The Meaningless Debate Over Preseason #1
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.
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.
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.
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