Buckeye fans are not yet two weeks removed from a second consecutive flop in the BCS title game, and yet optimism abounds once again.
Graduating but a few key players from the squad, Ohio State figured to have a good looking program heading into the 2008 campaign. This came with the expectation that many of the eligible underclassmen would bolt to the NFL Many pundits had written off any chance of seeing the likes of Vernon Gholston, James Laurinaitis, Malcom Jenkins, Alex Boone, and Brian Robiskie donning the Scarlet and Gray next year.
Only Gholston has decided to take his game to the next level after his Junior season. Perhaps there will be a silver lining to the abysmal showing against LSU afterall. The pervading attitude amongst many returning players is that there is unfinished business.
The Buckeyes will miss Gholston's presence on the defensive line, but figure to boast some of the nation's top talent once again. Take a look at the complete list of non-returning starters: DE Gholston, OT Kirk Barton, LB Larry Grant, FB Dionte Johnson. That is all. Ohio State has plenty of talent on the team, not to mention a top-5 recruiting class, to fill in those spots and provide depth.
They will not be short on talent.
So what's the reason for concern?
With the unforgettable debacles in consecutive title games, the national news media have quickly turned against them. Perhaps most notably, ESPN's Pat Forde wrote an article about how Ohio State should be barred from the title game this coming season.
Jim Tressel's group can take the criticism; it may even serve as a motivator. The problem is that several of these individuals have a direct influence on the outcome of BCS balloting. Many national voters have already written off the 2008 Buckeyes before they have had a chance to practice.
While they have certainly earned a degree of criticism, one must give them a chance to succeed.
Ohio State has put itself in an interesting position. Imagine two scenarios:
1) Ohio State beats USC in a big, early-season showdown in Los Angeles, and goes on to breeze through the rest of their dismal schedule. They finished undefeated. Critics will point to their schedule, and make excuses for a USC loss. The program will once again be slammed, devalued, and disrespected. It is possible they will be left out of the BCS championship (if the system has not yet imploded), especially if there are two other undefeated teams.
2) Ohio State loses to USC, then runs the table. Assume that several one-loss teams are in the picture for the title game, like this past season; after all, parity now seems to rule college football. In this scenario, Ohio State will immediately be thrown out of the picture. No doubt about it. The program will continue to be discredited as a complete fraud.
There are, of course, many other possibilities for Ohio State (I don't even want to imagine the backlash if they were to lose a Big Ten game), but it is simpler to break down the schedule this way.
Now imagine a third scenario: Ohio State runs the table and wins the National Championship, maybe even against the SEC. What reaction then? Were they supposed to do it because of their great talent? Is it unacceptable because it is a mere one out of three? Were they healthy because they were never challenged? Another crystal football for Tressel, and an enhanced (though already impressive) coaching resume would not silence the naysayers.
It will take longer than just one year to undo the damage of two games. Beating up on the Big Ten definitely will not cut it. But if they earn it in the regular season again, these returning Buckeyes deserve a shot at respect.