I'll do this in Q&A format, just because I want to. Let's get started.
Is a national title a real possibility? And what's with the title of your preview?
Going into this season, the title race seems to be pretty wide open. Any of the top 15 or so teams have legitimate reasons to think this could be their year, and we're one of them. The team doesn't look great at this point, but neither does anyone else. Every title contender this year has legitimate weaknesses. So yes, at this point, a title is as possible for the Buckeyes as any other team. It's not unrealistic to hope for one.
To win a national championship, I think a team needs three things: talent, a favorable schedule, and luck. The Buckeyes are as talented as any team in the country, and the coaches are among the best, so the talent isn't an issue.
The schedule is a pretty reasonable one. Much has been made of this being a "two-game season," with the two games being road trips to Texas and Iowa. Those should be the two toughest games of the season, and are likely to be the only two games where Ohio State will be underdogs. However, it would be a mistake to overlook Penn State and Michigan, both of whom are always threats to ruin an otherwise lovely autumn afternoon. And of course, no game is a gimme, as was shown a couple years ago in Evanston against Northwestern. But the schedule doesn't seem too bad. Have a look:
9/2 - Northern Illinois
9/9 - @ Texas
9/16 - Cincinnati
9/23 - Penn State
9/30 - @ Iowa
10/7 - Bowling Green
10/14 - @ Michigan State
10/21 - Indiana
10/28 - Minnesota
11/4 - @ Illinois
11/11 - @ Northwestern
11/18 - Michigan
That's about six games that are as close to sure things as you can get, a couple that we should win, and four that I'll really worry about. But as the title of this post suggests, all the games can be won. There are several teams that could beat us, a few games that are 50/50, but there aren't any teams that should beat us this year. As the Genius said, "they all choppable."
He also suggests working to minimize risk in your portfolio.
As for the luck, well, that can't be predicted. A receiver coming down with a jump ball, a bad hold on a field goal, a cornerback falling down in coverage - all these things can change the course of games and seasons. The nice thing about this team is that they won't need all the bounces to go their way to win a championship. If luck has no impact on any of the games, OSU might lose a couple, but they might not lose any. If you have a team that could win it all without getting lucky, then I'd say you have a legit title contender.
What's all that mean? Well, the worst case looks to be an 8-4 regular season. I wouldn't call that a disaster, but it's definitely not a success. The best case is an undefeated regular season and a national championship. I'd call that a success.
Could we be in for more of this? Here's hoping.
How 'bout that offense? Is it gonna be explosive or what?
I know you mean that as a rhetorical question, Imaginary Interviewer, but I won't treat it as such. I don't think the offense will be as explosive as people seem to think. It will certainly be capable of scoring from anywhere at any time, but I don't think that will be Tressel's goal with the team. If Chris Wells comes anywhere close to meeting the very high expectations set for him, he will combine with Antonio Pittman to form possibly the best running back duo in the Big Ten. And with our inexperienced defense, I think Tressel will lean on the running game to maintain possession of the ball and keep his defense off the field as much as possible. That's not to say this will be a bad offense. They should be able to move the ball effectively on the ground and in the air, and they'll put some points on the board, but I think Tressel would prefer a 28-17 win with a big edge in time of possession over a 42-31 win with a more even time of possession.
So what's that mean for Troy Smith's Heisman campaign?
I expect he'll be out of contention for the Heisman by the Michigan State game. He'll be a good quarterback, and we'll be lucky to have him, but I don't think he'll put up the numbers to keep up with Brady Quinn, Adrian Peterson, and company. He will be Troy Smith, Game Manager, not Troy Smith, Ultimate Weapon. I expect him to put up solid, but not spectacular, numbers, around 260 yards of total offense per game, while not turning the ball over. He'll have his share of jaw-dropping plays and touchdowns, and he'll be near the top of the nation in passing efficiency, but I don't think it'll be enough to keep up with the Brady Quinns of the world.
I hope I'm wrong about the offense. I'd like to see a high octane offense that just toys with defenses, led by a QB that looks even better than Vince Young did last year. I just think that Tressel's the type to make full use of our running attack, and as a result, the offense won't look as good as it actually is. I expect we'll start hearing "Troy Smith was overrated!" talk about four weeks into the season, as the running game becomes the weapon of choice. You and I will know the truth, though: Troy wasn't overrated, Pittman was underrated.
Um, that was three paragraphs about the offense without mentioning Ted Ginn. What's the deal?
I believe the coaches when they say Teddy's more complete as a receiver. I hope he'll be an even more dynamic Santonio Holmes, but I'll be happy if he's a more consistent Ted Ginn. And I think he will be. He'll still do his usual "run by everyone" and his "juke everyone out," but we'll also see the "tough catch in traffic" and the "well-run route," and those will be just as important.
The passing game will be fun to watch, I think. I don't expect a ton of yards out of it, but it will be exciting to see Teddy turn a quick slant into a touchdown, or Troy keep a play alive while Anthony Gonzalez gets open downfield. It'll be interesting to see who the third receiver ends up being. Smart money is on Roy Hall, what with him being a senior and all, but Brian Hartline's looked pretty good, and I could see him taking over the job by the end of the season.
To sum up my predictions for the offense: very good running game, explosive passing game, but not as high-scoring as expected.
But won't it have to be high-scoring, to make up for the crappy defense?
Yeah, at first. Which is why the Texas and Iowa games scare people, and why the Penn State game should. The defense will be fine once they get some real experience and get used to the "several million people's happiness depends on your success or failure" thing. Eventually they will figure things out, and they will be fine then. See, people confuse "inexperienced" with "bad," and they aren't the same thing. Mike Nugent was once an inexperienced kicker, but he wasn't really a bad kicker. Hayden Epstein, by contrast, was once an inexperienced kicker as well, but he was also a bad kicker, and that endured even when he got some experience. Inexperience can be cured with time; being bad is more permanent.
Anyway, the question is when the defense will be good. It's unrealistic to ask for anything more than "decent" for the Texas game. But will this defense be good by Penn State? Iowa, at least? Or, worst case, not at all this season? I don't know for sure, but I expect we'll see a pretty average defense for Texas, an above average defense (like, a 6.83 out of ten) for PSU and Iowa, and a good, though not great, defense for the rest of the season. There's plenty of talent on defense, but not enough to offset the inexperience. Once they get some experience, they'll be fine.
Fortunately, we shouldn't need the defense to be better than decent. If they have to, the offense can score with anyone. Plus, as I said, if Tressel gets the chance, he'll control the game with Pittman and Chris Wells. That should be enough to keep the worst of the pressure off the defense.
What part of this team should people be talking about, good or bad?
The special teams isn't getting much attention, and I don't know why. The biggest question mark on the whole team is probably at kicker. Aaron Pettrey has a big leg, and Ryan Pretorius seems to be pretty well-rounded as a kicker (plus, he's a 27-year old redshirt sophmore from South Africa, and that has to count for something), so at first glance, we'd seem to be in decent shape. But neither has taken a kick in a meaningful college football game, so we don't know how good they really are. Mike Nugent and Josh Huston made the kicking game a major strength over the past few years. Will it continue that way, or will we experience a serious drop-off in kicker quality? Considering the number of outcomes in football impacted by the kicking game, this is the question of the summer for me.
The punting should also be getting attention, but for the opposite reason. I think that A.J. Trapasso is going to make a push for best punter in the Big Ten in this, his redshirt sophmore year. Right now, I'd say that Michigan State's Brandon Fields is the best, but I think Trapasso should be in the argument for the number two spot. I expect a very good year out of him, and the punting game should continue to be a strength for the Buckeyes.
And, of course, the return game has Ted Ginn. He's awesome. You knew that. Worth noting: the NCAA career record for most touchdowns on kick (punt and kickoff) returns is eight. Ted Ginn has six. I will say no more.
Which young players will have a breakout season?
On offense, Chris Wells is the easy answer, and also the correct one. I think he'll be real good before his career's over. This year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him getting 30 or 40% of the carries by the end of the season. I'd also suggest looking out for Brian Hartline, as I said above. Just a feeling I get.
On defense, Ross Homan's the big name freshman, and I think he'll play quite a bit, but I don't see him playing ahead of Marcus Freeman, John Kerr, Mike D'Andrea, and James Laurinaitis. He'll get some playing time, but not a whole lot. Lawerence Wilson will make some noise as a defensive end this year, I think. He's drawn some comparisons to Will Smith, and while I don't expect him to be that good, I think he'll impress us. I also think Kurt Coleman, an incoming freshman, will play quite a bit in the secondary. I don't think he'll start, necessarily, but he'll see playing time. He played very well this spring, and I think he's too good to keep off the field.
Will we win the national championship?
I refuse to speculate, of course. They're good enough, but a lot can happen. I hope we win it all, but one or even two losses should not be considered a failure. Anything less than a Big Ten Championship should be considered a disappointment, but it's silly to be expecting a national championship. So I won't predict one. I won't pick against one, either. I'll just hope.