What we learned last week (or year in this case): Robert Burns knew about what he wrote.
What we might learn this week: As one of the worst teams in the NCAA FBS last season, Akron is not expected to offer much of a challenge, but the Buckeyes have plenty to prove no matter who is on the opposing sidelines. They only get 12 or 13 chances to represent their university on the football field per year, but surely there has not been one in a long time that has seen the school in such need of a good show.
A lively fall camp helped wash some of the bad taste of a nightmarish offseason away, but the healing will not truly begin until the ball goes in the air Saturday for the 122nd season of Ohio State football.
The last time we saw the men of the Scarlet and Gray, they had one more national championship-winning coach on the sideline and one more BCS bowl game MVP quarterback calling the signals, not to mention the graduation of five All-Big Ten defensive starters who were drafted by NFL teams in April and the transfer of two once-highly touted linebackers.
The program might have suffered a black eye with the revelation that a half dozen players were involved in an improper benefits scandal, but that did not stand in the way of a rousing Sugar Bowl win over a 10-win team from the nation’s top conference.
It was nothing compared to the repeated blows that were inflicted throughout the ensuing months. Disclosure of Tressel’s failure to disclose information about potential NCAA violations came as the state was thawing from another winter, and from there the heat would rise to the point he was forced out of his dream job before the official start of summer.
That thrust the program into uncertainty Luke Fickell hopes to eliminate with a steady hand and a vengeful football squad looking to take out its frustrations on a dozen or so opposing teams in the next three months.
He took the reins with a June press conference at which he professed his love for the university and his belief in the power of actions over words. By the time the leaves have changed colors and abandoned the trees, we should have a pretty good idea how good Fickell is at turning words into actions.
We know already he can keep a group together through an offseason of unexpected departures and sometimes unfair criticisms, but how he gets them to channel their knowledge, frustration and talent for three hours a week every Saturday this fall promises to go further in determining if this is his only shot to prove himself.
A coach, of course, is only as good as his players. Fickell’s college coach, John Cooper, will tell you that still today if you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with him. Off-field problems caused the demise of Tressel and Cooper (though Cooper often points out he never ran afoul of the NCAA), but both coaches left the cupboard quite well stocked.
Tressel’s touch turned Cooper’s kids into not just Big Ten champions but the kings of college football within 24 months of his ascension to the throne once graced by Woody Hayes and Paul Brown. How will Fickell handle Tressel’s players?
Truth be told, some aspects of Fickell’s job might be easier than the task that greeted Tressel. The new coach knows the kids better this time around, so there should not be the same feeling out process that had to occur in 2001. There’s little if any scheme change.
Fickell also inherits a welcoming group of Ohio high school coaches who exalted in Tressel’s embracing of them after they felt a cold shoulder from Cooper.
What remains to be seen about Fickell is what he will do when the chips are down.
While Cooper’s greatest talent as a college coach was convincing some of the nation’s top players to join his program, his hands-off approach left his teams somewhat mercurial. They usually got out of the gate well but struggled to respond when things started to go bad.
His successor was quite the opposite. There were some slow starts to seasons, but nobody circled the wagons like Jim Tressel. Each of his last six seasons ended with a Big Ten championship, and five of them included a crisis moment or two that could have easily led down a far different path (like one that ends with a Florida bowl game). His 2002 squad seemed to encounter some kind of mini disaster every other week or so but never succumbed to the pressure.
Tressel’s greatest strength was not his charisma nor his offensive acumen, although he probably possessed more of both than he often gets credit. It was the steady way he steered his ships out of trouble that made them seven-time Big Ten champs and eight-time BCS game participants. That’s what kept him from being his one-time boss, “ol’ 9-3 Earle”, or his predecessor, whose teams were famous for Michigan meltdowns.
Fickell has already proven he picked up some of his former coach’s ability to acquire talent. The Columbus native was regarded as the best recruiter on Tressel’s staff, and though he has suffered a handful of in-state losses in the past few months, those are more attributable to the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation (and a Michigan roster that happens to be quite depleted) than to any individual failure on the OSU coach’s part.
He knows this state, and he has a great blueprint to follow for balancing local and national recruiting. The name brand and the facilities at Ohio State go a long way in selling the place, too.
That leads me to conclude Fickell will need to prove he learned a thing or two from his mentor and predecessor about crisis management to turn his one-year audition into something more.
There will be ups and there will be downs. How the new head coach handles them will determine if this is another special year in the history of Fickell’s alma mater or a footnote in a chapter about transition.
I know I’m ready to see what happens. How about you?
DVR Directions: The opening-night slate is pretty underwhelming, but it’s better than nothing, right? I’m sure you will like me take an early chance to start a scouting report on Wisconsin as the Badgers play host to UNLV (8 p.m. EST, ESPN). Michigan State kicks things off one night later with a visit from Youngstown State (7:30, Big Ten Network).
Since you don’t want to get that DVR filled up too fast, I recommend judicious recording Saturday, CFB’s true opening day. The most interesting game of the first viewing window of the day involves Northwestern at Boston College (ESPNU), but you only need to record that one if you’re scouting the Wildcats as potential Big Ten Championship game opponents (maybe stretching it at this point).
At 3:30, save your hard drive space and flip back and forth between Western Michigan at Michigan (ABC or ESPN2, depending on where you are) Chattanooga-Nebraska (BTN). If you’re really desperate during a commercial break, Minnesota will be entertaining USC on the opposite of whatever channel you’re getting WMU-UM happens to be, but I don’t expect the Golden Gophers to put up much of a fight.
For the night shift, you’ll probably want to watch LSU-Oregon on ABC, but keep an eye on the score of Tulsa-Oklahoma. Something tells me the Golden Hurricane might be able this one interesting if only because Gus Johnson will be making his FX college football debut.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Check back next week for the first candidates to populate my annual team of the players who look the best against Ohio State all season.
- Nebraska (Loaded defense and great potential on offense)
- Michigan State (Loaded offense and good potential on defense)
- Ohio State (Lots of talent but very young)
- Wisconsin (Running game shouldn’t miss a beat but defense could struggle without Watt)
- Iowa (New pieces are surprisingly intriguing thanks to some cameos past two seasons)
- Penn State (Should run it well, but can Nittany Lions stop good teams on defense?)
- Northwestern (Must get Dan Persa back to 100 percent, ASAP; Can they keep winning the close ones?)
- Michigan (Mismatched offensive personnel and woeful defensive ability)
- Illinois (Intrigued by the offense but skeptical about the defense)
- Purdue (Will probably run out of knee ligaments by Halloween)
- Minnesota (Like Michigan, but much worse)
- Indiana (We’ll see if Kevin Wilson is a miracle worker)
I moved Ohio State ahead of Wisconsin based on the improvement Joe Bauserman and the Buckeye wide receivers showed in camp. Questions about the health of Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland in the preseason make me wonder about the Badgers’ defense as a whole. Their playmaking is crucial to the success of a unit that was somewhat overrated last year but didn’t have to do much thanks to the offense.Follow @marcushartman