Buckeyes revitalized under Meyer, which doesn’t bode well for Big Ten
No Big Ten title, no shower of confetti, no Rose Bowl parade await Ohio State … this year.
But that doesn’t preclude the Buckeyes from planting seeds deep in the ground in Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Lincoln that the conference will belong to them next year -- and the year after … and every year until Urban Meyer leaves the Columbus sidelines.
This Saturday, Meyer, Braxton Miller and the rest of the undefeated team clad in scarlet and grey have a chance to break into the soil; a chance to plant that first seed.
This weekend’s visit to Michigan State will be Meyer’s first foray into Big Ten conference play. While at the helm of Florida through much of the past decade, Meyer went 3-1 against Big Ten opponents. Each victory came at the expense of a quality team in a bowl game. Will he repeat the success without a manically-driven left-handed quarterback and slew of weapons with Olympic speed (Jeff Demps won silver in London) and NFL-caliber talent?
And while, in the context of this year’s postseason ban, the game means nothing for Ohio State, it simultaneously means everything. The Big Ten is caught in quicksand -- Wisconsin, Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State have all suffered nonconference losses -- and the Buckeyes can prove they’re immune to the conference’s slow slide.
After a strong opening win against Boise State, the Spartans haven’t risen to the preseason hype; they were battered by Notre Dame and survived a scare last week against Eastern Michigan. Still, Michigan State fell a mere three points shy of a conference title last season and has a defense (11th in points-against, sixth in total defense) that will ensure it contends for the conference crown this year.
A road win, one bereft of drama or suspense, against a team Meyer could see in the Big Ten title game several times in coming years, would send a message to East Lansing and the rest of the conference that he’s already ahead of the field in a year when, given the circumstances, he should be well behind. It’ll mean that Meyer’s acumen extends beyond the recruiting advantages inherent in the top job in Gainesville. A loss would indicate that Ohio State isn’t immune to the conference’s woes.
In the wake of Jim Tressel’s sudden departure last year, the Buckeyes suffered their first losing season since 1988. This season seemed to present another chance for the conference to exact revenge on Ohio State for the seven conference championships it won in a decade under Tressel. This was the year to kick the bully when he was down. This was the year to prove to recruits that the rest of the conference could hang with Urban. Michigan State gets the first crack at it on Saturday. Failure by Michigan State, and other conference powers, this year wouldn’t bode well for the future, when Meyer has a cupboard stocked with his own recruits.
Another team will win the Big Ten this year, but, pending Saturday’s result, it may succeed with that little seed -- the tiny Buckeye -- firmly planted in the back of its mind.
I hope you’re not groggy on Saturday morning. (Noon counts as the morning for a wide swath of my readers, I’d imagine.) For the first time this season, your mind is going to need to be sharp, your thoughts clear and your senses sharpened. Take a shower. Drink the entire pot of coffee. (Better yet, slam a few cans of Diet Dew, bro.) Why will mastery over your mental and physical faculties be so important? Because, for the first time this season, a pair of ranked teams will square off mere minutes after Lee Corso familiarizes himself with the innards of a mascot head.
And they’re not just any ranked teams. No. 25 Baylor, which has the fifth-best scoring offense in the nation, heads to No. 9 West Virginia, owners of the nation’s 10th-ranked scoring offense. Baylor is sixth nationally in yards-per-game, averaging 568.7; West Virginia is 14th, averaging only about 40 less. Baylor possesses the nation’s fifth-ranked passing attack; West Virginia’s aerial assault, led by new Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith, is ranked third.
Enough with the gorgeous offensive numbers. What about the other side of the ball, you ask? Well, the defenses are about as pretty as Rachel Dratch. Baylor is 90th nationally in points-against-per game and 116th in total defense. It’s not much better for the home team; the Mountaineers are 52nd in points-allowed and 76th in total D. Oh boy. If you find watching elite SEC teams sumo wrestle at midfield less entertaining than actual sumo wrestling, then this is the game for you. Given all scoring, it’ll be a lengthy contest so make sure you have extra Dew in the mini fridge, bro.
A little added intrigue: It’s West Virginia’s first game in the Big 12. The Mountaineers will be greeted with fireworks.
Though Oregon State has posted winning seasons in all but two years of Mike Riley’s eight-plus-year tenure, the Beavers haven’t finished the season ranked since 2008 when those pesky Rodgers brothers were running between defensive ends’ legs like they were in a Home Alone sequel. This season, the Beavers already have bounced a pair of “name” programs -- ULCA and Wisconsin. However, the jury is still out on how impressive those wins are, given Wisconsin’s subsequent struggles and the small sample size for UCLA under Jim Mora Jr. But Oregon State seems solid on the defensive side of the ball; the Beavers lead the nation in 3rd down defense. (Opponents have converted a ridiculously low four of 29 -- 13.8 percent -- third-down attempts.) They’ve got another conference road test this week against an Arizona offense that should nudge that figure higher. Yes, RichRod was fuming on the sidelines in Eugene last weekend when the Wildcats were shut out and came up scoreless in five trips to the red zone, but that wasn’t a fair reflection of his team’s potential; Oregon is the second-best squad in the country. Arizona’s offense was humming prior to the blowout and will be a terrific test for the (too soon for “vaunted”?) Oregon State D.
I haven’t written much at all about Oregon this year, other than praising their “David Bowie’s pet duck from the future” uniforms. (Yes, that is a compliment.) But it was for good reason. Oregon spent the first three weeks of the season wing-deep in cupcake frosting. Last weekend, the Ducks finally flew out of the bakery and, in doing so, quickly captured the nation’s attention with the aforementioned 49-0 conquest against Arizona. Entering the game, we all knew that Oregon’s offense was more exhausting to defend -- or even watch -- than P90X, but did anyone anticipate that the Duck defense could produce a goose egg? Washington State, Oregon’s opponent this week, is still in the embryonic stage of the rebuilding process under Mike Leach, but the pirate will certainly have a few tricks up his sleeve when the Ducks fly north on Saturday. I want to see just how good this Oregon defense is. Will it pitch a second-consecutive shutout against an offensive guru? If so, the mighty Trojans should be mighty scared about what awaits on Nov. 3.
Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh 34-10. Pitt beat Virginia Tech 35-17. Cincinnati plays Virginia Tech on Saturday. So, logic dictates that Cincinnati should beat the Hokies by 42, right? Of course not, only Ashton Kutcher -- the man responsible for an entire generation of people being ashamed of every single photo of them in college because they were wearing a pink trucker hat -- would think that makes sense. Football doesn’t work that way, but looking at those scores is a bit jarring, isn’t it? They make me wonder if the Hokies, ranked 16th at the beginning of the season, might find themselves on the wrong end of another surprise against the Big East. The loss to Pitt was on the road and this one is at home, where Virginia Tech is notoriously tough to play. But Cincinnati’s defense -- third nationally in points against (8.5 per-game) -- will give Cam Newton Jr., I mean, Logan Thomas more trouble than you might expect.
The SEC’s newest members haven’t enjoyed their brief stay in the land of visors, ballcaps and uncomfortable news conferences. Missouri and Texas A&M are 0-3 combined in conference play thus far, but the Aggies have a prime opportunity to win one for the new guys on Saturday. Arkansas will limp down to College Station this weekend in the wake of upsets at the hands of Louisiana-Monroe, Rutgers and a 52-0 shutout by Alabama. Now they’ll be asked to play in one of college football’s toughest environments in front of a crowd desperate for a home SEC win (the Aggies only other home conference games this year include a date with LSU and a contest with fellow newbie Missouri in the final week of the season). Given that, it looks like this weekend is A&M’s best chance to prove to the home crowd that it belongs in the SEC by putting on a show against an established team from the new conference.
I’m going off the beaten path this week to take a look at a trio of unheralded teams quietly posting some impressive numbers:
This team is second in the nation in total offense, churning through 597.7 yards-per-game. This team is first in total defense, yielding a mere 160.3 yards-per-game. It is 3-0, with an average winning margin of just over 40 points. Alabama? No. Oh, Oregon then. Nope, wrong again. Well, it must be Kansas State, right? Wrong. It’s Texas Tech. That’s right, the Leach-less Red Raiders, who dropped seven games last year, are off to a blistering statistical start. Texas Tech, long-known for its explosive offensive attack, may now have a defense to match. The Raiders have only allowed opponents to dip their toes into the red zone twice -- tops in the nation -- through the first three games. They haven’t exactly had to run a gauntlet thus far -- wins have come against Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico -- but the statistical dominance is nevertheless impressive. This week, they’ll venture to Ames to take on undefeated Iowa State, which has already snuck by rival Iowa. Did the first games tell us more about the quality of the Red Raiders’ opponents or the Red Raiders themselves? This game will help us find an answer.
The top 10 scoring offenses so far this year include nine of the usual suspects -- all prominent programs from automatic qualifying conferences like Oklahoma State, Florida State, Texas and Georgia. The other dominant unit? Louisiana Tech. Yes, Louisiana Tech from the WAC. Yes, the alma mater of country music star Trace Adkins and Tim Rattay, currently under center for the UFL’s Las Vegas Locomotive. (You can thank me after you next sports trivia night.) The Bulldogs are third in the nation in scoring, averaging 54.7 points-per-game and have earned the mark without the benefit of playing against an FCS team as so many of the others in the top 10 have. Last week, the Bulldogs’ up-tempo (think Oregon with a dash of cayenne pepper) offense put up 52 on the road against the Big Ten’s Illinois. After the game Illinois head coach Tim Beckman told the Chicago Tribune he was a tad envious of Louisiana Tech’s offense. Big Ten envious of the WAC? Huh? They’re doing something right down south. This week, the undefeated Bulldogs will try to elicit more praise from another power conference team when they travel to Virginia.
There’s another surprise on the opposite side of the ball. Connecticut, only 2-2 thus far, is fifth in the nation in total defense, fourth against the run, 11th against the pass and sixth in sacks (14). Defense wins championships, right? Then shouldn’t it also conquer the likes of NC State and Western Michigan, both of which got the best of Connecticut? So what gives? It’s turnovers. Or, more specifically, lack thereof. Despite being stingy with the yardage, the Huskies can’t get opponents to cough up the ball; they’ve only forced four turnovers through four games, tied for 93rd in the nation. If UConn can start jarring the ball loose, it might be an unexpected contender for the Big East crown.