It's here! It's here! Finally, it's here!
As with last year, the months of offseason hype have all led us toward this Saturday, on which two of the nation's top national title contenders will square off for the right to be BCS Title Game bound. There's a lot that's similar to last year, but there's plenty that's changed. What can we expect in this year's huge showdown?
When Ohio State Has The Ball The perceived team strength for the Buckeyes, as they return 8 starters from the unit that caught the nation’s eye with a waxing of the usually stout Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense. In all seriousness, though, the preseason Buckeye knob-slobbing is pretty much encapsulated in that one sentence. Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr. went nuts against Notre Dame. 8 of the 11 offensive starters from that game return. Therefore: Ohio State will be very good on offense.
Let’s try to take a more critical look at the Buckeyes, though. First things first: Troy Smith. One of the stories we’re being force fed ad infinitum is Troy Smith 2006::Vince Young 2005. They’re both African American, they’re both solid runners, and they both ended their junior campaigns with strong finishes. But how well do they compare? To the mats with the numbers! A look at their season’s prior to championship (VY) or forthcoming championship (TS).
[Key: YPG=Yards Per Game / YPR=Yards Per Rush / YPA=Yards Per Attempt]
|Year||Rush YPG||YPR||Rush TD||Pass YPG||Comp. %||YPA||TD-INT|
Ho ho. This is interesting. Troy Smith was quite a bit ahead of Mr. Young in the passing department in the above comparison, but we’ve left off one very important fact: Troy Smith was a junior in 2005, while Vince Young was a sophomore in 2004. Maybe we ought to look at Vince Young’s junior line:
|Year||Rush YPG||YPR||Rush TD||Pass YPG||Comp. %||YPA||TD-INT|
When you compare junior season to junior season, Troy Smith’s advantages disappear. Young remains the significantly superior runner, while entirely closing the gap in the passing numbers.
This begs one obvious, critical question: how much improvement can one reasonably expect to see between one’s junior and senior season? I quickly glanced at Matt Leinart’s numbers as a reference – while he maintained his excellent junior numbers, he did not improve upon them. Drew Brees – the same. I thought Kordell Stewart might be a decent comp, but his passing statistics weren’t that strong in his junior campaign.
There’s no way to know (without doing an exhaustive study on it) how much Smith can reasonably expect to improve, but it’ll be hard to do a whole lot more than he did as an accomplished junior. Add in the fact that he lost his best receiver, Santonio Holmes, to the NFL, and there’s further reason to wonder whether the passing attack can be expected to take a step forward.
Ted Ginn, Jr. will get some preseason Heisman hype because when he touches the ball, he’s a threat to score. His shortest touchdown of the year in 2005 went for 42 yards. The problem, widely reported, is that Ginn has a consistency problem. He’s been known to run lousy routes, and is better known for disappearing when his team needs him most. Texas may not remember Ginn from last year’s game much, and for good reason. He caught two passes for 9 yards. Is he really a “go to” receiver? My hunch is that his big play abilities are maximized when he’s got another big-time receiver (like Holmes) opposite him. Can Anthony Gonzalez be that guy? He’s not bad, but he’s definitely not Holmes.
This brings us to the running game, which will feature the sometimes underrated Antonio Pittman and freshman super-recruit Chris Wells. Pittman, a junior, rushed for 1360 yards last season (5.5 per attempt) and 7 touchdowns. Wells was Rivals #3 overall recruit in 2005.
The strength in the running game gives Ohio State balance, something you must have against a defense as physically talented as Texas’. If Smith is passing the ball well, the Buckeyes can have success, but if he struggles at all, Ohio State’s in big, big trouble. The Texas defense will probably play the Buckeyes much the way they did USC in the Rose Bowl – limiting explosive plays and forcing Troy Smith to take what Chizik gives him. If he’s unwilling, or unable, it’s sayonara for OSU.
The first week of the season was pretty much good news all around on the offensive side of the ball for Ohio State. Smith looked sharp and crisp, Ginn was bursting behind outmatched defensive backs, and the running game was more than just effective. The Buckeyes punished Northern Illinois when they had the ball, and at least for one week, the preseason hype surrounding this offense was justified.
The question remains, though, how this unit will fare against a much tougher unit. It's one thing to torch an outmatched unit. How effective is the unit, though, when faced with (what I believe is) the nation's best defense? Will the Buckeyes be able to run the ball? Texas run defense, which I expect to be better than last season's, looked good against North Texas. If the running game doesn't develop, can Troy Smith take the offense on his back? Will Texas' top cornerback, Tarrell Brown, escape his Monday morning arrest and be on the field to harass Ted Ginn? These are the questions that will make or break the Buckeye attack on Saturday.
When Texas Has The Ball Well, that McCoy kid ain't too bad, huh? Colt wowed me the first time I saw him throw in the fall scrimmage, and wowed me again in the season opener. He's not even in Vince Young's neighborhood - don't get me wrong - but the big worries about the Texas offense were whether a freshman could be effective at all. McCoy is more than just effective. He's heady, poised, accurate, and further developed than any freshman (redshirt or otherwise) that I've ever seen - certainly at Texas, anyway.
The key to the Texas attack, though - no question about it - will be Jamaal Charles' and Selvin Young's ability to rush the football. If Ohio State can stuff the run, it's too much to ask of McCoy to be the lone ranger on offense. You can ask that of Vince Young. You cannot of Colt McCoy.
Fortunately for this Texas optimist, I can't say that I think there's a better tailback in the nation than Jamaal Charles. Without Charles, I'd be wary of Texas' chances. With him, I think we're favorites. He's simply one of the most talented and impressive runners I've seen since... well, maybe since Emmit Smith. Call me a fool, but he looks that good to me.
The other source of optimism, of course, is the 9 gaping holes left in the Ohio State defense when most of the unit bolted for the NFL. Watching their season opening performance, there were holes all over the field for the scrappy Garret Wolfe to exploit (which he did). If the Buckeyes don't tighten things up this Saturday, they'll find themselves in a shootout. And I don't know that you're going to beat this Texas defense trying to out-shoot 'em. It's too good a unit.
The Prediction (Caveat Emptor): Overtime, baby! The only thing I’m sure of is that it will be close and competitive. An above average offense takes the field against an above average defense. A green offense tries to score on a green defense. The script for a classic is there, but last year’s thriller will be hard to match in terms of drama. The only other thing I’m absolutely sure of is that I’ll be there, screaming my lungs out. But I said it in the spring, and I’m sticking with it now. Texas has enough offense to score on the new Buckeye defense, and only a fool would bet against Gene Chizik (29 straight wins as defensive coordinator) at this point. Texas wakes up on September 10th the new #1 team in the nation, thanks to a 30-24 win.