Ohio State opened 2010 by cruising to a comfortable Rose Bowl win over Oregon, and passed two longstanding barriers in the process: a) After four straight losses in high-profile non-conference games since 2006, the Buckeyes finally snapped the streak against top-10 teams, and b) Quarterback Terrelle Pryor finally shed the "potential" label with the best game of his career, establishing new career highs for attempts (37) and yards (266) while adding another 72 yards on the ground to secure his place at the top of next year's Heisman list.
In all, the sophomore phenom accounted for just over 80 percent of OSU's 419 total yards -- easily the most Ohio State has gained against a ranked team since the 2006 win over Michigan. Not coincidentally, that triumph against the Wolverines stands as both the high-point of Tressel Ball and the last time the buttoned-down, run-first philosophy yielded to the exceptional talents of a multi-faceted quarterback. With Pryor suddenly qualifying as a veteran, and with November wins over conference rivals Penn State and Iowa -- both of which finished in the top 10 in every major poll after January bowl wins of their own -- adding to the sense that the nation's most notorious chokers have turned a corner in big games, the preseason polls are almost certain to have the Buckeyes right back at the front of the national championship race next fall.
With the hot finish and veteran lineup coming back, it was inevitable: If there's any year in the immediate future Ohio State is going to breakthrough after being quickly relegated to the also-ran heap in the last two, this is it.
Part of that optimism comes from the sheer volume of returning talent: OSU gets back nine offensive starters, including the top four running backs, top three receivers and four-fifths of the offensive line, and loses a little less than 8 percent of its total yards for the season with the departures of tight end Jake Ballard and receiver Ray Small. But it's also due to the slight uptick in that talent over the last two recruiting cycles, the first time under Tressel that OSU has moved beyond "Big Ten elite" into the national elite:
The only program with a better haul over the last two years is Alabama, whose young stars just played a major role in delivering a national championship to Tuscaloosa ahead of schedule. There's a reason the Tide look like an overwhelming favorite to open next season at No. 1. Ohio State can be right there with them, and not only because of Pryor: Touted classmates DeVier Posey, Mike Webster, J.B. Shugarts are on the brink of maturing into All-Americans at the same time, with a hyped transfer (former Michigan guard Justin Boren) and reliable vets Brandon Saine, Dan Herron and Dane Sanzenbacher rounding out the most explosive Buckeye offense since the 2006 team that scored at least 35 points nine times and went coast-to-coast as No. 1 before running into Florida in the BCS title game.
That game, of course -- along with the championship loss to LSU a year later and the 35-3 humiliation at USC in early 2008 -- has loomed over the program like a plague, and will continue to some extent until the Buckeyes finally take out a truly elite non-conference power (sorry, Oregon) in a BCS game. Nebraska faced the same bogus hurdle in the eighties and nineties -- Midwesterners "can't compete with Southern speed" -- until the 'Huskers dominated Miami, Florida and Tennessee to cap three undefeated, national championship seasons in a four-year span from 1994-97. Mack Brown was a "couldn't win the big one" figure at Texas, dogged by a lopsided losing streak against Oklahoma, until he added a difference-making athlete, Vince Young, and turned him loose to devastating effect in 2005.
With the '08 class coming of age, Ohio State is in better position to put the skeptics in their place than at any other point in Tressel's tenure; with All-American Cameron Heyward back on the defensive line and Pryor's eye certain to wander to the draft at the end of his junior campaign, 2010 is the Bucks' best shot (and maybe its last for another two or three years) to make good again.
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