1. What are some of the major position battles going on within your team heading into the fall?
With an experienced football team already in place, there are few positions that have yet to be established. Still, there are several underclassmen that will be pushing the starters for playing time. While senior quarterback Todd Boeckman is entrenched in the starting spot after a strong junior season, he will certainly have some competition from true freshman Terrelle Pryor. It is more than likely that Boeckman will remain the starter for the entire season, but Pryor may take more and more playing time as the season rolls on.
The only real position battle may be for the fullback position, which has yet to be determined. Other than that, Jake Ballard may push Rory Nicol for playing time at tight end; sophomore Thaddeus Gibson may get situational playing time in place of either Cameron Heyward or Lawrence Wilson at DE, and sophomore Ross Homan should play some at linebacker.
2. Who are some players on each side of the ball that you see emerging as stars this year?
An obvious answer to this question would be Pryor, the 6’ 6, 235-pound Vince Young-clone from Jeannette, PA. Pryor has all of the tools to be possibly the greatest quarterback to ever step into the Horseshoe wearing the scarlet and gray. However, for this year it seems like Pryor’s role may only be situational as a change of pace player. As far as early indications for this season go, Pryor may not emerge as a real star until 2009.
I then turn to two young players in the trenches who might emerge as stars by the middle of the season. On offense, sophomore Bryant Browning is a massive 6’ 4, 312-pound right tackle who is taking over for the departed senior Kirk Barton. Browning, a product of Glenville High School in Cleveland, has had an excellent spring and should fit in well on an experienced line. Browning will be pushed by freshman blue-chip recruit Mike Adams, another potential emerging star.
On defense, Vernon Gholston’s replacement is poised to have similar production as his predecessor. Lawrence Wilson, the 6’ 4, 274-pound junior from Saint Vincent-Saint Mary High School in Akron was expected to be the next great OSU defensive lineman—not Gholston—before he broke his leg early in the 2007 season. This year he will have plenty to prove as he will be the focal point of the defensive line. Don’t be surprised if he has 10+ sacks next year. He certainly has the potential to do so.
3. Are there any significant injuries your team is worrying about?
Barring any injuries that will ultimately occur during training camp, the Buckeyes should be in the healthiest shape they have been in years. In particular, Beanie Wells should finally be 100 percent for his junior year.
For the past two years, Wells has suffered through a broken hand, injured wrist, and badly sprained ankle. Through all that, few defenses were able to stop him—including the vaunted LSU defense in the championship game in January. It is imperative for Wells to stay healthy if Ohio State wants to return to the BCS for a third straight year. Injuries to players like Todd Boeckman, Alex Boone, James Laurinaitis, or Malcolm Jenkins would hurt, but they can be replaced. A significant injury to Wells would be devastating.
4. What do you think your team's major strengths and weaknesses will be?
The Buckeyes have several major strengths. On defense, they return nine starters from the nation’s best defense in ’07 (the Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in total defense, scoring, and passing defense) including All-Americans James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins, as well as experienced veterans Marcus Freeman and Donald Washington. While star defensive lineman Vernon Gholston takes his 14 sacks last year on to the NFL, the Buckeyes could be even better in ’08.
On offense, nine starters also return including a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in Chris “Beanie” Wells, who has the ability to rush for close to 2,000 yards next year if healthy. Wells will be running behind four returning starters on the offensive line, including future first round draft pick Alex Boone. As long as Coach Tressel can find a capable fullback to block for Wells, Ohio State may have the best running game in the country. At wide receiver, the Bucks are stocked full of talent with senior receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline along with speedster Ray Small. Even on special teams, senior A.J. Trapasso—a Ray Guy semifinalist in '07—returns for his fourth year as the punter.
A strong running game and defense have been staples of this program ever since Coach Tressel started here in 2001. But this juggernaut may have a few weaknesses. While Boeckman was productive for the majority of the season, he slipped and had his worst performances with the most pressure on the line—at home against Illinois with the Big Ten on the line and against LSU in the national championship game. In each game, his decision-making slipped and he threw a few interceptions. Boeckman can’t have that kind of poor production in away games against USC, Wisconsin, or Illinois.
Another weakness for Ohio State may also be what was once regarded as a strength: Tresselball. The predictable, conservative play-calling used by Ohio State has come under fire, especially with the emergence of unorthodox spread offenses across the country. Critics may point to the Buckeyes’ lack of speed as its demise against SEC foes, but in reality, they lacked an innovative scheme on offense and defense to deal with Les Miles’ tricks.
5. What games are you most looking forward to watching this year?
Ohio State at USC on September 13 may be one of the most important regular season games for the program in the last 10 years. Similar to the two seasons when they played the Texas Longhorns in a "home and home" series, the Buckeyes-Trojans game represents a matchup between two of the most successful programs in college football this decade.
Adding to the importance of this series, the Buckeyes have a chance to redeem themselves after being scrutinized in the national media for not beating anyone good out of their conference and getting blown out in championship games. A win over the perennial Pac-10 champs would give the Buckeyes legitimacy in the eyes of public opinion. A win over USC also gives OSU an opportunity to play in the BCS Championship for the third straight year.
A revenge game against Illinois on November 15 at Memorial Stadium should be a good one as well.
6. What record do you think your team will end the regular season with (Best Case Scenario / Worse Case Scenario)?
With 18 out of 22 returning starters on both sides of the ball and two BCS Championship appearances in the last two years, the sky is the limit for the Buckeyes. They are the overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten regular season title for the fourth straight year. A win over USC could also build momentum not only for Ohio State, but also for the conference as a whole. It is not inconceivable to think that, best case, the Buckeyes could beat USC, go undefeated, and stand atop the BCS ranking system for the third straight year. The road will be difficult with away games at the L.A. Coliseum, Camp Randall Stadium, and Memorial Stadium, but they have the guns to run the table.
Considering a team that has such a high ceiling, it is hard to determine how this team could lose more than two games next year. But here goes:
Overwhelmed by a star-studded Trojan defense led by Rey Maualuga and Fili Moala, the Buckeyes get blown out by USC and enter Big Ten play at 3-1. While in conference play, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Illinois all get the upper hand as the Bucks enter their final home game at 7-4 against the heavy underdog Michigan Wolverines. Led by first-year head coach Rich Rodriguez, the Wolverines march into the ‘Shoe with nothing to lose and get…absolutely destroyed by Ohio State, giving the Buckeyes an 8-4 record and a berth to the Alamo Bowl.
You see? Even at the worse case, I can’t see Michigan beating Ohio State in ’08. Maybe next year.
Or maybe that’s just my bias talking.