Idle Buckeyes need more help to gain BCS championship berth

Ohio State was at its best this season in decisive victories at Purdue, at Penn State and at Michigan.

Lately, though, the Buckeyes have been even better on the sofa than they were earlier this year on the road.

With no discernable pulse in the national championship race even after its dominant win in Ann Arbor two weeks ago; OSU has since gone from cadaver to contender, shedding its toe tag for a stand-by ticket to New Orleans.

Only two of the six teams standing between Ohio State and the top spots in the Bowl Championship Series standings have remained upright since coach Jim Tressel's team completed its 11-1 finish.

Hence, with No. 1 Missouri matched against Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game, and No. 2 West Virginia about to close the regular season at home against Pittsburgh, the No. 3 Buckeyes are just one upset shy of returning to the BCS title game for the second straight season and third time in six years.

"If no one else wants to take it, we'll take it," said Kirk Barton, Ohio State's senior offensive tackle. "That's all I'll say about that. Some people may say we're backing in, but we are 11-1."

OSU can't do worse than its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1996 season, in what would be a likely matchup against USC, assuming the Trojans beat UCLA.

Unless, of course, both Missouri and West Virginia lose, USC hops over idle Georgia in the BCS standings and Ohio State and the Trojans then get to meet Jan. 7 in the Big Easy.

Either way, Ohio State-USC would pair college football's two most dominant programs this decade, with OSU boasting five league titles to the Trojans' six, one national title USC's two and three BCS bowl victories to SC's four.

The Trojans, though, are just one of four teams Tressel has his coaches gathering tape on for game-planning purposes next week.
"We're compiling information on USC predominantly, but we're also getting information together on West Virginia, Missouri and Georgia, because they're still in the running, as well," Tressel said.

Tressel believes a victory, no matter who the end-of-season opponent is, would serve the Buckeyes well.
"I don't know if it's any different if it's USC, West Virginia, Georgia or Missouri,'' OSU's coach said. "All of those teams are good. If you do well against any of them, you're bound to get whatever goes with that."

Not that he's leaving all the scouting work to his graduate assistant coaches.
"I had a chance on Thanksgiving weekend to watch a lot of college football, which I hadn't been able to do outside of our region all year," Tressel said. "I watched USC and Arizona State. Friday, I watched LSU and Arkansas. I saw bits and pieces of West Virginia and Connecticut on Saturday, and Missouri and Kansas on Saturday night. I did a better job on my [coaches' poll] ballot last week and I will on this next one than I did during the season, while we were doing what we were doing."

The fact that Tressel had time to juggle his remote control while other coaches were doing what they're paid handsomely to do is a wishbone stuck sideways in some craws.

Jack Nicklaus, an Ohio State man, once said major championships were often easier to win than regular tournaments because the enormity of the stakes caused others to wilt under final-round pressure he conditioned himself to withstand.

So, by finishing its season Nov. 17, were the Buckeyes effectively allowed to play rounds three and four of The Masters on Friday, thus avoiding the college football equivalent of Amen Corner on Sunday at Augusta?
"Our season was 12 weeks in a row, where other leagues were spaced out a bit," Tressel said. "I don't know who has the advantage. Sometimes, if you're banged up and you have an open week, it's great. Or, if you get banged up at the end of the year, you can get healthier. You play when you're assigned to play. I put a lot of value on our kids being able to be home for Thanksgiving. I suppose I do that because that's the way it is in our conference."

It's not that way in the Big 12, where Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has criticized the inequity of some leagues playing a title game others don't face.
"I'm sure Missouri would rather be sitting where Ohio State is, not having to deal with it," Stoops said Monday. "We're not all playing on the same field."

If the Sooners defeat Missouri on Saturday in San Antonio, and if West Virginia handles Pittsburgh, the two leagues that will put teams in the BCS title game will be the Big East and the Big Ten -- two of the three leagues among the six BCS conferences not to have postseason title games.

Of course, the Big 12 would be guaranteed a spot in the BCS title game had Oklahoma not lost Nov. 17 at Texas Tech when quarterback Sam Bradford departed early with a concussion.

Two days before that Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon tore an ACL at Arizona and the Ducks' loss signaled their free fall from national-championship consideration.

The next dominos to fall from Ohio State's path came when No. 1 LSU lost at home to Arkansas on Friday and Missouri dispatched previously unbeaten Kansas on Saturday.
"A lot of teams have had chances at the first two spots," Barton said. "We stubbed our toe along the way and other teams stubbed their toes along the way. If no one else wants to take it, we'll take it. That's fine."

Some Ohio State naysayers are hung up on the Buckeyes schedule.
At home in nonconference games, OSU played Division I-AA Youngstown State, Akron and Kent State, a trio which left critics wanting to do just what the helmet logo of those three schools suggests:
A road trip to Washington (4-8) hasn't done much to silence charges the Buckeyes ordered four wins from Cupcakes R' Us.

Most years, OSU would have received a bump from its Big Ten brethren.

But this year, outside of Columbus, the Big Ten smelled like a fish market after the ice melted.

Supposed national powers Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan folded like Third World military juntas, leaving Ohio State without a single top 20 opponent on its regular-season schedule for the first time since 1936.

The fastest Buckeye then wasn't Beanie Wells, it was a guy named Jesse Owens, who'd just returned from the Berlin Olympics with four gold medals.

Four years later, when Ohio State played its first No. 1 opponent in school history, the opponent was Cornell.

Are you getting the picture that it's been awhile since the Buckeyes played a schedule this bad?

In fairness, it's not like Tressel turned into Bill Snyder overnight.
OSU played a home-and-home with Texas in 2005 and 2006, and it will start a similar arrangement with USC next season. Virginia Tech and Miami are also scheduled.

Illinois (9-3) looms now as the best team Ohio State played, but when the Illini came to Columbus on Nov. 10, they were an unranked, 15-point underdog.

There's a fascinating research paper lurking somewhere inside what happened that day. The Illini's 28-21 victory legitimized Ron Zook's team as having arrived nationally, yet spoke just as negatively in reverse about Ohio State's credentials.

How can one team raise its profile by beating an opponent that, in defeat, is supposedly exposed as a fraud?

Perhaps it's because when Juice Williams darted in and around the Buckeyes, it conjured images of what Florida and its spread option did in triplicate to the Ohio State defense in a 41-14 debacle in the last season's BCS Championship game.

So, nearly 11 months and 11 victories later, Florida's desert destruction remains a wad of gum stuck not to the Buckeyes' shoe, where it can easily be scraped off, but in their hair, where the extraction is both more painful and more complicated.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.