Legends and Leaders thing?...and does it help or hurt OSU in 2011? - It’s the new reality, so it doesn’t matter if we like the new Big Ten division names or not. The format will take some getting used to....playing the five divisional opponents (and one rivalry opponent from the other division) every year, and rotating the other five teams from the other division on and off the schedule. The new look presents a few scheduling anomalies for the Buckeyes in 2011: a second straight home game with Penn St., a second consecutive road date at Illinois, and a third straight year without Northwestern on the schedule at all.

You hear a lot of talk about balance in the Big Ten this season. The arrival of Nebraska in the conference is enough to generate excitement about 2011, let alone the new divisional format and the inaugural championship game in December. Some pundits have predicted that no Big Ten team will get through the season with less than two losses in-conference, and I’d agree that’s entirely possible. (If you think this wouldn’t be a major development, consider that Ohio State has not lost more than one Big Ten game since 2004...and that Jim Tressel’s Buckeyes lost a total of five Big Ten games over those six seasons.)

The new conference format provides no breaks for the Bucks this season. It’s generally acknowledged that OSU is one of the four best teams in the Big Ten, and the Buckeyes have to play all of the other three...Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State. But then again, all four of those top teams must play the other three in the group. By contrast, Iowa avoids both OSU and Wisconsin this year, which helps the Hawkeyes’ outlook immensely.

The remaining wildcard in the Big Ten race is that the conference has still not announced whether or not OSU will be eligible to compete for the Big Ten Championship Game. It is assumed here they are waiting until the NCAA rules on OSU’s eligibility for any postseason play.


VerlonReed1How much can pure talent compensate for a lack of experience (playing and coaching) on the OSU offense? - There is very little disagreement that Ohio State still has the best overall talent in the conference, and a potentially weakened Miami team makes the non-conference schedule seem a little less daunting for a very young group of QB’s and WR’s. But the inexperience on the field is complicated by the changeover in the offensive coaching staff as well, at least from the standpoint of play-calling and offensive scheme.

No OSU receiver (eligible on 9/3) had more than eight receptions a year ago (Philly Brown), and while the physical talent of young WR’s like Brown, Chris Fields, Verlon Reed (pictured at right), Devin Smith and Evan Spencer is at times stunning, they are green....and they have even greener QB’s trying to get them the ball.

No quarterback on the roster has ever started a game at Ohio State. That is all.

At running back, a similar situation prevails. Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith, and Jordan Hall look like they represent the best depth at the position in some time. With the exception of some limited duty by Hall and Berry, they’re absolutely the best group of OSU backs nobody has ever seen.

Complicating the offensive system that we know we don’t know is that the the two men responsible for calling plays for the last several seasons, Jim Tressel and Darrell Hazell, are both gone, and while Jim Bollman has held the title of offensive coordinator for years, it is thought that he has not had game day play-calling duties for several years at least.

Based on spring ball and fall camp, we can make some assumptions that the basic offense will look a lot like Tresselball. But in terms of execution, play-calling, discipline, and identifying the game-day’s all a wait-and-see proposition.


How much of Jim Tressel stays behind after the man is gone? - It may be years before we find out how much of what Jim Tressel put into place in the OSU football program survives his tenure...things like his insistence that players balance football with other aspects of their work and family, and a concern for others, with required actions to back up those concerns. There are probably dozens of other Buckeye traditions that he either revived from the past, or implemented as his own. Some will transcend him, others may not, but we will only learn of these things as they trickle out in first-person accounts of players or coaches.

What may become apparent sooner is the short term fate of another key aspect of Tressel’s tenure at OSU. Winning.

As much anxiety as Tresselball caused in OSU fans, the man won the games he was supposed to win. In the last five seasons, Ohio State lost one game to a team that did not make a BCS bowl game (Purdue, 2009).  That record alone is one that will be nearly impossible for any successor to equal. If Luke Fickell can pull that off, even for just the 2011 season...and then split the games that are supposed to be evenly contested, OSU fans will cut him some slack if he lets a Tresselism or two slide.

Fickell has to put his own mark on this Buckeye team, and it can’t be easy for him to take all of that pent up player emotion and loyalty and anger and frustration that resulted from the dismissal of a revered coach and friend, and make it work toward success on the field.

It also has to be acknowledged that emotion of that sort has the potential for negative as well as positive effects on a football team. Finding a way to channel it in ways that don’t disrupt discipline, concentration and execution on the field would be no small task for any coach, let alone a first-year coach.

All of that makes the emotional state of the 2011 Buckeyes perhaps the greatest known unknown of the upcoming season.

An OSU spokesperson confirmed for me Monday morning that at least one Tressel tradition will be retained by the new regime. When the game is over on Saturday the Buckeye players and coaches will gather to sing “Carmen Ohio” with The Best Damn Band in the Land.  I expect the emotional state of Ohio State football to be on full display at that moment.


Loose Leaves

At the risk of focusing too much here on the departed coach, it’s worth noting that Jim Tressel has been everywhere over the last couple of weeks. First he shows up at Browns camp for a day, and does an interview with WKNR, the first of three or four radio interviews he has granted recently. He made the scene at Terrelle Pryor’s Pro Day workout, and has given his embattled quarterback his full support and encouragement ever since.

He was spotted Friday at the Olentangy high school football game (where he has two nephews on the Olentangy coaching staff), and turned up Saturday night at the St. Eds-Glenville game. I think I’m forgetting a personal appearance or two. I half-expect to see him later tonight doing infomercials for car wax after midnight. Actually I’m glad to see him out and about doing things and going places he couldn’t go under the demands of a college head coaching job. And it’s good to see him keeping busy. It must be incredibly hard for him with the season's start drawing near.


When I interviewed Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World Herald a few weeks ago for an article on the Nebraska Cornhuskers, he told me he was working on a big project about recruiting in the Big Ten. It sounded at the time like a major undertaking, but I had no idea. What he was doing was tracking every Big Ten recruit over the last ten years and compiling a database to display where the conference football recruits are coming from.

The result is an informative article...dealing largely with the state of Ohio’s dominance as the source of football players in the Big Ten region, and supported by a map showing the hometown of every Big Ten recruit from 2002-2011, searchable by team, or by state. Another article is included in the feature, called “Big Ten Turf War”, with loads of other anecdotes and information.  Impressive stuff, Dirk.


Just to prove that there is nothing new under the sun, take a look (via Google archives) at this sports page from The Milwaukee Sentinel of April 27, 1956. The headline is "Ohio State Put on Probation", and the story details the two-year probation being handed down to the OSU program by the Big Ten Conference for "giving excessive financial assistance to football players".

Excerpting..."Football Coach Woody Hayes was the main target of the statement issued from the Big Ten offices.....Football coach Woodrow Hayes has acknowledged assistance to unnamed members of Ohio State football squads from his personal funds, in amounts said to approximate $400 annually over a period of five years....It is represented by him to be unsystematic and unrecorded aid of a purely personal nature, based on need and hardship, and that where granted the help was usually understood to be a loan". The major penalty was a ban from playing in the Rose Bowl for the 1956 season. (hat tip to 11W for the link.)


This is pretty cool.


On Twitter at @dwismar


(photo credits: Jim Davidson -

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