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As one of the primary contenders in the 2010 title race, the Buckeyes face a diverse set of potential challengers should they navigate the regular season undefeated. To wit, Boise State, Virginia Tech and TCU join perennial title favorites Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama in one of the more wide-open title races in recent memory. BCS cynicism tells us that Boise State and TCU are unlikely to make the title game as genuine BCS-busters, while significant personnel losses hold back the likes of Alabama and Oregon from achieving sure-fire hype-behemoth status.
In all likelihood, the Buckeyes would be entering the season as heavy favorites for the title were it not for the program's recent struggles in the postseason. While most Buckeye fans think the team got over the hump in the Rose Bowl thumping of Oregon's "unstoppable" offensive attack, outsiders remain skeptical. Can you blame them? No matter how absurd it seems to crown a team as decimated by the draft and graduation on defense as the runaway favorite, the Tide do have slightly better recent big-game credentials than the Buckeyes. Over the next few weeks, I will be giving a refresher on some of the other teams in the 2010 national title race. This is not a "screw the regular season, give me Glendale" post; Ohio State could play these teams in any number of scenarios, from Alabama in the title game to Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl (.... we'll hope it doesn't come to that).
There are seven or eight teams with a realistic shot at the national championship. One of them - though admittedly a longshot - is a very familiar face. Despite the dismissal of field general Jeremiah Masoli, the Oregon Ducks still dance on the edge of variouspreseason top ten lists, thought they have fallen quite a bit from the heady days of January. While I'm sure few of you are quaking in your boots at the prospect of playing the Ducks again, the possibility is there.
Outside of the loss of Masoli, Oregon returns much of the talent that made it a title favorite even after the Rose Bowl, including Heisman candidate LaMichael James, whirling dervish Kenjon Barner, and sack artist Kenny Rowe, who did his fair share of damage in the Rose Bowl, much like any half-way competent speed rusher against the Buckeyes:
They're no longer the sexy pick to play Bama or Ohio State in the title game, but Oregon remains a rather talented team that might simply make a title bid because it's playing in the Pac-10. Southern Cal is in chaos, both Arizona schools scream "also-ran", and their best competition might be Oregon State and Jacquizz Rogers. Or perhaps even Washington.
I imagine most of you remain intimately familiar with the supposed GREATEST OFFENSE EVER FIELDED , so I'll keep this brief. LaMichael James is back. He's fast and might actually be a pixie. Jeff Maehl is still the best wideout, but someone else will have to step up to replace departed TE Ed Dickson. Along the line, all five starters return on a unit that already paved the way for the Pac-10's best offense in 2009. Simply put, the pieces remain mostly in place to put up absolutely ridiculous statistics again in 2010, except for, of course, at quarterback. Nate Costa and Darron Thomas are competing for the job, with Costa being the relatively-leadfooted one and Thomas being the one built for this offense. If they simply try to replicate Masoli's impact on the game, Thomas would be the next closest thing.
Not that this will ever be their strong suit, but the Ducks return most everyone of import on the defense as well. Kenny Rowe, as you saw above, is a monster. He's undersized but strong enough to tool on most offensive tackles. He's a linebacker in the NFL, but a major nuisance to most opposing OL in college. Spencer Paysinger and John Boyette, last year's leading tacklers, pace a back seven that has to get better for Oregon to have a shot at an undefeated season.
How do they match up with the Buckeyes?
About as well as they did in Pasadena, really. People seemed to forget in the afterglow that that was a close, competitive game, with no stereotype - Oregon's speed, Ohio State's lack thereof, Oregon's "terrible" defense - left standing in its wake. While it's easy to look at Masoli's stat line and laugh, the Ducks will be a year better at almost every other position. Fortunately, Cameron Heyward would still be around, and Ohio State's defensive line might just get faster with the addition of Johnny Simon. And unless the new Duck signal-caller can push the ball downfield in a way Masoli couldn't, the results of the game wouldn't be all that different.
@ Arizona State
@ Washington State
@ Oregon State
For those keeping track, that's six (!) away games for the Ducks in 2010. Granted, they aren't exactly at particularly intimidating road environments - as Rece Davis might say, you don't just walk into RESER STADIUM expecting a win - but that's still an awfully high number of road games for a title-contending team. And in case you need a reminder: both of Oregon's regular season losses in 2009 came on the road - one was in Boise, and the other was in the dreaded confines of Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto. Reasonably, I can see anywhere from 8-4 to 11-1 on this schedule. 12-0, however, is a bit much to ask out of a first year starter at quarterback.
Can "The Rematch" happen?
Of course. A slip-up along the way for Ohio State practically guarantees another Rose Bowl trip, and while the Pac-10 is wide open, the only thing even approximating a genuinely elite team in the Pac-10 is Oregon. A championship isn't all that unreasonable, tumultuous offseason notwithstanding.
Why am I excited?
Perhaps because re-establishing the Big Ten as a premier national league goes hand-in-hand with winning Rose Bowls, and Ohio State could win its second straight if it happens to play the Ducks again?
Why am I not enthused?
Because, well, been there, done that, and it doesn't seem to have done much to heal Ohio State's national reputation. It's a band-aid, sure, but if Ohio State's playing Oregon to close out the season, it's for two likely reasons: Oregon overachieved like whoa and wound up in Glendale, or Ohio State underachieved and gets to play Oregon as a consolation prize. Win that game, and you'll feel an unmistakble sense of deja vu and unfulfillment when the afterglow wears off. Lose it, and 2011 gets even more interesting in Columbus.
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