The Meaningless Debate Over Preseason #1

Michael BellCorrespondent IMay 17, 2006

IconFor the first time in years, uncertainty exists as to who will assume the throne of No. 1 when the college football polls debut.  Recent years have seen general agreement as to who the top one or two teams were.  USC was a near-unanimous No. 1 last year, save for those who voted for Texas.  Oklahoma and USC took almost all of the No. 1 votes in 2004.  Oklahoma and Ohio State seemed head and shoulders above the rest entering the 2003 season.
But this year, the only agreement is that the field is wide open.  

If there's a team that has gotten the most mention at No. 1 on most early rankings, it's Ohio State.  This is a team whose two losses last year came against top-3 competition.  They clearly improved as the year went on and ended the year on a high note with an offensive drubbing of Notre Dame.  They were well-coached, played a tough schedule, and return a good amount of starters (albeit only on one side of the ball, more on that later).  They're not as solid as, say, USC in the 2005 preseason poll, or even the 2003 Ohio State team after their National Championship season the year before. But the Buckeyes are definitely a dangerous team capable of running the table in the regular season.  Here's where I have issues, though:  I find it ridiculous how this team is consistently placed ahead of Notre Dame.

I know your first argument so I'll throw it out there for you: Ohio State whooped Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and if that's not a good assessment of where these teams stand, then I don't know what is.  In fact, you're right. It is a great assessment of where these teams stood, LAST YEAR.  That argument would be a lot more relevant if more than half of OSU's team hadn't graduated or booked it for the NFL.  I have beef with OSU's No. 1 argument because, when you line these teams up against each other, I can't see how someone can claim OSU as the better team. 

Offensively, we are talking about two of the most potent offenses in the country.  That doesn't sound strange coming from a Charlie Weis offense, but it is surprising out of a Jim Tressel one.  OSU returns eight starters from a top-30 offense that became explosive in the second half of the season.  It's also no coincidence that this explosion came against defensive powerhouses Michigan State, Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, and Northwestern, all teams among the 30 worst defenses statistically last year.  They lost two offensive linemen to the NFL, including their best blocker in center Nick Mangold.  They also lost their top wide receiver in Santonio Holmes.
I don't care what you say, Holmes was much better than Teddy Ginn last year, and the Buckeyes will need to find another wide-out to take some of the defensive focus off of Ginn.  However, an abundance of talent at the skill positions, including a mobile quarterback and lots of depth at running back, should help to combat this.    

Notre Dame has even fewer questions on the offensive side of the ball.  Last year, they had the difficulty of adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff with a complicated new scheme.  They ended up a top 10 offense in both points and yards per game.  Not bad for a first year's work.  Look for them to expand their offensive schemes even more, as players have now fully adapted to the new system.  On paper, you will read that they return seven starters, less than OSU's eight.  Don't be fooled though.  The only positions they have to replace are right tackle and tight end.  There will certainly be a drop off at tight end with Anthony Fasano now playing on Sundays, but backups John Carlson and Marcus Freeman have seen ample playing time thanks to Weis' two- and three-end sets.  The loss of receiver Maurice Stovall will hurt, but Rhema McKnight returns after red-shirting last year due to an injury in Game 2.  McKnight was the best receiver on this team going into last year, and its not unreasonable to think that he should put up better numbers than Stovall in this offense if he's healthy.  As far as right tackle goes, Bob Morton is not listed as a returning starter, but he has started over 15 games in his career, including four last year.  I don't really need to go into the other skill positions because they are as good as it comes (including the front runner for the Heisman might, I remind you).     

Both of these offenses will be explosive, but Notre Dame has better skill players, a better offensive scheme, and a more experienced offensive line.  One can only give ND a slight edge in terms of offensive ability. 

On defense is where the comparison get interesting, because we're talking about two opposite ends of the spectrum.  There is zero doubt that OSU's defense was the strength of their team last year.  Fourth in total yards per game, first in rushing defense, seventh in scoring defense.  Those numbers speak for themselves.  Not allowing big pass plays and controlling the line of scrimmage wins you games.  The Buckeyes did both of those as good as anyone.  But here's where the Buckeyes' case begins to piss me off as irrational.  That was last season.  That was an entirely different defense.  About the only thing the Buckeyes return this year on defense are the coaches.  Top seven tacklers?  Gone.  The top six were drafted, three in the first round alone.  Not only are these new guys going to have to learn the defensive schemes, they're going to have to learn how to tackle because they haven't had to in a real game since they've been in college. 

Let's check out OSU's defensive rushing ranks from the past 3 seasons: 2003, No. 1;  2004, No. 39;  2005, No. 1.  What does this tell me?  First, Jim Tressel is a hell of a defensive coach.  He needs one year to reload on defensive talent, and only dropped to No. 39 to do so.  But the transition into 2004 and the transition into 2006 aren't exactly similar.  Going into 2004, OSU lost some defensive stars, but they did return their top tackler in AJ Hawk, and three of their top five.  They had some experience at linebacker and in the secondary.  This was a good defense, but not a great defense.  The potential was there, they were just a year away. 

Fast forward to 2006.  The only guys returning here are two interior defensive linemen, one being a top-ten tackler on last year's team.  So, hey, at least there's some experience up the middle.  The rest of the team has very little experience and almost no starts.  I'm not saying that the talent doesn't exist on the team, but it's ridiculous to think that these guys can just step in and be a good defense.  This isn't basketball where you can get by on raw talent.  As offensive schemes become more complex, a young defense will have to adapt quickly.  There will be coverage mistakes, missed tackles, missed assignments, all of the errors that you would expect out of a brand new defense.  Will they improve throughout the season? Absolutely.  Could this defense eventually become dominant?  Sure.  Will it happen this year?  All arrows point towards no way. 

Notre Dame has almost the exact opposite situation.  They return nine starters from a team that struggled to defend the pass last year.  The losses do come at linebacker, however, where their top two tacklers are gone.  They'll need to find replacements there who can adapt to the surrounding defense quickly.  However, they'll have a cohesive unit of nine around them which should make the transition much smoother.  The D-line will have plenty of depth, as well as experience.  It'll be important for them to pressure the opposing quarterback more to take some pressure off the secondary, which returns everyone along with a few freshman studs as well.

The secondary is obviously the main concern for the Irish, as they gave up too many big plays (see the OSU game).  Many analysts site a lack of speed at the cornerback position, saying that you can't teach speed and it's a lost cause.  I couldn't find this farther from the truth.  Ambrose Wooden has plenty of speed (see him running down Jarrett) and I feel that speed wasn't the main issue last season.  Too many times, coverages were blown and opposing receivers found themselves open by 15 yards.  This can be fixed through coaching.  One of the problems with bringing in an entirely new coaching staff is that the coaches need to make sure they are on the same page with each other (as far as plays, schemes, coaching styles) before even beginning to coach the players.  I think this was especially evident in the secondary, where players with little experience were trying to learn to read defenses from new coaches.  Offense dictates.  Defense reacts.  This is one reason why it s easier bringing in inexperienced offensive players as opposed to defense (the exception being QB).  At safety, ND is as solid as any team in the country.  They have two playmakers who have a knack for turnovers (and finding the endzone).  This defense really has the potential to come together well, much more than anyone is giving them credit for. 

When you compare these defenses, you have to ask yourself this question:  Are you willing to give tOSU the edge with nine new players and no team leaders over a team with nine returning players and many team leaders?  If you answer yes, then I'd say you're what the French call "les incompetents." 

So let's review.  Offense: Both extremely solid, but edge to ND.  Defense: Maybe in 2007 these OSU players will become studs (speculation), but stars aren't made overnight.  Coaching: They're both as good as it comes, but we still don't know what Weis' full potential can be.  If you want to put some other team No. 1 on your list, so be it. But you can't rationally explain ranking OSU over Notre Dame.