It all sets up nicely for Pryor, Buckeyes

There are expectations, there are unrealistic expectations, and then there’s what the Ohio State football team needs to deal with.

Coach Jim Tressel has created such a monster that it has been impossible to stomach losing around Columbus to anyone who isn’t worthy of being in the BCS Championship debate. Not coming through in a national title game is one thing, and losing to USC on a regular basis isn’t any reason to get the shorts in a twist, but one 26-18 road loss to Purdue on a day when nothing worked quite right (there were five turnovers and the time of possession was 36:08 to 23:52, Purdue) and all of a sudden it’s time to blow up the program and start over.

The reaction and overreaction after one loss showed just how spoiled many in the fan base had become and proved how the unquestioned respect wasn’t quite there for Tressel, even after all he had done. (And no, this is all not an overstatement. I was a guest on four radio shows in the area during the week after the Boilermaker loss, and on two I was asked if Terrelle Pryor should move to wide receiver, while on another I was asked if this signaled a time when the program needed to start thinking about the post-Jim Tressel era. The e-mails coming in from Buckeye fans were even more irate. One loss.)

Everyone has a donkey game now and then. USC responded from its great road win over the Buckeyes by falling with a thud against Washington the next week. Alabama lost to Louisiana-Monroe a few years ago, Florida has never gone through a full season unscathed under head coach Urban Meyer, and just ask Michigan, Notre Dame and Oklahoma (at least last year) how hard it is to maintain a spot on top of the mountain year in and year out. But after all the drama and all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, how did Tressel and his Buckeyes respond?

Like they were in total agreement.

It helped to get Minnesota and New Mexico State at home over the following two weeks, but the team came out roaring, winning those two games by a combined score of 83 to 7. With a 24-7 trouncing of Penn State in Happy Valley and a scintillating overtime win over Iowa, and Ohio State got over the loss to Purdue by simply being better. The program did what it was supposed to do after a bad game; it corrected the mistakes and improved.

The running game became stronger, Pryor cut down on his mistakes and became much sharper (highlighted by a 14-of-17 day against Iowa), and the Buckeyes went on a 6-0 run to close out the year, including a win over Oregon in the Rose Bowl.

After showing how it could handle adversity (also rebounding from the loss to USC to beat a high-powered Toledo team and Illinois by a combined score of 68-0), this team appears ready to get back in the national title chase. This year, OSU is one of the three or four teams good enough to be in the hunt for the championship from the word go.

The schedule has its quirks, but Ohio State is hardly going to be freaking out over the idea of going to Wisconsin and Iowa with 17 returning starters, including four offensive linemen, most of the key parts on defense, and almost all the rushing production of last year.

Throw in the expected improvement of Pryor into a more consistent passer, the speed and athleticism waiting in the wings from some phenomenal recruiting classes, and the steady, certain hand of Tressel, and OSU is ready to make its third national title appearance in five years. At the very least, OSU has to make a sixth BCS appearance in a row.

Ohio State, from the fans to the players to the coaches, won’t settle for anything less.

What to watch for on offense: Pryor’s consistency. When he was on, he was one of the most dangerous playmakers in America. The brilliant day against Oregon in the Rose Bowl brought the higher profile, but before that he was terrific against Iowa and Indiana. However, he also went 5-of-13 against Wisconsin and 8-of-17 against Penn State. OSU can win the Big Ten title without Pryor being ultra-sharp all the time (it did it last year), but it can’t win the national championship unless he he’s on each and every week. The team can win because of him, and now he has to do it more.

What to watch for on defense: The young prospects. The defense was solid against the run throughout last year, failing to allow more than 186 yards in a game (and those came in the season opener against Navy), while the secondary came up with a strong year. The D will be strong again, but the difference between being great and national title-good could be the play of some of the top young prospects. Sophomore John Simon is a great-looking tackle who should shine with a bigger role, while redshirt freshman linebacker Dorian Bell, sophomore safety Orhian Johnson and junior Nathan Williams are just a few of the new faces to the mix who should quickly become stars.

The team will be far better if … the running game hits the 100-yard mark. OSU has gone 21-5 over the past two years, and in those five losses the running game only went over 88 yards once. That came in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Texas (rushing for 203 yards), and that was only a loss because Colt McCoy went on a classic late drive to pull out the win. The Buckeyes are 20-0 over the past two seasons when rushing for 125 yards or more, while rushing for 71 against USC and 61 against Penn State in the 2008 losses and 88 against USC and 66 against Purdue in 2009. The lone aberration was against Wisconsin, rushing for just 97 yards in a 31-13 win, but that was an odd game with the Badger offense controlling the clock for 42:47 and keeping OSU off the field. In other words, Tressel Ball works.

The schedule: It all sets up well for an unbeaten run, but there are just enough land mines to ruin a perfect season. Playing a loaded and athletic Miami team in Columbus will be a terrific early test, but the rest of the nonconference schedule is a breeze with two MAC teams (Ohio and Eastern Michigan) and Marshall. Missing Michigan State and Northwestern in Big Ten play might not seem like a big deal, but the two went to bowl games last year, and each should finish in the conference’s top five. There aren’t two road games in a row, but while the trip to Wisconsin comes after a relative breather against Indiana, the showdown at Iowa comes a week after facing Penn State. Getting the Nov. 6 week off is going to come in very, very handy down the stretch.

Best offensive player: Junior QB Terrelle Pryor. He’s at his best when he’s able to run and get on the move — he led the team with 779 yards and seven scores. But when he’s able to push the ball deep, and when he’s sharp with the passing game, the offense is unstoppable for stretches. He has the size, he has the work ethic, he has the speed, and he has the arm. Now he has the experience to be special.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Ross Homan. While he’s a bit undersized at 6-0 and 227 pounds, he’s a great hitter and isn’t afraid of throwing his body around … for good and bad. He was banged up early in his career, and he suffered a concussion last season against Illinois, but he’s tough, always finds a way to get back on the field in a hurry, and he’s one of the Big Ten’s elite all-around linebackers, picking off five passes, including four in the final five games. He led the team with 108 tackles.

Key player to a successful season: Outside of Pryor, senior PK Devin Barclay. Tressel Ball only really works if there’s an ultra-reliable place-kicker to count on so the offense doesn’t have to force plays that aren’t there. Don’t take unnecessary chances, take the points when available, and rely on the defense to hold firm time and again. That’s the goal, and the points have to come from the place-kickers. Barclay came through in overtime to beat Iowa, but he hasn’t shown off much of a deep leg, missing his two attempts from beyond 40 yards. If he’s not the full-time answer with Aaron Pettrey, who nailed 7-of-9 field goals from beyond 40 yards last year, then it might be up to either punter Ben Buchanan or true freshman Drew Basil.

The season will be a success if … Ohio State plays for the national championship. Every year there are a few lucky teams who truly control their own destiny. Win out, and you’re in. Last year, those two teams were Texas and the SEC champion, and this year it’ll be the winner of the SEC title game along with the Buckeyes. Go 12-0, play for the whole ball of wax. The puck is on your stick, OSU.

Key game: Oct. 16 at Wisconsin. If the Buckeyes play up to their potential and don’t gack away another Purdue-like road trip, this is a four-game schedule. Miami and Penn State to Columbus, there’s a trip to Iowa on Nov. 20. However, the toughest battle of the lot should be in Madison, Wis., where Pryor grew up and unofficially kicked off his era as the main man with a late comeback to beat the Badgers, 20-17, in 2008. Last year, Wisconsin thoroughly dominated the Buckeyes outside of some bad interceptions and a special teams gaffe in the 31-13 loss. OSU has won the last three games in the series, but it’s only up 5-4 in the last nine meetings.