Debriefing: Beleaguered Buckeyes still have big goals in their grasp

Matt Hinton

The least you should know about the 2011 Buckeyes. Part of Big Ten Week.

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Time to face the changes. Even before his suspension and ultimate departure from the team last month, quarterback Terrelle Pryor was generally regarded as an untapped talent at best, and a flaky underachiever at worst. But make no mistake: There is no overstating the effect Pryor's absence will have on the Ohio State offense.

For all his faults as a passer, leader or teammate, Pryor remained a nearly unmatched talent under center (or in the shotgun), and his production last year put him right on the verge of justifying the hype. As a junior, he finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency, led the Big Ten in touchdown passes and was the best player on an offense that easily averaged more points per game (38.8) than any other team in Jim Tressel's decade-long tenure as head coach. He was the MVP of back-to-back BCS bowl wins, first in a 26-17 win over Oregon that snapped the Buckeyes' three-game BCS losing streak in the 2010 Rose Bowl, then in a 31-26 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas that stopped a nine-game skid against the SEC. As a senior this fall, the sky was still the limit.

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Now, instead of a fourth-year starter with legitimate Heisman ambitions, the offense will be forced to lean on either a fifth-year senior with nowhere near Pryor's athleticism (Joe Bauserman) or a true freshman with nowhere near Pryor's experience (Braxton Miller). And he won't just have to ride out the first five games.

Back to basics. Regardless of the identity of the quarterback, the return of full-scale Tressel Ball — sans Tressel — requires the emergence of an imposing Old Testament tailback, of which there is never a shortage here. With All-Big Ten senior Boom Herron still scheduled to join two other offensive starters on the bench for the first five games, first crack at the workhorse role goes to a pair of touted redshirt freshmen, Jaamal Berry and battering ram Rod Smith, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound who has been explicitly compared to Eddie George. Both are former top-100 recruits, and with Herron back at mid-October, give OSU enough options to guarantee it can still plow straight ahead if necessary against the vast majority of the schedule.{YSP:MORE}

Of course, it helps to have a senior All-American calling the shots in the middle of the offensive line, and once senior left tackle Mike Adams rejoins rejoins the fold, the front five should count as a strength. As usual.

Plug in and enjoy. The all-consuming angst over the Tressel/Pryor Affair has completely eclipsed the non-scandalous concern on defense, where five of last year's top six tacklers were drafted by the NFL in April. Last year's senior-led outfit led the Big Ten by every possible measure — scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, takeaways — and left flashing red "vacancy" signs in the middle of the defensive line, at two of the three linebacker spots and at both corners.

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Naturally, this being Ohio State, the new starters are mostly former blue chips who are expected to uphold the usual standard: The last two times the Buckeyes lost at least five draft picks from the defense, in 2006 and 2007, they went on to lead the nation in scoring defense and play in the BCS Championship Game both times. Both of those defenses, though, were very good at something last year's otherwise stellar group was not: Rushing the passer. Even with a first-rounder (Cameron Heyward) holding down one end of the line, the Buckeyes finished 76th nationally with fewer than two sacks per game and were shut out completely on four different occasions — including their only loss, at Wisconsin. If bookends John Simon (top) and Nathan Williams (right) can't generate more heat on competent passers this fall, the overhauled secondary may find the going tougher than expected.

The guns of October. The crucial month on the schedule is October, which brings 2010 conference co-champs Michigan State and Wisconsin to Columbus and sends the Buckeyes to the early 2011 favorite, Nebraska. If Ohio State can take two of those three — especially if one of them is against fellow Leaders Division favorite Wisconsin — and avoid a letdown on a dangerous trip to Illinois in between, it can hit the stretch run in November with the suspensions in the rearview mirror, the conference title still within its grasp and four very winnable games in front of it. As easy as it is to imagine the Buckeyes as a fall power already, knocking them from the throne is still easier said than done until someone actually does it.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.