B.B. King brings us the inspiration this week as we examine the state of the Buckeyes following a 35-28 defeat of California last Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
What we learned last week: This Ohio State team is talented, but it is not so good it can relax too often.
This is a lesson that has been building for three weeks, if not longer. The Buckeyes kicked around the Big Ten for the better half of a decade by overwhelming the opposition with talent more than anything else. Yes, discipline and strategy played significant roles, but the overall domination of the league was mostly tied to having better players than the rest of the conference. That was especially true in the “down” years when the talent level probably remained about the same but the majority of the lineup was young and so what the team could do was more limited.
Jim Tressel’s ballclubs were always opportunistic, and while his “win the surest way” strategy grated on some fans, it was undeniably effective when all was said and done.
Things started to catch up with the Buckeyes last season, however, and they have not been much different to start 2012 despite a mostly new coaching staff being in place. This team is still young, and it is learning a completely new scheme on one side of the ball while a combination of new coaches and familiar faces in new roles learn how to operate together on the other.
The early returns have been uneven, but the team is 3-0. Again this has a lot to do with raw talent first and foremost. The Buckeyes were much, much better than Miami (Ohio) and held enough advantages against UCF and California to make enough big plays to hold off their advances.
So Ohio State won, in many respects, in spite of itself. All three of their so-far vanquished foes could still find themselves playing in bowls when the season is over, but none are going to be confused with national title contenders.
Perhaps this is holding the Buckeyes to too high of a standard, but that is the world in which they live as members of a perennial powerhouse program. The fans hold this standard – at times more realistic than others – and to a certain extent, so do the coaches. Ohio State hired a national championship winning coach to do just that again in Columbus, and that is what Urban Meyer no doubt envisioned when he accepted the job.
They are not going to beat every unranked team they play 42-0, but at the same time there is no denying that Ohio State mistakes have had more to do with opponents’ successes so far this season than have outstanding efforts from the visitors.
What we can expect to learn this week: Well, I think this is pretty obvious, but it’s how the Buckeyes evolved after seven more days in Meyer’s football laboratory. Sometimes there is not much more to it than that, especially at the conclusion of four straight home games against inferior competition to start the season.
The upshot of attributing problems to mistakes is they can be fixed. While working to uphold a standard such as the one established through the years in Columbus can be difficult, it has to beat going out on that field and realizing the players just aren’t there to win the game.
We sometimes forget that while having great players is prerequisite for winning, teaching them how to harness their gifts is almost as important. Getting caught up in semantics is easy here, but what we sometimes forget is being physically gifted and being a productive-to-great football player are not mutually exclusive.
There is a small window – only four or five years – in which college coaches get to apply their methods to the talented young men they convince to play for them, and rarely do we truly see a college player fully blossom while he is still a member of the world of academia.
Many of the best stars – particularly those with the higher levels of talent, the ones most highly recruited who will go on to NFL careers of some note – often pass through without doing more than flash some of their gifts in college. The unique challenge is to get enough of them to channel their energy and still-budding knowledge consistently enough to win more games than everyone else.
The balancing act never ends, and sometimes its success is still determined by a fortunate bounce here or there.
Woody Hayes said luck is often the result of hard work, and that rings as true now as it did when he was stalking the Ohio Stadium sidelines more than three decades ago. But Woody had better players than just about everyone else, too. He didn’t have them learning as many ways to do things on the field as this coaching staff did, and that turned out to be both for better and for worse. The limited strategies Hayes put in place made for great efficiency and did not allow for many errors, but they also limited his team’s successes when they went west for the Rose Bowl. We will never know if his basic approach had a greater impact on the every-day success or the postseason struggles (and I tend to think it was the former), but I know there are some who feel Hayes’ hall of fame career could have been even better if he had branched out more from his off-tackle power offense. (He did evolve over the years, adding the I-formation to his beloved T, but at its heart the Buckeyes always more ground and pound than anything else.)
Tressel faced many of the same questions, but the world of college football is much different in the 21st century. The talent is more evenly distributed even though a clear distinction remains between the haves and the have-nots. The former group is not quite so strong – certainly not as deep – and the latter are peppered with a few more dangerous weapons, so there is more parity and less margin for error. The margin still exists, though. Tressel often lived in the margin, and for the past two weeks one could argue Urban Meyer has, too.
Tressel and his staff never lacked ideas, but they struggled in their application at times. Now we are seeing early in the Meyer era the challenge of applying a different set of plans aimed at achieving mostly the same goals, but beyond that the greater question is whether or not a great enough percentage of this team will grow up enough to do what the coaches ask without so many lapses in concentration and judgement along the way.
The next chance to fine-tune the attack on both sides of the ball comes this week against what will surely be an overmatched bunch of Blazers from UAB. Then it is time for the conference slate to begin, at which point the fallout from mistakes figures to grow much larger.
Thoughts on the rest of the Big Ten: I didn’t think it would come this early in the season, but it’s time to give up the league for dead in 2012. There should be better days ahead, but exhibition season is on in the Midwest.
So far the main culprit is a lack of quality production in the trenches. Michigan State and Wisconsin (of all programs) can’t block anyone right now while Michigan is soft inside on defense, and they have all paid the price already.
Nebraska has not been bad up front on offense, but the Cornhuskers depend more on scheme and guile than pure ability there. Talent in the back seven on defense is the biggest question for the league’s newest member, which is a little bit interesting given some of the criticism the Big Ten has faced in the past decade or so about its speed or lack thereof.
The conference race starts next week, and it has all the makings of a wild one despite the hits that have come on the national stage.