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December 17, 2009 · By Dan Wismar
Hard to believe it's been a month since Michigan....and since the entire last edition of the Leaves was devoted to football recruiting, there's a lot of other OSU activity to cover in this one...so let's get right to it.
A look back at the Big Ten football season is on the agenda, but first...about that month since Michigan.
Big Ten Expansion
Big Ten officials have debated for years the pros and cons of their conference season ending at least a week earlier than some other major conferences. When OSU was drilled by Florida in the BCS Championship after the 2006 season, many people looked to the 51-day gap between the OSU-Michigan game and the BCS final as a possible factor in the Buckeyes' flat performance that night. (My own theory has more to do with OSU overconfidence and a sluggish Troy Smith coming off a month on the Heisman banquet circuit, but that's just me.)
One way to address the longer layoff for Big Ten teams relative to their likely bowl opponents is to push the whole schedule back a week, and the conference has already made that change, scheduled to go into effect in the 2010 season. Starting next year, the OSU-Michigan game will be played the Saturday after Thanksgiving instead of the one before.
The PAC-10 and the Big Ten are the only leagues among the six BCS conferences that don't stage a conference championship game***, and the only thing that will change that for the Big Ten is adding a 12th team to the league. Now reports are emerging this week that they are increasingly focused on doing just that.
Barry Alvarez was the messenger this time, but Joe Paterno has lobbied hard for a 12th team in recent years. Not surprisingly, his suggestions have centered on a regional rival for Penn State, by far the easternmost school in the conference. JoePa likes the idea of Rutgers or Syracuse or some other eastern school that he regularly beats like a drum, but the other schools aren't going to go along with that. It's a Midwest conference, Joe. Live with it.
Notre Dame has always made sense as a possible addition, but ever since they got their own TV contract they've acted too big for their britches. West Virginia, Pitt, and Louisville get talked about on and off, but somehow they just don't seem to measure up. Missouri is another school that always comes up in the conversation, and ESPN's Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg made a good case for them earlier this year. One recent report says Missouri would listen. More from Rittenberg on expansion here.
SI's Stewart Mandel says expanding could be risky business for the Big Ten.
OSU Athletic Director Gene Smith had some comments Tuesday night on expansion, saying the timing might be right to take another run at adding Notre Dame. Brandon Castel reported on it for The O-Zone.
My own dark horse candidate would be Cincinnati. How they'd stack up in the non-revenue producing sports I'm not sure. But you'd think they could demonstrate instant credibility in football and basketball at a minimum. The important thing is that the debate is on, and there's a growing sense that it's a matter of when, not if. Which doesn't mean we have to like it.
Of course the argument against expansion (and the inevitable conference championship game)
from the Ohio State standpoint, is that it would devalue the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. One counter-argument might be that the Wolverines have been doing a pretty good job of that themselves in recent years, (with a share of the credit naturally going to Jim Tressel.)
The two traditional rivals would have to be in the same division so they would be assured of playing every year, but that would also mean that they couldn't possibly meet in the championship game.
Ohio State-Michigan would no longer be the climax of the regular season. That alone is reason enough for OSU fans to oppose expansion. Well, at least it's reason enough for this OSU fan.
As ever...change is not synonymous with progress.
Big Ten Season in the Rearview
The downside of web publishing is that what you said five months ago doesn't end up as fishwrap or on the bottom of the birdcage. It's right there in the archive files where anyone without a life can go look at it, and then throw your faulty predictions in your face. Hal Lebowitz never had to deal with this. Bottom line: I got a lot wrong when I sized up the Big Ten in August.
As for the Buckeyes, there were too many question marks (young corners, young WR's, green LB's) going into 2009 to predict an unbeaten season for OSU, and my 10-2 prediction turned out right. But really...how far out on a limb are you going these days when you predict a 10-win season for Jim Tressel? 2009 made it five straight seasons of at least ten victories for The Vest.
And lately, picking the Buckeyes to wind up on top of the Big Ten standings is like predicting that Republicans will propose tax cuts. No crystal ball required. Tressel's Buckeyes won their fifth straight conference title. It was with the other ten teams that I had some problems.
Worse than I thought:
Illinois - All that offensive firepower...Juice Williams, Regis Benn...Dan Dufrene...and a decent-looking defensive line all combined to seduce me into calling them the league's 4th best team. Undeterred by their 5-7 record and 3-5 conference mark in 2008, I was buying the elixir Ron Zook was selling. They finished 3-9 (2-6) beating only Michigan and Minnesota in conference, and played no defense whatsoever. Juice had a very forgettable senior year, and Benn, who was all-world in the eyes of the preseason pundits, didn't even make all-conference.
Michigan State - The Spartans (6-6, 4-4) broke with tradition by not starting fast. Their annual fade came early with a 1-3 start. This was to be the year Dantonio made his move to the first division. I picked them to finish 3rd in the conference. Even Greg Jones, the conference Defensive Player of the Year couldn't make them a winning team. I'm learning.
Michigan - I picked them 7th in the Big Ten....four spots too high, it turns out. (5-7, 1-7). I figured...hey, they're Michigan! They can't possibly suck that badly two years in a row! Surely Rich Rodriguez will get it turned around in his second year...(barely suppressed laughter) The only bright spot was a win over Notre Dame. They had, in my opinion, the best defensive player in the conference in Brandon Graham, and still fielded perhaps the worst Michigan defense I have ever seen. A single tear rolls down my cheek.
Better than I thought:
Iowa - I figured 4th place was the ceiling for these guys, and picked them for 5th. Then they started figuring out ways to win games with tough defense, coaching and a never-say-die offense. Ferentz moved up a notch or two in my estimation, as his defense gelled into something way better than I thought they could be. Best defensive secondary in the conference by far. LB Pat Angerer made some first team All-American teams. Iowa finished tied for second (10-2, 6-2). No one will miss Ricky Stanzi in 2010 with James Vandenberg at QB.
Wisconsin - I had the Badgers staying down a bit after they struggled mightily in the second half of 2008, especially on defense. But they flipped their conference record from 3-5 to 5-3 in 2009, and finished a very respectable 9-3. They gave the Buckeyes a heck of a game in Columbus, losing only the turnover battle (and hence the game) to OSU. I picked them 6th, and they finished in a 4th place tie with another surprise...
Northwestern - As with Iowa, I underestimated Pat Fitzgerald's defense....and his passing attack. The Wildcats finished 8-4, (5-3) and somehow had the 2nd best pass offense in the conference (266 YPG) with a guy at QB (Mike Kafka) who was supposed to be a runner. Defense was also solid (5th in total defense). Missing OSU on the schedule helped, but 4th place is way better than the 8th place finish I had in mind.
Check out the Big Ten Regular Season Final Statistics if you go in for that kind of thing.
All Big Ten Teams
The all-conference teams are almost all out by now, and the one thing they have in common is an absence of Buckeyes on their first teams. I get this...I mean, there are reasons for it, and I don't want to make more of it than it warrants, but usually when a team wins the conference outright, they'll place more than ONE player on the all-conference first team.
Kurt Coleman was the only Ohio State player deemed worthy of a first team selection by the vote of the coaches, while the writers voted Justin Boren to the first team along with Coleman. I guess I'm over the initial shock of seeing seven Iowa Hawkeyes and six Penn State Nittany Lions on the coaches' first team, compared to the Buckeyes' one. The Buckeyes were very young in 2009, and also very balanced. On both offense and defense, the contributions came from all over, with no dominant players on either side of the ball, with the possible exception of a stretch of about five games when Coleman was eating opposing offenses for lunch.
The awards continue to roll in for Coleman, by the way. He was named this week to The Sporting News All-American first team. Iowa offensive tackle Brian Bulaga was the only other Big Ten player on the first team. A couple of Buckeyes (Coleman, Homan) made Honorable Mention on SI's All-American team.
I could nitpick on quite a few of the All-Big Ten selections, but I'll settle for a couple that stick in my craw the most. Penn State placed two of their offensive linemen on the coaches' first team. I'm sure these two are fine young men and all, but this is the same offensive line that played like crap in their two toughest games of the year, both of them home losses...and a unit that was chewed up and spit out by the OSU defensive front in a nationally televised whipping, and in the process, got called everything but girlie boys by TV commentator Matt Millen, an ex-Nittany Lion himself. I'm not saying those selections should have gone to Buckeye players, because the OSU O-line had a very inconsistent season, but I didn't "get" those picks.
A couple of other minor quibbles: No way were there four better cornerbacks in the Big Ten than OSU's Chimdi Chekwa. A national TV audience saw him get beat on a couple long completions by Iowa's James Vandenberg, which probably hurt him in the voting. Most of Ohio State's opponents didn't even try to throw the ball in his direction. And it's no slam on MSU's Greg Jones, PSU's Navorro Bowman or Iowa's Pat Angerer to suggest that there were not three linebackers in the conference that had a better year than Ross Homan. He led the league's best defense in tackles and trailed only Coleman (5) in interceptions with four. And it's fair to say he had better, more productive players around him than the other three guys did.
The Buckeyes were well represented on the coaches second team, with five selections; Boren, Brandon Saine, Thaddeus Gibson, Cameron Heyward and Homan. The writers also had Gibson, Heyward and Homan on the second team.
The writers' selections were a bit more balanced, with Wisconsin leading the pack with five first-teamers, and Iowa and Penn State with four each. One thing that still has me scratching my head is how Michigan (1-7 in Big Ten play, if you'll recall) placed three players on the writers' first team (the very deserving Brandon Graham, the questionable Donovan Warren, and the overworked punter Zoltan Mesko) while the outright conference champs had but two. You figure it out.
See the lists for yourself at the official Big Ten site here.
Rivals.com managed to select an All-Big Ten team with exactly zero representatives from the conference champions on their first team. I guess the Buckeyes did it with mirrors.
So if Ohio State didn't have the dominant individual players, they must have had the coaching performance of the year in order to win the title, right? Nope. Iowa's Kirk Ferentz was everybody's Coach of the Year.
I really have no gripe about Ferentz getting this award either. It's arguable that he did more with less this year, as his Hawkeyes consistently played over their heads. But I must say that the Big Ten Coach of the Year award loses credibility now with every passing year that Jim Tressel doesn't win it.
Tressel arrived at OSU in 2001, and has won the conference championship six times in those nine seasons, yet he has never been voted Coach of the Year. Who cares what the writers say...but you'd think Tressel's fellow coaches would have saluted the guy who has dominated them for a decade like no other coach in a BCS conference has done over the same period of time. It must be getting embarrassing to be handled every year by a guy who can't even win their own coaching award....and this year at least, whose players can't even make all-conference.
Rose Bowl Matchup
The Buckeyes meet the Oregon Ducks on New Years Day in the Rose Bowl, and you'll see a detailed preview in this space as game day approaches, but in the meantime it's fun to see what other people are saying about the matchup, and to do a little projecting of our own.
The folks who set the betting lines have the Ducks favored by 3.5 points at the moment, (andthe level of detail they consider in that assessment is astounding) so it looks like Ohio State will take the field as the underdog for the third time (USC, PSU) this season.
The pundits have to be looking at the Buckeyes' recent track record in BCS games as part of their analysis, although it's difficult to find many parallels between this Rose Bowl matchup and any of the last three BCS losses for Jim Tressel's Bucks. My own feeling as a habitually glass-half-full kind of guy, is that the brand of Tresselball played by Ohio State in their five-game winning streak to close the season is well-suited to getting past Oregon on January 1.
The ground game of Ohio State that has averaged over 220 yards per game over the last five games of the season will have to control the time of possession once again in order to keep the potent Oregon offense off the field, and I think they will. The Ducks have not been particularly good against the rush this year, and Tressel will surely put them to the test.
Terrelle Pryor is back at 100% after being limited by an ankle sprain in the Iowa and Penn State victories, and that should help. Pryor has been asked to do less with the passing game during the winning streak, and his efficiency has been up, and his turnovers down as a result.
On defense, the Bucks will have to contend with a very fast Ducks offense, but I suspect the Oregon backs won't have an easy time getting to the edge against linebackers and safeties that run sideline to sideline as effectively as Brian Rolle, Jermale Hines and Ross Homan.
One thing we have seen from Oregon is their propensity to put the ball on the ground, and I would be shocked if the hard-hitting OSU defense doesn't generate at least a fumble or two against the smallish Oregon backs. For a change, the Big Ten representative won't be playing in L.A. against a team from L.A., and that can't hurt. Oregon hasn't been nearly the same team on the road this season that they have been at home.
One thing that won't help is that two Buckeyes, senior defensive end Rob Rose and freshman wide receiver Duron Carter, are ineligible for the Rose Bowl due to academic issues.
Here's a look at what else is being written about the Rose Bowl by big and little media types:
ESPN Rose Bowl Preview
O-Zone's Brandon Castel
Steve Kaczynski - LeBrownsTown
The Buckeye Blog
Doug Lesmerises - Plain Dealer
A quick follow-up to my recent 2010 football recruiting article:
One of the members of what I dubbed the Big Three, Lamarcus Joyner, the consensus top cornerback in the nation, committed to Florida State after his official visit there.
The Buckeyes remain in contention for the other two in that trio of blue-chippers; offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson from Minnesota, who is looking at Ohio State along with USC, Notre Dame and Florida; and #1 defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd of Philadelphia, a prospect being pursued by Florida and USC...and just about every school in between.
Cincinnati St. Xavier's 4-star offensive lineman Matt James had his official visit to Columbus this past weekend, and came away with the Buckeyes at the top of his list. Notre Dame would appear to be OSU's primary competition there.
And the Buckeyes have extended an offer to Columbus Marion-Franklin quarterback Verlon Reed, a 6' 2", 185 lb. dual threat type athlete who now looks very likely to wind up in scarlet and gray as a member of the 2010 class. Reed (video here) is a super all-around athlete who could probably play wide receiver or safety, but has told college recruiters he wants to play quarterback, and OSU is telling him he'll have a shot at QB. UPDATE: Reed accepts the OSU offer, becoming the 15th member of the 2010 recruiting class.
There might be a few more scholarships available than anyone expected, given that 10 OSU players have filed the paperwork with the NFL to assess their draft positions should they elect to leave school early to play professionally. From what I'm hearing, the guy most likely to go pro is Thad Gibson.
The 15th-ranked OSU basketball team deserves some love from the Leaves that has so far been late in arriving, and this brief mention won't do them justice either, but it's a start. Suffice to say they've had an up and down start to the season, getting off to a 7-1 start, losing only to defending NCAA champ North Carolina, but then losing their best player Evan Turner for two months with two fractured vertabrae. Turner took a fall going for a dunk attempt in a blowout of Eastern Michigan, and will probably not return until OSU is well into the Big Ten schedule in January.
One highlight in the young season was a win over Florida State that proved the decisive game in the Big Ten's first ever victory in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. With Turner out, and the Bucks facing 20th-ranked Butler on the road, they suffered their second loss of the year by a 74-66 score. With a record of 7-2, OSU will now have three very winnable home games before Christmas, with Presbyterian, Delaware St,. and Cleveland State coming to Columbus before they open conference play against Wisconsin on New Years Eve.
- Kudos to Thad Matta for landing the nation's top recruiting class for 2010. The future is bright for Buckeye roundball.
- Seven Big Ten teams are going bowling this season. Here's the official release from the conference, which contains all kinds of interesting factoids, including one that might make some people spew coffee on their keyboards:
"Over the last five and 10 years, the Big Ten has played more bowl games against the SEC than any other conference. The two conferences have met in the postseason on 13 occasions over the last five years, with the Big Ten holding a 7-6 advantage in those matchups."
- For whatever reason, Jim Tressel is keeping Terrelle Pryor away from the media in the run-up to the Rose Bowl. Pryor was unavailable for media day interviews.
- The Ohio State wrestling team has assumed elite status among the nation's programs under fourth-year coach Tom Ryan. OSU is coming off back-to-back second place finishes in the NCAA Championships, and Ryan was named the National Coach of the Year for the 2008-2009 season. At the moment they are the 3rd-ranked team in the country after a recent win over 19th-ranked Edinboro St.
- ESPN is rounding up the best college football games of the decade, as as you might expect, the 2003 Fiesta Bowl featuring Ohio State and Miami in the (2002) BCS national championship final makes the list. And as you might also expect, the focus of ESPN's piece is on the pass interference penalty that (correctly) kept the game alive for Ohio State to eventually win it in two overtimes. Ivan Maisel says:
"It remains the only national championship game to need more than 60 minutes. That's what they remember in Ohio. In the other 49 states, they remember the flag."
Most people remember the flag because of Dan Fouts' yelling "Bad call!" immediately after the flag was thrown against the team he was unabashedly rooting for...the team the son of his Chargers teammate Kellen Winslow was playing for.
Perhaps Dan Fouts and the rest of the people still whining about and second guessing OSU's dramatic win over Miami haven't seen this rather definitive vindication of the interference call.
Get over it people.
Be sure to follow all the latest on the Ohio State Buckeyes and the latest on Rose Bowl preparations, as well as coverage of the whole bowl game lineup by listening to TCF's "Buckeye Friday internet radio show. Every week you can listen to Jesse Lamovsky and me weigh in on the Buckeyes and whatever else is going on in college football. Catch it live at 8 pm on Fridays, or anytime via podcast from this link.
Till next time...Go Bucks!
*** Astute reader Paul alerts me that the Big East also does not stage a conference championship game. Right you are, sir. My bad.