An Uneven Playing Field

Ohio State getting thrashed at the hands of USC has many of us in Buckeye Nation scratching our heads. What happened? Why did this happen? Has OSU become outdated? Are the glory days over? Will OSU become an elite team again? With all these questions swirling about, we try to look at one major reason why this OSU team has suffered 3 consecutive humiliating defeats in front of the entire nation.

It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when OSU and Jim Tressel were considered a big time team…a program that rose up to the big games and was never an easy out. There was a time when OSU handled out of conference ranked opponents like Texas A&M, Kansas State, Washington State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma State with ease. OSU was once able to topple the juggernaut program that was the Miami Hurricanes in the National Championship game. OSU was able to beat Texas on the road. They were a dropped pass in the endzone by Ryan Hamby away from beating Texas in the ‘Shoe…..the same Texas team that went on to beat the USC team everyone was calling “the best team ever” in the National Championship game.

So you’ll have to excuse me if I can’t help but feel a little perplexed at the universal bashing of head coach Jim Tressel that is going on right now. Obviously, we’re all frustrated by this. But has it really reached the point where people believe that Jim Tressel is incapable of winning big games? I find that so hard to believe. Instead, I think something bigger is at work here, but something perhaps equally troubling.    

We have a tendency as sports fans to ignore the big picture and live only in the moment, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it makes us more susceptible to missing the bigger issues that are right in front of us. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that OSU didn’t struggle to win big games until recently. Perhaps it’s more indicative of the kinds of players on this OSU team than it is of their head coach. Trust me when I say I don’t take criticizing these kids lightly, because I love these guys. This is one of my favorite OSU teams of all time because of the caliber of people that are on this team. These are great kids who love playing for OSU and they represent everything that is right about being a Buckeye, and they wear that badge with pride. But none of that means they are inherently a great group of football players.

Most of this core group of players on this OSU team have been around for all 3 embarrassing games, and many of them have played key roles in all 3 games. Long gone are the days of guys like Will Smith, Tim Anderson, Darion Scott, Kenny Peterson, and Simon Fraser slicing up opponents’ offensive lines and pushing the line of scrimmage backwards. Long gone are the days of linebackers like Matt Wilhelm, AJ Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Anthony Schlegel flying all over the field and shedding blockers to make impact tackles for losses at critical moments in the game. Long gone are the days of having a 3 time All American safety like Mike Doss controlling the running game from the defensive backfield and coming up with timely interceptions and tipped balls. These aren’t the same caliber of players.

Say what you will about Craig Krenzel, but the guy had ice water in his veins. He rarely made the kind of play where he would throw the crippling interception a la Todd Boeckman. If Boeckman had a 4th and 13 in overtime in the National Championship game, does anyone he believe he would have the composure or the time in the pocket to make a perfect pass on a 14 yard out pattern like Krenzel hit to Michael Jenkins? Say what you will about Troy Smith and his performance in the Championship game, but the guy was a cool customer who routinely elevated his play for the biggest moments, up until said Championship game. Those guys were winners who carried an air of confidence with them that borders on brashness. Those of us who live in Columbus can hear Krenzel on 1460 AM, and you can still hear the ultimate confidence in himself that he carries. Again, Todd Boeckman is a great person and he is a team captain and is extremely likeable. It pains me to call him out like this, but he’s not Troy Smith, and he’s certainly not Craig Krenzel.

So what’s the point of all of this? I’ve heard thousands of complaints over the last couple weeks that Jim Tressel’s system is outdated and can’t work. I think there’s a small bit of truth to that, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but the bigger picture here is that Tressel’s system is irrelevant to me. The issue is the players themselves, and the lack of pure, raw talent that a place like USC has. Jim Tressel could implement USC’s system if he wanted to, but these players would not be able to execute it. Look at USC’s first TD…..they sent their fullback out on a wheel route and he blew by Marcus Freeman and made a spectacular catch for the touchdown. Which fullback on OSU’s roster is going to do that? Look at how OSU’s linebackers struggled to contain USC’s halfbacks when they sent them out into the flat. Which OSU running back is going to create that kind of separation? The USC wide receivers were able to run precise routes to cut through the OSU zone all night. None of OSU’s WRs would touch the field if they played for USC.

A system in football is more than just X’s and O’s. I would agree with anyone that the offense this year has been stale, conservative, and predictable. Todd Boeckman running the option isn’t going to cause USC any nightmares. But I never heard anyone complain about Tressel’s system when he used it to keep Miami’s offense off the field and won a title with it. Nobody was complaining about the system when Troy Smith was throwing to Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez. Sometimes a system makes the player. Much has been made about “systems” at places like Texas Tech and Cal and Louisiana Tech, and sure, there the system makes average players put up video game like numbers, but those schools don’t win. At places like USC, LSU, Florida, Georgia, and yes, even Ohio State, the players make the system.

Lest you think I am merely speaking out of hyperbole and rhetoric, allow me to offer up some evidence. Using the ranking system, I went back and looked at the past 7 recruiting classes at OSU, USC, LSU, Florida, and Georgia. What I found was shocking. I expected that OSU would trail USC in some ways, but in no way did I expect to see what I found. Prior to this last recruiting class, which ranked 4th in the country, the previous 5 classes at OSU ranked 25th, 11th, 7th, 13th, and 16th. USC’s classes over that same period? 1st, 1st, 6th, 1st, and 2nd. Check out the table below (you can click on it to enlarge the image), and you will see what I’m talking about:

Look at the bold, red numbers in the totals and averages. OSU’s average class rank is 11.29, compared to USC’s 4.57, LSU’s 8.14, Florida’s 8.29, and Georgia’s 8.00. The discrepancy in 5 star recruits is equally overwhelming. USC has 43 5 star recruits, more than double OSU’s 18. Top 100 players tells the same story…..USC has 64 and Florida has 43 while OSU only has 30. No matter how you look at this table, there is a difference in talent from especially USC and Florida compared to OSU. Furthermore, the difference in average class rank shows that while OSU has had occasional success in a couple years, places like USC, LSU, Florida, and Georgia have been bringing in steady, strong classes.

I guess the main point here, though, is that these big losses to teams with elite recruits have come while OSU was using players from these recruiting classes that rank 25th, 11th, 7th, 13th, and 16th. Those are pretty average classes, and as a result…..guess what? OSU has played like an average team. Again, this isn’t to say that I wouldn’t love to see Jim Tressel update some aspects of this offense, and that I wouldn’t love to see the defense be agressive again and return to the days of the Silver Bullets defense, but I refuse to accept that OSU lost to LSU and USC because of the coaching and the system. Jim Tressel has won with his system everywhere he has coached, including right here at Ohio State. No, rather, I think OSU lost to LSU and USC because they didn’t have near the same talent that those schools did.

All hope is not lost, though. The 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes are showing that OSU is fighting back. In the 2008 class, OSU is ranked higher than any of these other schools mentioned here. OSU’s six 5-star recruits is more than USC, LSU, Florida, or Georgia. OSU’s nine Top 100 recruits is more than USC, LSU, Florida, or Georgia have. 2009 is shaping up nicely again for OSU. So far, OSU has received commitments from five 5-star recruits and twelve 4-stars. USC has two 5-stars and nine 4 stars, LSU has two 5-stars and nine 4-stars, Florida has one 5-star and five 4-stars, and Georgia has two 5-stars and nine 4-stars. Almost every program goes through down periods, and OSU is no exception.

This isn’t the first time Jim Tressel has stared criticism from the OSU fanbase in the face. If you think back to the 2004 season, OSU lost at Iowa by a score of 33-7 in one of the worst performances ever by an OSU football team. The Buckeyes started the year ranked 9th in the country, but after struggling with ugly wins against Marshall and NC State, OSU went on to lose 3 games in a row, to Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Everyone had this exact same discussion. Has Jim Tressel lost it? Is his game outdated? Everyone overlooked that maybe OSU just didn’t have the same talent they had in past years. As for Tressel, he re-focused and made the proper adjustments and rebuilt his gameplan around the players he had. The following year OSU was a Ryan Hamby dropped pass away from possibly being the team to take on USC rather than Texas in the title game. The year after that Troy Smith and the Buckeyes had re-established themselves as a national power until a complacent loss against Florida, aided by the loss of Ted Ginn in that game (anyone who thinks he wouldn’t have made any difference in that game must have missed him running away from the Florida players on that opening kickoff), sent OSU spiraling to where they are today.

Don’t be surprised if Tressel doesn’t do the same thing now. Sure, Boeckman will remain the starter for now, and OSU is still going to try to win the Big Ten and get back to the Rose Bowl this year, but the changing of the guard is coming. OSU landed 3 elite offensive linemen last year in Brewster, Adams, and Shugarts, and they have 2 more coming next year in Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort. Terrelle Pryor’s time is coming. Outstanding, fast, athletic WRs like DeVier Posey, Jake Stoneburner, and Lamaar Thomas are waiting in the wings. Standout defensive players  like Etienne Sabino, Andrew Sweat, Willie Mobley, Melvin Fellows, Dorian Bell, and Johnny Simon are on their way. These are players who were recruited by just about everyone, including USC and Florida. These are kinds of players who can change a program and take a school like OSU back to the top.

We all know Jim Tressel can coach. 37 players are currently on NFL rosters who played at OSU, and while not all of them played under Tressel, most of them have, and I’ve already pointed out that many of these guys were part of lackluster recruiting classes. To me, this goes to show what an outstanding job Jim Tressel does at developing talent. Despite not being an elite recruiting school under his reign, OSU has won one Championship, played in two other Championship games, won 2 other BCS Bowl Games, and been one of the winningest programs over that time. Now that Tressel has started recruiting with the big boys, it will be fascinating to see what he does with this level of talent. If these OSU teams in the next few years continue to be a joke against other major programs and continues to look lost, lifeless, and showing no signs of hunger or passion, then at that point I will be willing to say that Tressel needs to make major wholesale changes in the culture and the coaching staff. Until then, though, my faith in Jim Tressel will remain firm, and I think we are just entering the next wave of great OSU football.

  • CJG

    THANK you. Tressel should not be the one wearing a target on his back.

  • Ricky

    I think you might be putting too much stock in top ranked recruiting classes. Sure its nice to have them, but not every top player works out, and as you Jim Tressel has proven himself to be a great talent developer. He has taken lower ranked guys like Troy Smith and AJ Hawk and turned them into studs. I am not completely dismissing your point though — our offensive and defensive lines are bad which is why I think we have struggled against top teams the last 2 years (I don’t count the 06 national title game, I still believe that was a fluke, there was so much talent on that offense). The D-Line doesn’t get pressure on the QB as much as it used to and the O-Line just seems weak. Not having a DE like Will Smith or Gholston that you can move around all over the line of scrimmage hurts too.

    I too am very optimistic about the immediate future of this program though. Next year might be rough with so many new faces, and its possible we get run by USC again, but it will be a good learning year, they will still be competitive, and the next year they will be stacked again to make a run at the National Title

  • RockKing

    Completely agree Ricky that ranking classes and recruits is an inexact science (like, say, Hawk or Carpenter vs D’Andrea), but there is something to the law of averages and large numbers. When you bring in classes ranked 1st or 2nd in 3 out of 4 years, it means your team is STACKED with talent. I just want to see what happens when Tressel develops this caliber of talent.

    On a side note, I wish I would have mentioned this in my post, but I overlooked it…..the biggest thing I wish Tressel would change is not the system itself, but rather this feeling of seniority and entitlement. At USC, seniority doesn’t matter….Pete Carroll challenges his guys to compete for playing time, and he puts the best 11 players on each side of the ball. I’m not sure Tressel does that all the time. Yes, he makes exceptions here and there, but I’m ready to see MORE of Pryor and MORE of Adams, Brewster, and Shugarts. MORE DeVier Posey. Our starters are not getting the job done, lets see what these kids can do.

  • DCBucks

    You make a lot of very valid points. Tressel is a great head coach on many levels, although a bit stubborn. But Il think he needs to make changes in the coaching staff. He needs dedicated O and D line coaches, and Bollman and Heacock have shown they don’t cut it outside of the Big Ten. Rae talent only gets you so far. The Bucks weren’t as deep as U$C, but if you put our starters in their system I guarantee they perform just as well (at least on defense anyway, the O-line is a disgrace.)

  • Scott

    Great research, Rock. I just hope the rest of the state gets their power turned back on so they can read it!

  • DCBucks

    I agree with your second point on seniority whole heartedly. Playing time shouldn’t be a right, it should be earned. The OSU play book isn’t that complex that freshmen can’t learn it in camp. U$C’s players learned it in 2 weeks!

  • Swig

    Great article

    Calling the U$C and us OSU is complete homerism.

    Our “average” classes were still better than over 100 other division one schools. Anyone calling for Tressel’s head is ignoring the fact that he’s made winning the Big10 a forgone conclusion and raised expectations to the point that he has to be competitive with the top 5 teams.

    It’s hard to say how that game would have looked with decent protection from the line and Boeckman not freaking out.

  • Nicko

    Very good article.

    I still feel someone else should be calling the plays though.

  • JackGonzo

    The bottom line is that Ohio State has been overrated for the last few years. They’re a good team, one of the better teams, but has not been an upper echelon team for the last two. Now before you start screaming, the entire Big Ten has been overrated for the last couple of years as well. They don’t win the big bowl games, they rarely win the big regular season games out of conference and can’t compete with the SEC, Big 12 and Pac 10.

    Now I like Tressel as a coach, and you only have to look at the success of the players drafted into the NFL to know they’re not some BS team. I just don’t know if the offense is as good as been described the last few years. Troy Smith never should have been the Heisman winner, it should have been MacFadden. Now the defense has always been one of the top in the country, but it’s strained when the offense is never on the field for long.

    Is there a solution, I’m not sure. The rest of the country is going the speed route as the college game changes, but it almost seems like Ohio State still believes Big Ten football will overcome that.

  • Nate

    One of the flaws with this analysis that already has been pointed out is that many of Tressel’s lower ranking recruits (Hawk, Gamble, Laurinaitis, etc.) have turned out to be his best. However, I am surprised that no one has mentioned this before, but the recruiting rankings have a major flaw in how they are calculated. SEC teams pretty much ALWAYS sign over the 25 scholarship limit. They do this because they know that a large number of them will not even qualify academically. Even though these kids never set foot on campus, their 5-stars are still counted in the rankings. Add in the fact that these rankings are also based on a mathematical formula that not only considers the star rankings but also how many total kids are in the class, and you have the makings of some bloated rankings for a lot of these teams compared to a team like OSU who qualifies pretty much everyone.

    I state these things because just looking at the recruiting rankings is beyond flawed. But obviously there is a flaw at OSU right now. OSU’s talent at the skill positions is up there with anyone, including USC. But look at the development of the offensive and defensive lines these past years. Outside of Gholston, who has shown themselves as a dominating presence? It seems as though 1/5 to 1/4 of OSU recruits are defensive backs… but there are only 4 starting spots for them. This means that other positions are neglected, most noteably with the big uglies. Why not take a few project linemen who may turn into studs.

  • Morph

    Why is anyone even discussing Tressel or that the system does not work? Outside of the Florida game, OSU’s other two losses were AWAY games in which OSU was not favored to win. And in those two loses it was boneheaded plays by the players with the late hits (LSU) and the holdings (USC) that cost OSU, not the “system.” Let’s wait until USC comes to the Horseshoe next year before we start saying that OSU isnt as talented or does not have the right system for the players.

    And yes in pointing out that the LSU game was an AWAY game for OSU, I recognize that the game was in NO and not Baton Rogue, but it was still heavily LSU fans. Until the Bowl games are actual neutral site games they are meaningless. Does anyone believe that OSU would have gotten beaten as badly if the Championship game was played in Cleveland, or Detroit or Indianapolis (domed stadium)?

  • Tapin

    #9: “They [the teams in the Big Ten] don’t win the big bowl games…” Huh. Coulda swore I saw Michigan beat Florida (helmed by Superman!) last January.

    #11: Good point. National champion teams should only need to win the games they’re favored in. The games they’re underdogs shouldn’t count.

  • Lyon

    Tressel doesn’t need to go. But the Defensive coordinator needs to step his game up. Same with Tress on offense. His play calling has been absurd all year. When Pryor comes in, don’t automatically make it a run. Throw in a pass or 2 so the D actually has to fear it.

    Win the Big 10 and finish in the top 5 and this season wasn’t for naught.

  • T Maz

    In all three big games OSU played well offensively in the first quarter while they were following the previously scripted plays that were developed with the entire coaching staff. But as soon as Tressel had to call the plays himself he reverted to his habits – that’s why the USC guys said they didn’t see anything they didn’t expect. Tressel is not a very good game coach, but he is an excellent developer of men.

    The talent at OSU is on par with any other school. But playing YSU, Ohio and Troy (and even some Big 10 schools) is not good preparation for the BCS championship. Don’t even begin to say the 2002 championship was won due to better talent back then – that was a magical season when EVERY break went our way (pass interference on 4th down in OT vs Miami, Illinois, Purdue, even Michigan).

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