The conventional wisdom is that if a team is to lose, losing early in the season is best for any type of MNC aspirations. Though most fans (including the authors of this blog) don't believe this team is worthy of being considered for another title game berth, the early loss to USC was refreshing on two fronts. First, the loss, and more importantly, the magnitude of the loss, prompted Tressel to make some changes that he otherwise would have probably avoided making. Second, losing early spared us all from the eight month fallout and second-guessing that has followed the program in each of the previous two big game losses.
The USC beat-down hurt on so many levels, but it's refreshing to watch this team take flight with some younger and inspiring personnel, most notably Pryor, contributing so much. The Buckeyes now find themselves with arguably the two best players in the conference lining up in the same backfield and winning a fourth-straight conference title will mean that much more with other teams in the Big Ten smelling a little blood in the water. While the play of those two have been off the charts, there remains some areas of improvement if Ohio State wants to complete the job this year:
- The O-Line: We're starting to see some improvements, with the Minnesota game being perhaps their best outing of the year. Boone absolutely dominated that game and is showing signs that he is serious about being a first-day draft choice in the NFL. The interior of the line still has its work cut out and Rehring's return will present a problem of sorts for the staff in terms of deciding who stays and who sits, but if they can keep improving game-by-game, the offense should start to really put some points up.
- Receivers: Robo had a really nice game against the Gophers, but there's still an APB out on Hartline. What's really frustrating is that he talked so much trash over the course of the summer. Time to step up. Also, I know Vico is really high on the guy, but I'm not sold on Dane Sanzenbacher. On the option play that Boom bobbled at first Saturday, I watched a defensive back hit him and knock him four yards backwards before making the tackle. Is there really any doubt that he'd be the 7th receiver on a team like USC? It's especially disheartening when you have a freak like Posey standing on the sidelines.
- The D-Line: Another group that's slowly coming along and I think the insertion of Gibson will pay huge dividends, but Heyward and the interior of the line will get a true test this weekend. It's absolutely crazy to think that the Buckeyes have lost the sack battle in every game they've played this season.
- Special Teams: The inconsistency of Pretorius is frustrating, but what really gets me is the sad state of affairs on kick returns. To date, the Buckeyes have only played one team that can put similarly skilled athletes on the field against them, but everyone has been eating up the OSU kick return game. If it's not missed blocks (which happen way too often), it's guys like Saine cutting into tacklers instead of finding seams. There will be a game this year where the team needs a big special teams play and at this pace it looks like thye may not be able to deliver.
In only five weeks this season, Buckeye fans' feelings have run the gamut from hope and excitement to crushing frustration and recriminiations before finally circling back to hope and excitement. The visit to Madison this weekend is the first big road game of the Pryor era and if the team can take care of what they need to do to continue growing, they have a great chance to win out, get a great BCS bowl win (rematch against USC in the Rose, perhaps) and set some crazy momentum for a big-time run in 2009.