Thomas Bradley / Campus editor
Ohio State football’s 2011 season promises to be one of the most intriguing in recent memory. Key players are suspended, there’s been considerable turnover at numerous positions and there’s a new coach at the helm.
The Buckeyes should still contend for the 35th Big Ten championship in program history, though. In fact, the only thing that might keep OSU from winning the title is a possible NCAA ruling that deems the program ineligible for postseason play.
The Buckeyes begin the season with a modest, No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press’ preseason college football poll. Four of OSU’s Big Ten rivals — No. 17-ranked Michigan State, No. 11-ranked Wisconsin and No. 10-ranked Nebraska — also figure to contend for the Big Ten title this fall.
During OSU football media day on Aug. 21, players and coaches said they aren’t concerned with the media’s preseason predictions.
“From year to year, (our) expectations don’t change, and that’s what makes Ohio State great,” said first-year coach Luke Fickell. “I would rather have people say negative things and doubt you just because that’s a motivating thing in itself.”
Talk to literally any OSU player and they’ll likely echo Fickell’s sentiments.
Most players and coaches won’t elaborate on exactly what the team’s expectations are in 2011, but senior center Michael Brewster did.
“We’re the six-time defending Big Ten champs and as long as I’m here, that’s not going to change,” Brewster said. “We’re used to winning and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
If the Buckeyes are to advance to the inaugural Big Ten championship game on Dec. 3 in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium, they’ll have to navigate the Big Ten’s newly formed Leaders Division, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin.
By season’s end, an October stretch of games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin — the games against the Cornhuskers and Illini are on the road — likely will have made or broke OSU’s Big Ten championship hopes.
If there is a singular, decisive moment this season, it may come during Wisconsin’s Oct. 29 visit to Ohio Stadium. That game, currently scheduled for an 8 p.m. kickoff, could determine which team represents the Leaders Division in the conference championship game.
After earning a berth in the 2011 Rose Bowl Game, the Badgers will come to Columbus with highly touted quarterback Russell Wilson, a transfer from N.C. State that threw for 3,563 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2010.
It appears that Wilson will do battle with OSU’s two-headed quarterbacking monster, which is comprised of redshirt senior Joe Bauserman and true freshman Braxton Miller.
At a Tuesday press conference, Fickell announced that Bauserman and Miller will share time at quarterback, but that Bauserman would probably take the first snap of the season.
By the time the Badgers come to town in Week 9, it’s possible that Bauserman or Miller will have earned full-time duties at the position, but it is clear that OSU has two serviceable quarterbacks at its disposal.
The Buckeyes will be looking to avenge last year’s 31-18 upset loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. With the backing of 105,000 rowdy fans, OSU should find a way to reverse the result of last year’s game and go top of the Leaders Division.
From there, OSU should handle Purdue and Indiana before closing out the regular season with intriguing games against Penn State at home and, of course, the season finale against Michigan in Ann Arbor.
After university representatives met with the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions on Aug. 12, athletic director Gene Smith said he expects a final ruling regarding the school’s NCAA infractions in eight to 12 weeks. Should the NCAA announce its final ruling during the eight to 12 week window Smith mentioned, the announcement would arrive sometime during a four-game stretch in which the Buckeyes travel to Nebraska and Illinois in consecutive weeks before hosting Wisconsin and Indiana.
If the Buckeyes are deemed ineligible for postseason bowl games, then they will also be disqualified from competing the conference championship game, according to a Thursday press release by the Big Ten which detailed tie-breaking procedures for the conference.
Four OSU football players — DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, Dan Herron and Solomon Thomas — are also suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season after selling Buckeye football memorabilia in exchange for improper benefits in the form of tattoos. Linebacker Jordan Whiting received a one-game ban.
Terrelle Pryor left the university on June 7, just days after former coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign from his post. Pryor was eventually selected by the Oakland Raiders in the third round of the NFL’s supplemental draft.
Finally, three more Buckeyes — Junior running back Jordan Hall, sophomore defensive back Corey Brown and junior defensive back Travis Howard —were suspended for the season opening game against Akron on Thursday after they disclosed that they had received impermissible benefits of $300 or less each in total at a charity event they attended earlier in the year.
If OSU avoids a postseason ban, however, an unexpected season of glory could await a weary Buckeye Nation.
Key to the season
The play of the offensive line, coupled with efficiency from OSU’s quarterbacking tandem of Bauserman and Miller, will determine the Buckeyes’ fate in 2011. Senior Mike Adams’ return to the line after serving his five-game suspension will bolster protection for the OSU signal callers. Bauserman and Miller sharing time at quarterback isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either — that combination could prove to be difficult for opponents to plan for.
Regular season prediction: (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten); Leaders Division winner.
Championship game prediction: OSU def. Nebraska