Nothing tends to make sports fans forget a team more quickly than finishing in second place. Just ask the Colorado Rockies or the Cleveland Cavaliers. And as the Ohio State Buckeyes have learned, if you do it twice in a row, you start wishing people would forget you, instead of ridiculing and disrespecting you. Just ask the Buffalo Bills.
Such is the state of the Buckeyes entering the 2008 season. Instead of celebrating Jim Tressel as an elite coach, and noting that he won the national title a mere five and a half years ago, has played in three BCS Championship Games in the last six seasons, and is 33-3 in his last 36 regular season games, the college football media is rife with derisive cracks about the Buckeyes as...you guessed it..."the Buffalo Bills of college football."
The fact that Ohio State returns virtually intact that BCS finals team from last season, and is ranked in the top three or four teams in most preseason polls, elicits yawns from a national media that does little to mask its contempt for the prospect of the Buckeyes playing in the BCS title game for a third consecutive year.
And forget the idea that the way a college football team has performed in seasons past should have little bearing on how they are perceived on the national level this year. The players are different. The schedules start over. But it has become the received wisdom that Ohio State doesn't belong on the same field with the elite SEC programs, and that come January, college football's interests might be best served by giving the national fan base someone to watch besides the guys in Scarlet and Gray for a change. (Two BCS drubbings will do that for your program.)
Unless the BCS has no choice but to pick the Buckeyes.
Today's prevailing sentiment can evolve, of course, as the season goes along. But right now I'm assuming that the Bucks will have to be 12-0 after the Michigan game in order to get back to the BCS Championship. If they're not, the committee will figure out a way to have the computers spit out the names of two other schools to play for the glass football. Hell, the WAC champion will get the nod before an 11-1 Ohio State team will get in. (I exaggerate only slightly.)
So the pursuit of perfection by the team everyone seems to be tired of seeing is just one reason that fans and pundits have already circled the 13th of September on their calendars. Because that's the day the Buckeyes play the USC Trojans at the L.A. Coliseum with their season already on the line. An early season game between two traditional powers like these would be compelling even if both schools weren't ranked in the top three teams in the land. But they most likely will be. Both will be at the top of the preseason polls, and USC opens at Virginia, while OSU hosts Youngstown State and Ohio U. before they kick this one off on 9/13.
With so much on the line that day, I suggest it is permissible to look past the Penguins and the Bobcats to what the Trojans will bring to the matchup with Ohio State.
The Good News
1) USC lost their leading passer, their leading rusher, their leading receiver, their leading sacker, and their leading interceptor from the 2007 team. They return only 13 starters, and will have a fairly green starter at QB.
2) There is no Number 2 in the Good News category. Sorry. Number 1 made me feel pretty confident until I started looking closely at the 2008 Trojans.
The Bad News
1) USC will have an unbelievable defense, anchored by perhaps the best linebacker in the nation, Ray Maualuga, and his teammate Brian Cushing, both Butkus Award favorites. They have two brilliant safeties in Taylor Mays and Kevin Ellison, and excellent corners in Cary Harris and Shareece Wright. Sophomore defensive end Everson Griffen is a budding star, and the Trojans will pressure the quarterback coming off the bus. Clay Matthews (yes, he is) will be rushing off the edge from his hybrid LB-DE position. The defense will be aggressive, relentless, and well-coordinated, as they always are. Ask Chad Henne and Juice Williams.
2) Ohio State is 1-5 lifetime at the L.A. Coliseum.
3) Pete Carroll is a recruiting machine. Not only does he have a great tradition to sell to the top high school players in the nation, but also the extra perks of sun, sand, babes, Hollywood, and the prospect of six-figure payoffs to turn a young man's head. If anyone has out-recruited Jim Tressel in recent years, it is Carroll.
4) On offense, the starting quarterback job has apparently been won by former top recruit Mark Sanchez, who got some game experience last year while Booty was hurt. And Carroll has a stable of young running backs to choose from that would allow him to play a different high school All-American every quarter if he chose to. The receiver group features Patrick Turner, David Ausberry, and Vidal Hazelton, game-changers all. The offensive line will be young and green, but talents like guard Jeff Byers and center Kris O'Dowd kept this group from being Good News No. 2.
None of this is to suggest I am pessimistic about the Buckeyes' chances in this game. After all, OSU is loaded, and has more experience than the Trojans do, especially at the key positions of quarterback and the offensive line. They'll have their own Butkus Award nominee, and the presumptive Heisman favorite as well. We'll be taking a close look at the Buckeye personnel in the weeks and months ahead, but I think the outcome will hinge on the degree to which Tressel's offensive scheme can solve the Trojan defense.
Tressel must do what he was unable to accomplish against Florida in January of 2007. That is, to gameplan his offense to counter a defense that will be crashing off the corners, and sending extra defenders in the attempt to disrupt the backfield on virtually every play. USC will blitz, and blitz some more. They will worry about Chris Wells...on their way to the quarterback.
It's a recipe for turnovers and an injured quarterback if coordinator Bollman and Tressel aren't prepared with Plans B and C. In other words, more creativity and unpredictability on offense than we've seen in two BCS Game losses. The vanilla offense that works against Northwestern won't cut it.
I'm thinking the Buckeye defense should be able to hold their own against the relatively inexperienced Trojan offense, if they stay aggressive and get a turnover or two of their own. If I had to place a bet today, I'd take the experience of the Buckeyes offensive line over their greener Trojan counterparts to pull this one out for the good guys.
When considering what role the "intangibles" might play in a game of this importance, it might be assumed that the biggest one would be the home crowd, and the emotion they feed to the players on the field. But I'll suggest that there might be a certain "weight" on the backs of the USC Trojans when the start of the 2008 football season rolls around, and that it might function as a distraction to the program, perhaps all season long.
On the Ropes
It's fair to say that the USC Athletic Department is in chaos in the wake of their second major scandal involving a high-profile player, while the NCAA is still actively investigating the first one. For the second time in two years, an agent or his representative has been able to funnel large amounts of money and other considerations to a high-profile USC player and/or his family, while the USC athletic administration nodded and winked.
The school had been mostly stonewalling and denying, but also trying to put the best possible face on the celebrated Reggie Bush embarrassment, while a federal criminal investigation, a civil suit, and an ageless NCAA investigation pick over the carcass of that two-year old fiasco. Athletic Director Mike Garrett is just trying to survive, and when the O.J. Mayo story hit the other day, a USC official was quoted in the (L.A) Daily News as saying "Right now, we're just trying to weather the storm."
Well, there's a lot to weather.
The new disclosures from ESPN's "Outside the Lines" show demonstrate that USC officials did not learn very much from the Bush case. Rodney Guillory, the man said to have been the channel for agent cash to Mayo, has had the Trojan basketball program in trouble before, when he was involved in agent payments to former USC guard Jeff Trapagnier. Yet he still was permitted access to USC players and program function, and was a regular at Trojan games.
In the aftermath of the Bush case, USC officials should have been doubly zealous in protecting players from this kind of corruption, but apparently, the opposite has been the case. Mayo had been widely rumored to be "sponsored" in one way or another since he was a junior high prodigy, and in a way that would become, shall we say...problematic at the NCAA level. Yet no one in the USC program had the least curiosity how a disadvantaged kid like Mayo was managing a plasma TV in his dorm room, among other fancy things. The school's denials are ringing kind of hollow about now.
And there are calls for heads to roll. ESPN's Pat Forde says USC deserves the death penalty, though he knows the NCAA won't allow one of their elite programs to suffer so serious a fate, no matter how deserving they may be. Two years ago, Yahoo Sports, who broke the Bush story and did most of the heavy lifting in its reporting, called for USC to at least forfeit the season and a half worth of games in which they used an ineligible player, in addition to returning Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy, and vacating the 2004 national title.
Ironically, as Forde reports, the fact that the NCAA's investigation into the Bush case is ongoing, and no sanctions have yet been levied, allows the school to escape, at least temporarily, qualifying under the NCAA definition of "repeat offender" to which the Mayo case might have subjected them. So far, the USC administration's strategy has been to hunker down and deny knowledge of what was going on under their credulous noses.
And if you think it was just the two isolated incidents of Bush and Mayo that have commentators calling USC the poster child for the NCAA's definition of "lack of institutional control", take a look at this stunning summary of the USC Athletic Department troubles in recent years. Compiled and regularly updated by a UCLA blogger, the list is staggering, both in terms of the number of incidents, and the seriousness of them. I must admit I had no idea of the extent of the problem. These guys make the Cincinnati Bengals look like the Vienna Boys Choir.
Of course, none of this will necessarily have any effect on the events on the Coliseum field on the 13th of September either. But the shoe has to drop at some point. There will eventually be some sanctions imposed in the Bush case. The NCAA will eventually finish up their exhaustive probe, and report to a weary nation. The whole ugly mess might cause some distractions for the football Trojans in the Fall, but it might also have the opposite effect, and create a rallying point for a team potentially losing their one national championship from the recent USC "dynasty".
And the uncertainty about all of this is the reason we're writing and reading about this game four months before it happens. So mark the calendar...and stay tuned.