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 Scout.com 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.