Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Sizing up the favorites for the top spot in the preseason polls. Today: Ohio State. Previously: Oregon, Boise State, Texas, Alabama.

Hide the women and children, and most of the men. No counterintuitive maneuvering here. It's Ohio State. They play defense. The Buckeyes finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense last year for the fifth year in a row, with a particularly stellar run against the best offenses on the schedule: OSU held Southern Cal to 18 points, Wisconsin to 13 points, Penn State to 7, Iowa to 17 (the Hawkeyes added another touchdown on a kickoff return) and Oregon to 17 in the Rose Bowl, less than half the Ducks' season average. Not a single opponent reached its season averages in points or total yards.

So it is, so it shall be again thanks to seven returnees who started at least five games last year, most notably All-American and future first-rounder Cameron Heyward on the defensive line and tackle machine linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan, all seniors. Both corners, Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence, are seniors, too, along with safety Jermale Hines and '09 injury casualty Tyler Moeller (owner of the nation's coolest head scar following brain surgery last August), setting up a characteristically veteran core for a characteristic finish atop the conference.

All the ways you will disappoint us. On paper, this should be a relatively dynamite offense, due mostly to junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor and his classmates from the much-hyped 2008 recruiting class, from which sprang this fall's top receiver (DeVier Posey), top offensive lineman (Mike Brewster), both starting tackles (Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts) and starting tight end (Jake Stoneburner); one half of the primary combo at running back (Boom Herron) joined them as a freshman after redshirting in 2007. Reliable seniors Justin Boren, Dane Sanzenbacher and Brandon Saine round out what looks like the most explosive attack here since the 2006 team that scored at least 35 points nine times and went coast-to-coast as No. 1 before running into Florida in the BCS title game.

But that would require a long-awaited breakthrough from Pryor, in particular, which many continue to predict despite a glaring lack of evidence to date over more than a handful of plays at a time. Before his career-best performance in the Rose Bowl, Pryor's sophomore campaign had looked like a disappointing regression, especially in the wake of a 13-point effort in the loss to USC and a three-turnover flop in the 26-18 loss at Purdue at midseason. As a passer, Pryor's interception were way up, his completion percentage and overall efficiency down, in the latter case by almost 20 points.

After 23 consecutive starts, he remains a decidedly unknown quantity as a passer. Along with Herron and Saine, Pryor was instrumental in delivering a strong running game over the final month of the season, but there's still no Beanie Wells behind him capable of churning out 100 yards on a weekly basis regardless of the defense or what it throws at him. The Rose Bowl was encouraging, to say the least, but still only netted 26 points, and is no guarantee that a frequently mediocre attack has turned a corner.

Stumbling blocks. Miami, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa offer more than a few reasonable opportunities to be knocked from the pedestal in the Big Ten, but the Buckeyes shouldn't have to deal anymore with the big-game gorilla that's followed them since the '06 BCS Championship loss to Florida. Beginning with that debacle, OSU dropped five straight to top-10 teams through last September's loss to USC, a looming shadow that only began to lift last year with the wins over Penn State, Iowa and Oregon – all ranked in the top 10 at kickoff and in the final polls – in the last four games. That curse has sailed.

That doesn't mean some of the same old jeers won't return in full force if the Buckeyes win their way back to Glendale in January, site of the horrific collapse against the Gators that, along with the dismal effort against LSU a year later, branded them as championship chokers. Only three starters on this team – Heyward, Sanzenbacher and Saine – played any role in that loss as true freshmen, but the meta media narrative certain to accompany a return trip will force them to carry the torch, anyway.

Visions of champions past. It's a daunting comparison, but the last team that watched a transcendent talent at quarterback emerge in a revelatory performance in the Rose Bowl and subsequently spark a national-championship run the following season was Texas in 2005, an all-time juggernaut of an offense behind the dominant brilliance of one Vince Young. The Buckeyes aren't about to average 50 points – the '05 Longhorns scored at least 40 in 12 of 13 games, the only exception coming in an early 25-22 win at, yes, Ohio State – but the optimal vision for Pryor has always been in Young's image as a versatile run/pass option who clicks in a formerly conservative scheme overhauled specifically to exploit its emerging star's freakish talents. Those Longhorns had a persistent gorilla of their own, which they easily excised with a 45-12 win over Oklahoma to avenge five straight, mostly ugly losses in the Red River Shootout.

Crystal ball says. Of all the plausible frontrunners, the Buckeyes are the only ones that hit virtually every box on the checklist: An enormously gifted, battle-tested quarterback returns to lead nine other starters on offense, opposite a veteran defense that figures to finish among the best in the country, off a six-game winning streak that included three victories over other highly-ranked opponents. If you're still a skeptic, you're either very concerned about the attrition on special teams, or remain convinced that there's something strategically or even psychologically (or both) that prevents a Jim Tressel team from getting over the top.

I'm not so hung up on intangibles, and I like this lineup – they didn't leap off the page or screen last year, but the absence of any glaring among the personnel makes the Buckeyes look like the safe pick, and Pryor's potential gives them a tantalizing upside. Ultimately, assuming every other aspect of the operation holds, the difference between another very good, Big Ten-championship season and a championship breakthrough will come down to Pryor's development as a passer and a consistent running threat (emphasis on threat) even when he doesn't actually pull the ball down. Given another backloaded schedule, the pros outweigh the cons, which is more than you can say for the vast majority of the competition at this altitude.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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