The Big Ten championship trophies are starting to pile up in the corner of Jim Tressel's office. At last count, Ohio State has won five in a row -- and a sixth almost looks like a sure thing.
It has become impressively tiresome, but Ohio State is hungrier for more. And it may happen this season.
Yes, we know all about the wreckage in Ohio State's wake in the past decade. But the Buckeyes exorcised some demons by beating Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl and return 14 starters from that team. Now, Ohio State is primed to tie a league record by winning a sixth conference crown in succession. (The Buckeyes also pulled off the feat from 1972-77.)
The Buckeyes are loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Further buoying their hopes is the continued development of junior Terrelle Pryor, who looks primed to finally blossom into one of the nation's top quarterbacks. In addition, the Buckeyes got their big-game monkey off their backs and have a user-friendly schedule.
THE SCHEME: Complaining about the offense is an annual rite in Columbus. On the airwaves and in the bars, fans grouse and gripe about "Tressel-ball," a conservative offense that leaves little to the imagination. Tressel likes to play things close to his sweater vest. This season, expect coaches to play to the strengths of Pryor, running mostly one-back, three-wide sets among traditional two-back, two-wide formations. Still, Tressel needs to loosen the knot on the offense and pump some air into the passing attack.
STAR POWER: Pryor still has some work to do, but his strong finish in 2009 has coaches excited. He was only the eighth-rated passer in the Big Ten last fall, hitting 56 percent of his passes for 2,094 yards with 18 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Pryor needs to display better pocket presence, accuracy and decision-making ability. He remains a deadly runner, pacing the team with 779 yards rushing and seven touchdowns last fall. G Justin Boren, who began his career at Michigan, is one of the nation's best interior linemen. Boren has brought a much-needed edge and toughness to the Buckeyes' front.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The staff wanted to play RB Jaamal Berry last year, but a hamstring injury forced him to redshirt as a true freshman. Yes, the Buckeyes are loaded at running back, but Berry will see time anyway.
STRONGEST AREA: Running back is deep and talented. There are veteran options in Dan Herron and Brandon Saine. Herron rumbled for 600 yards and seven scores last season, while Saine ran for 739 and four touchdowns. The Buckeyes' cup runneth over with talent at this position. Jordan Hall has potential, but the player to watch is Berry. And keep an eye on true freshman Carlos Hyde, who signed last year but didn't qualify academically. He took part in spring drills this year.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The line has lots of veteran talent, but it's time to get nastier. Ohio State must find a replacement for LT Jim Cordle, and all eyes will be on junior Mike Adams, who arrived on campus amid great hype but has yet to blossom because of injury issues. Don't be shocked if sophomore Marcus Hall ends up winning one of the tackle jobs. Boren has All-America potential, and C Michael Brewster should contend for all-league honors. G Bryant Browning has thrived after moving inside from tackle, and he also could be in the mix for all-league mention.
THE SCHEME: Ohio State runs a hybrid 3-4 defense with a "Leo" position acting as an E/LB. And a nickel package often is employed with a "Star" linebacker who often also acts as a safety. Coordinator Jim Heacock isn't averse to dialing up a timely blitz. And he excels at mixing coverages. This was the Big Ten's No. 1 defense last fall, holding foes to 262.3 yards per game to rank fifth in the nation. There isn't that much name-brand star power, but there's no reason to think the Buckeyes won't again have the top defense in the Big Ten, especially with seven starters back.
STAR POWER: Ohio State has a keystone in E Cameron Heyward. He should be among the top ends in the nation after leading the Buckeyes with six sacks. He also has played tackle, so coaches know he can hold up against the run. His dad, the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, was a first-round pick out of college at Pittsburgh, and Cameron is looking like a first-round lock.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It will be difficult for a newcomer to make much of an impact on this defense. But keep an eye on redshirt freshman LB Dorian Bell. He is loaded with talent and potential, but he needs to realize that he can't "out-athlete" foes and needs to play within the scheme.
STRONGEST AREA: E Thaddeus Gibson opted to turn pro early, which hurts; he led the team with 14 tackles for loss. Massive T Doug Worthington also is gone. But this still should be one of the top lines in the Big Ten and maybe in the nation. Heyward is the star. Look for Nathan Williams to emerge in Gibson's old "Leo" spot as a stand-up rush end. Senior Dexter Larimore should be the marquee tackle for the Buckeyes. There also is plenty of depth. Ohio State needs to develop a better pass rush, as it ranked just sixth in the league in sacks (2.3 per game).
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Last season, fans were worried about the secondary, but things turned out OK. That concern has returned with the losses of Kurt Coleman (strong safety) and Anderson Russell (free safety). Coleman was a heavy hitter who tied for the team lead in interceptions with five. He also was a team leader. Russell won't be as difficult to replace, as he had a tendency to get beaten in coverage. When Russell struggled, Jermale Hines often took over. Now, Hines looks like the favorite to start at free safety. Another player to watch is Orhian Johnson. At least the corners look strong.
K Aaron Pettrey is gone, but Ohio State got a look at its future last season when he was injured. Devin Barclay took over and hit 7-of-10 field-goal attempts after Pettrey suffered a season-ending knee injury against New Mexico State. Barclay, a 27-year-old former Major League Soccer player, nailed a 39-yard winning field goal in an overtime victory against Iowa that sent the Buckeyes to their first Rose Bowl in 13 years. Drew Basil has a bigger leg than Barclay and likely will kick off and also could win the field-goal job. The search is on for a new punter with Jon Thoma gone, with Ben Buchanan looking like the heir apparent. Ohio State will miss the return skills of Ray Small, who ranked second in the Big Ten in punt returns. DeVier Posey, Devon Torrence, Dane Sanzenbacher and Berry could figure in as return men. An array of speedy athletes helped the Buckeyes lead the league in kickoff coverage last season. Expect more of the same.
If Ohio State wins fewer than 10 games, the season should be considered a failure. The Buckeyes have eight home games overall, including four in a row to open the season. Three of them are layups: Marshall, Ohio U. and Eastern Michigan. A visit from Miami for the second game will be a good litmus test. Northwestern and Michigan State aren't on the schedule, and Penn State and Michigan have to visit Columbus. The season figures to come down to two games: at Wisconsin on Oct. 16 and at Iowa on Nov. 20.
Ohio State no longer is a punch line. Turns out, the Buckeyes can win a big game. They proved it by toppling Oregon 26-17 in the Rose Bowl. It was Ohio State's first BCS victory since beating Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2005 season. No program needed a big win more. Now, Ohio State is thinking national championship. Why not? With its big-game demons exorcised, OSU can think big because of 14 returning starters from a team that won the school's first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season. The Buckeyes have the defense to win it all. The offense? The Buckeyes need to pass better and spice up "Tressel-ball." If they do, the Buckeyes may be in Glendale, Ariz., in January playing for the BCS championship.