Ohio State knows next step is national title

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jim Tressel has a belief about this place that his Ohio State Buckeyes players are starting to echo.

"Tressel has always thought that if you don't go undefeated," Buckeyes defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said, "the town's against you."

Such is life at Ohio State, a program that has achieved so much in the last nine years but is always expected to do more. Since Tressel took control before the 2001 season, the Buckeyes own a 94-21 record, a 59-13 mark in Big Ten play, seven seasons of 10 wins or more, seven BCS bowl appearances, four BCS bowl wins, the program's first Rose Bowl championship since 1997, five consecutive Big Ten championships (six overall) and six consecutive victories against archrival Michigan (eight overall).

And only one undefeated season, in 2002.

So are the townsfolk gathering outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, with burning torches in hand? Not exactly.

Buckeyes fans are in relatively good spirits this spring, still glowing from Ohio State's win against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. It certainly beats the feeling of the previous three seasons, when the team fell short in bowl games and returned to a cold Columbus.

But whether the post-bowl reception is bubbly or bleak, it never lasts long.

"Every year, we go through the spring, and when you're in Columbus, Ohio, everybody's expecting you to win a championship," wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. "It comes with the territory, and it's something we expect. Win or lose in the bowl game, you're always going to come back and hear, 'OK, this is our year.'"

Every year might be regarded as The Year in Columbus, but some Ohio State teams support that claim more than others. The 2010 Buckeyes appear to be one of those teams.

The evidence is strong, if not overwhelming.

Ohio State returns 16 starters, including nine on the offensive side. The Buckeyes lose a solid group of players and leaders, but only one with first-round draft potential in defensive end Thaddeus Gibson, a rarity around here.

Quarterback Terrelle Pryor enters his third season as the starter and comes off of his best career performance in Pasadena. He'll go to work behind a seasoned offensive line and have two veteran targets at his disposal in Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey. Then there's a machine-like defense, which continues to perform at elite levels year after year. The defense boasts superstars like Heyward and linebacker Ross Homan. But the unit's collective strength once again should be its calling card like it was in 2009.

Every team has its warts, but Ohio State's are a little harder to find. The Buckeyes need a resolution at left tackle, more growth from Pryor, some depth on the defensive line and in the secondary, and maybe a featured running back to emerge. But when a shaky situation at place-kicker sparks the most panic in spring practice, you're in pretty good shape.

The expectations for 2010 might be Ohio State's biggest source of anxiety, but they're not exactly new.

"When [players] come here, they have the expectation that, 'Hey, we want to see if we can become the best team in the country,'" Tressel said. "And I'm not sure if it's simply because of what happened last year or the year before or the year before. That is our general expectation.

"We want to see if we can match up with the best. This will be my 10th year, and it doesn't feel any different. I've always thought that we had capable talent."

The expectations aren't new for the Buckeyes, but the urgency to take another step certainly is there for players like Heyward, who passed up NFL millions to return for his senior season.

The Rose Bowl win adds to it. Besides a national title, there's not much left to accomplish.

"You almost feel less pressure with a [bowl] loss, because you're so pissed off during the offseason," Heyward said. "But coming off a win, it's like you can't believe the hype. Coming off a win, everybody expects so much more out of us.

"And we have to live up to those expectations."

Tressel often talks about each team being distinct, a message his players embrace. But for a group used to each other and the expectations placed upon them, things feel fairly status quo this spring.

The end result is the only thing that needs to be tweaked.

"We've been through this so many times that we know where we want to be," Sanzenbacher said. "There's always talk about national championships and all this, but since I've been here, every team we've had is capable of winning a national championship.

"It's just actually doing it when the season comes."