The Ohio State Buckeyes have been beaten, embarrassed and discarded during the course of the 2011 offseason. Then, after being ripped to shreds for most of the summer, they were forgotten like yesterday’s news in the wake of some recent "troubles" down in Miami.
In between the talks about Jim Tressel’s departure and Terrelle Pryor’s NFL eligibility, somehow, the idea that the players left behind in the aftermath have to deal with the consequences of mistakes past seems to have slipped everyone’s minds.
And that’s precisely why Ohio State may end up being the most slept on team of the year in the surprisingly tough Big Ten.
Last year the Buckeyes won 12 games en route to sharing the Big Ten Conference title with the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan State Spartans. That title was the school’s sixth in a row and the 35th in the program’s long and storied history. On top of finishing with a very impressive 7-1 mark in conference play -- which should have been 8-0 -- Ohio State also earned notable victories over the archrival Michigan Wolverines during the year and the No. 8 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks in their bowl game.
When it was all said and done, the Tressel-led squad finished ranked No. 5 in the polls and felt like they had a pretty solid 2010 campaign. Or at least that’s the way they felt before reality set in.
In what ended up being a bombshell of an investigation, Sports Illustrated -- building on a Yahoo! Sports story from last year -- revealed that a number of prominent Buckeye dignitaries were involved in a pay-for-memorabilia scandal and that the team’s respected head coach both knew about the violations and, worse yet, tried to cover them up. Among the many players involved was Ohio State’s star quarterback, Pryor – who was ended up getting suspended along with four others for their role in the whole mess.
In the weeks following SI’s report, Tressel resigned, Pryor announced that he would be leaving the school for the NFL and Ohio State would go on to vacate the 2010 season.
Although it may not have seemed like it while the wounds were fresh, the summer’s events may have been the best thing for the Buckeyes long term. They purged themselves of wrongdoers and bad apples from all directions, and aside from some humiliation, can now go back to doing what they do best – dominating opponents on the football field.
Offensively, the biggest and most obvious hole that the Buckeyes have to patch up is the one left behind by Pryor at the quarterback position. Senior, Joe Bauserman is the most likely candidate for the slot despite his inexperience (320 yards and two touchdowns in two seasons as Pryor’s backup); however, freshman Braxton Miller is also a fascinating player to watch. Miller, according to a number of experts has that particular spark that star quarterbacks seem to be born with, but he’s very raw at this point. Still, if Bauserman proves himself as incapable of taking over the No. 1 spot, things might get interesting in the quarterback battle.
Whoever the quarterback ends up being, he’ll have to make do with fewer weapons than Pryor had in 2010. With last year’s leading rusher Dan Herron and No. 2 wide receiver DeVier Posey absent -- both suspended along with offensive tackle Mike Adams in the aforementioned tattoo scandal -- the offense will need rely more heavily on the protection provided by Mike Brewster, widely regarded as one of the best centers in the sport.
Defensively, the Buckeyes return six starters and boast a fearsome attack that will give opposing squads nightmares. Last year, Ohio State ranked No. 4 in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense. Between the tackling ability of defensive end Nathan Williams and the knack for eluding opposing offensive lines that defensive tackle John Simon seems to have, getting after the other team's passers shouldn’t be a problem for this group. Similarly, the secondary should be equally imposing as Coach Luke Fickell mixes and matches pieces he’s already very familiar with until he finds the formula that fits best for him.
So what should Buckeye fans expect in the coming year? A pleasant surprise. At this point, everyone appears to be writing off Ohio State due to what transpired over the last couple of months, conveniently forgetting that Pryor, despite his success, never lived up to the billing and that the defense is still as strong as ever. So long as the quarterback situation figures itself out and the unit finds their rhythm early, the Buckeyes might impress some people. The only thing the school has going against them is all of the talent in the Big Ten between newcomer Nebraska and the traditional powers, but there’s nothing you can do about in-conference competition.
At the end of the day, after everything that has happened over the summer, Ohio State can take solace in this simple idea – things can only go up from here.