Friday, September 11, 2009

Tressel puts season at risk against USC

Style doesn’t count. If it did, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel would be one of the most disagreeable men on the planet this week. The staid Tressel saw his Buckeyes, in a win last Saturday over Navy, perform like an '84 Escort with two pistons.

Their ugly victory resurrected questions about the quality of Tressel’s football program, and with No. 4 Southern California visiting the Horseshoe this weekend, OSU fans might have reasons to worry.

For the Trojans aren’t the Midshipmen, and considering the trouble Ohio State had in beating them, Tressel can hardly be sending his Buckeyes onto the field with overconfidence. He needs nobody to tell him that his teams haven’t been impressive against elite opponent outside the conference since upsetting Miami to win the National Championship in 2003.

Those were the glory days, although it would be foolish to argue that Ohio State hasn’t had success since then. Tressel has a powerhouse – at least inside the conference.

That’s the point: The Big Ten might not be an elite conference anymore. Even in the first week of the season, the conference had its struggles. Iowa barely beat Northern Iowa, and Illinois lost to Missouri.

The Big Ten teams that won were playing opponents beneath their stature. Who didn’t expect embattled Michigan to beat Western Michigan, Iowa to beat Northern Iowa or Penn State to beat Akron?

The schedule gets tougher in Week 2. Michigan plays Notre Dame; Purdue plays Oregon; and Minnesota plays Cal. And the marquee matchup of this week’s schedule is Ohio State vs. USC, a game that Tressel can use to validate his program.

Lose to the Trojans, and even if his Buckeyes run the table, they won’t enter the discussion for BCS Championship Game. Even if they do beat USC, they will have a difficult time making critics forget lousy performances against Florida and Louisiana State.

Those losses have defined what Tressel’s Buckeyes – and, consequently, the Big Ten itself -- are. On paper, they look good. They have size and quickness and speed. Everybody agrees on that.

What they don’t have is superior quickness, disciplined aggression and top-end speed. Man to man, the No. 6 Buckeyes have been a step slower than they can afford to be against the USCs, LSUs and UFs of college football. Overwhelming bulk can’t counter quickness, Tressell and OSU fans have learned the hard way.

These have been painful lessons. Public canings always are. But big-time football isn’t played in a garage; it’s played in 100,000-seat stadiums with national TV cameras focused on the outcome. In these settings, players earn Heismans and coaches grow into legends. Their reputations are forged, forever etched into the game’s archives.

Coaches must win, though. When they don’t win, they suffer the wrath of the second-guessers – partisans who never see too many wins or too much success. It’s never about the past with them; it’s about the present.

But this is the bargain with the devil that coaches like Tressel make when they accept jobs at an elite program. They’re expected to pound the lesser programs like Navy and hold up well against the Trojans, the Tigers (2006) and the Gators (2007).

That’s the situation Jim Tressel finds him in a day before he sends his Buckeyes against Southern Cal. They had their tune-up; they worked out the kinks. Now, they play to stay alive for a National Championship.

They can push that thought out of their minds if they lose, as critics of the Big Ten say they will, to the Trojans.

(Photo of OSU coach Jim Tressel from One Raised Eyebrow)


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