July 25, 2011
At some point, it was inevitable. But that doesn't mean anyone was actually prepared for the sudden opening of the Big Ten frontier this summer, or had any good reason to be. When the annual preseason magazines started going to press at the end of spring practice, Jim Tressel was still Ohio State's head coach. Terrelle Pryor was still Ohio State's starting quarterback. True, they were going to miss the first month of the season, along with three other offensive starters, but they'd be back in time for the thick of conference play. At which point Ohio State would still be Ohio State, immovable object at the top of the Big Ten standings.
In the span of a few weeks, the irresistible force of an NCAA investigation altered that dynamic in unusually violent fashion. Sometimes, habit and continuity have a way of obscuring warning signs that seem obvious in retrospect. It was entirely possible to spot the cracks that led to the collapse of USC's Pac-10 empire in 2009, but no one did; nor did they imagine the misery at Florida and Texas last year after the departures of two myth-making quarterbacks. Whatever happens, you think, there is always a baseline. USC is still USC, right up until the moment it isn't.
But no one can pretend at the start of the 2011 season that Ohio State is still Ohio State as the Big Ten has known it for the last six years. If the Buckeyes fail to extend their dominance over the conference, the exact timeline of their downfall is already written. April 2010: Jim Tressel receives e-mails alerting him to likely violations involving quarterback Terrelle Pryor and at least one other player. May 30, 2011: Tressel resigns under pressure. June 7, 2010: Pryor walks away before he can be declared ineligible for his final season. Without their head coach or senior quarterback — and with a suddenly green-looking lineup playing under a very green-looking coach and a cloud of suspensions and possible sanctions — it's no wonder a few people are beginning to whisper that the king is dead.
And why wouldn't they? "Dominance" isn't too strong of a word: Since 2005, Ohio State has taken three outright Big Ten titles, won a share of three more, won its way into six straight BCS bowls, won as many big-money games (3) as any other school, produced 11 first-round draft picks, produced the conference's only Heisman Trophy winner of the past decade and have yet to finish outside of the top 10 in the final polls. The Buckeyes are 43-5 against the rest of the conference in that span, and only one Big Ten rival — Penn State in 2005 and 2008 — has beaten them more than once. Their main rival hasn't beaten them at all. Really, in the big picture, how much of a dent were a few five-game suspensions — only one of them a Big Ten game — over a stretch of games Ohio State is likely to win anyway really going to make?
Over the course of an entire season, though, the abrupt absence of both the brain of the program — besides two wildly successful decades' worth of head coaching wisdom, Tressel also called every play on offense — and it right arm changes the complexion of the conference race entirely. Luke Fickell has never been a head coach on any level, and can't be certain whether he's only being propped up as a one-year stopgap. Pryor, an enormous talent still just beginning to scratch beyond the surface last year as a junior, cedes the job to either a senior who lacks anything resembling Pryor's athleticism or a freshman who's never taken a live college snap. The top five tacklers from the Big Ten's best defense are all gone.
By the end of October, OSU will have faced both of last year's co-champions, Michigan State and Wisconsin, and the conference's incoming powerhouse, Nebraska, in a four-game, five-week span. And the Big Ten race should be anyone's for the taking down the stretch.
I do mean almost literally anyone there, at least among the top half of the league. Nebraska arrives from the Big 12 with a long championship pedigree and a star-studded defense to match. Michigan State brings back a senior quarterback of its own and most of the lineup that a third of the championship last year Wisconsin added the most sought-after free agent quarterback of the offseason to a backfield that already has two 1,000-yard rushers. Iowa's four conference losses in 2010 came by a combined 11 points, all blown fourth quarter leads. Michigan still boasts the most dynamic player in the conference, now opposite a rising defense that can't help but improve under vastly improved leadership. Even Northwestern is in the mix with arguably the best quarterback in the league, the most experienced lineup from top to bottom and the most favorable schedule.
And, of course, there's still Ohio State, remains the deepest, most talented outfit in the Big Ten and by far the most accustom to winning. It's beginning to appear that the Buckeyes aren't going to come in for a postseason ban, after all, which should give them the opportunity to win their way into the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game. They get the most likely usurper in the Leaders Division, Wisconsin, in Columbus, after a bye week. By then, the new faces (Fickell included) will be relatively battle-tested, and the other suspended starters — running back Boom Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and offensive tackle Mike Adams — will be back in the fold. No game looks unwinnable; in fact, depending on how the season plays out, OSU could still be favored in almost all of them.
It's entirely possible we'll reach December with the Buckeyes rolling into Indianapolis for a shot at title No. 7 and realize the sound and fury over Tressel and Pryor and the scandal that brought them down really did signify nothing about the larger Big Ten order. For the first time in a long time, though, it's at least as possible that we won't.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.