COLUMBUS, Ohio – The 2010 season was vacated. The head coach's job was vacated. Now a bunch of 20-somethings coming off summer vacation are left with the previously unfathomable task of picking up the pieces at tattered Ohio State.
"We still hold ourselves to a high standard," says Joe Bauserman, an unknown backup quarterback who now may hold the Buckeyes' season in his hands. "We expect to win and that's what we're going to do."
But expecting to win and actually doing it are two dramatically different things heading into the most troublesome of Ohio State's 122 seasons of bedrock football. The program has never faced anything like this.
A scandal centered on a tattoo-parlor owner giving cash and discounts for memorabilia to several players grew geometrically. After players were suspended for the start of the 2011 season, it was discovered coach Jim Tressel had known about their complicity for more than nine months and had kept the information to himself — contrary to NCAA rules and his own contract.
After a torrent of daily revelations, rumor and innuendo, Tressel's startlingly successful decade in Columbus came to a disgraceful end when he was forced out on May 30.
Shortly thereafter, Tressel's pet player, three-year starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, announced he was giving up his senior season to make an end run at an NFL career.
Seeking to mollify the NCAA, Ohio State has vacated its 12-1 season a year ago (including wins over rival Michigan and in the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas), and has tagged itself with two years of NCAA probation. It won't find out until September at the earliest if the NCAA accepts those sanctions or wants to pile on more.
Now Luke Fickell, a linebackers coach the previous nine years at his alma mater, is the interim head coach.
He calls the last few months "a whirlwind, exciting, crazy, emotional."
Now that all the accusations and allegations have given way to actually taking the field and practicing, the next few weeks figure to be all of that and more.
Even without the controversy, the NCAA investigation, the suspensions and the departures, this would be a tumultuous preseason. The Buckeyes must replace seven starters on defense and four on offense, not to mention being without four prime contributors (leading rusher Dan Herron, top receiver DeVier Posey, starting offensive lineman Mike Adams and backup defensive lineman Solomon Thomas) who were suspended for the first five games of the fast approaching season.
First on the to-do list is quarterback, where Pryor had taken almost every snap for the past two years. There are four candidates to replace him, each with his own distinct qualities and shortcomings. Bauserman, a former minor-league baseball player who is an avid hunter, has his sights set on the job. He's the most experienced. Kenny Guiton, a redshirt sophomore, is more mobile and just as good a passer. Second-year freshman Taylor Graham is tall and has a strong arm, just like his father Kent, a former Ohio State quarterback. Neither he nor Guiton have ever really faced opposing fire. Braxton Miller, the prize of the newest recruiting class, is raw and talented. He looks lost at times during drills but shows great potential.
Guiton might be the safest bet because he is the most versatile candidate.
"I feel like I've done some great things out there; I feel like I've done some things I need to work on," he said, echoing words that could be used to describe all four of the quarterbacks. "I'll get better."
Another critical area is wide receiver, where the Buckeyes lost MVP Dane Sanzenbacher. Until Posey gets back on the field, those green quarterbacks will have to rely on replacements who have a combined 12 catches in their college careers.
On defense, holes left by graduated linemen Dexter Larimore and Cameron Heyward, linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle and backs Chimdi Chekwa, Aaron Gant, Jermale Hines and Devon Torrence are gaping. There are plenty of worthy fill-ins, but much like the situation with the NCAA, no one knows for sure how it'll all work itself out.
Despite questions about personnel, Fickell said there are no doubts about the Buckeyes' motivation.
"The attitudes are right. Guys are working together as a team," he said. "They understand it's all about each other. They've got the right focus."
Almost no one outside of the locker room expects much of the Buckeyes, winners of a record-tying six straight Big Ten titles until last year was erased from the memory banks. With the months of turmoil in their past, the specter of more NCAA penalties hanging over the program and the loss of all those departed stars, many are predicting four, five or even more losses. Ohio State hasn't lost six in a season since 1999.
"Yeah, it drives us a little bit because it's always in the back of your head," fullback Zach Boren says. "We're so used to being, you know, the Big Ten champions and stuff like that, or ranked No. 1 preseason or whatever. But we look it as kind of fun. It's kind of fun being the underdog for once. It's a change of scenery."
After the past few months, a change of scenery in Columbus is welcome.
It remains to be seen if it'll be fun.