The much-maligned Ohio State Buckeyes finally get back to the business of playing football when they open the 2011 season against the visiting Akron Zips this Saturday.
Akron, which calls the Mid-American Conference home, is hoping for a much better season in year two of the Rob Ianello era after winning just one of its 12 games in 2010, and that didn't come until the regular-season finale against Buffalo. The Zips claimed just three victories the year before so Ianello knew it wasn't going to be easy to turn the struggling program around.
Still, a one-win campaign is as demoralizing as it gets and Ianello is hoping for some more positive moments this fall. A total of 13 starters back on both sides of the ball should help. Akron has lost 14 straight on the road.
Ohio State's off-field issues are well documented at this point, but despite the loss of their head coach and starting quarterback, and the suspension of several other key players, the Buckeyes are chomping at the bit to get the season underway. Interim coach Luke Fickell has been entrusted with running the show for OSU this fall, but even with all the turmoil the Buckeyes are ranked 18th in the country and are considered by many to be a threat to reach the first-ever Big Ten Conference championship game.
Ohio State won 12 games and finished 7-1 in league play to share the Big Ten Conference title with Wisconsin and Michigan State last year, marking the program's 35th Big Ten crown and record-tying sixth in a row. Along the way, the Buckeyes also beat rival Michigan for an unprecedented seventh straight time. They topped eighth-ranked Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and ended the year ranked fifth in the nation, their fifth top-five finish in the last six years.
Fickell certainly has history on his side, at least in this contest as the last 20 Ohio State coaches are 19-0-1 in their debuts. The last OSU coach to lose his debut was Jack Ryder, who dropped a 40-4 decision to Oberlin back in 1892.
The Buckeyes are virtually unbeatable at home, particularly against unranked, non-conference foes (54 straight wins), and overall they are 52-5 at Ohio Stadium since the start of the 2002 season. OSU is an eye-popping 104-12-4 all-time in season lidlifters, and hasn't lost a home opener since falling to Penn State, 19-0, in September of 1978.
Ohio State is 6-1 in the all-time series with Akron, but the two have met just twice since 1895. The most recent meeting took place in 2007, with the Buckeyes prevailing in a 20-2 final in Columbus. The Zips are just 1-22 versus teams from the Big Ten, and they are the only current MAC team to have a win over Ohio State, that coming back in 1894.
Akron averaged just 15.6 points and 268.5 total yards per contest in 2010, and ranked last in the MAC in nearly every offensive category. Ianello hopes the return of six starters will allow for a better effort this season, but it remains to be seen if the Zips will actually show any growth on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterback Patrick Nicely is back for another go, but his ineffectiveness last year coupled with the addition of Clayton Moore made Ianello's decision a tough one with regard to who gets the starting nod. Nicely completed just 49.4 percent of his passes for 1,753 yards, 10 touchdowns and 13 INTs last year, while Moore threw 23 TDs in junior college last season. Moore is No. 1 on the depth chart right now, but don't be surprised if both guys get reps this year.
Regardless of who lines up under center, he is going to have to work his way through a number of options to find a favorite target, as the team's top returning receiver is sophomore Antoine Russell (13 receptions, 221 yards, one TD).
Broderick Alexander has the most experience of the team's running backs, as the sophomore became the first freshman RB to start a game at Akron since 1973, doing so in 2009. Alexander missed all of last year with a knee injury, and he will have to work his way back into the fold. As of now, the team's most complete back appears to be Jawon Chisholm.
The most experienced aspect of the Akron offense will be the line, as three starters are back to mix it up once again.
What hampered the Akron defense in 2010 was its inability to get to the quarterback, the lack of pressure resulting in only 17 sacks, nearly half of which (seven) were credited to Shawn Lemon. Lemon has since moved on, leaving a guy like Hasan Hazime to carry the torch. Hazime had only 2.5 sacks last season, but the senior is a hard worker and he gives Akron a veteran presence in the trenches. Help is expected to come from guys like Oren Wilson, who started 26 games at Michigan State, while John Griggs (originally signed with Iowa) could make an impact as well.
"We have worked through a very long, tough schedule (in the weight room) to get everyone stronger. I think everyone has improved on their core exercises and we have become stronger as a whole. (Strength) Coach (Craig) Sowers has brought a new attitude to the weight room," said standout LB Brian Wagner.
The junior who logged a club-best 130 tackles last season, better be right or it could be another embarrassing season for the Zips after yielding an unsightly 34 ppg in 2010.
Whenever a team is unable to pressure the quarterback that usually means trouble for the secondary, regardless of the talent that resides there. Case in point, Akron allowed 29 passing TDs last year. With the defensive line fortified, the team's defensive backs should benefit, and the return of three starters there is huge.
With Terrelle Pryor now suiting up for the NFL's Oakland Raiders, the keys to Ohio State's offense have been turned over to senior Joe Bauserman. Pryor's primary backup the last two years, Bauserman has completed just 25-of-47 passes for 320 yards with two TDs and an INT in his career. A former walk-on who spent time in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Bauserman hasn't started a football game since his senior year in high school back in 2003.
The ease with which Bauserman transitions from understudy to starter will be made that much more difficult as five-game suspensions to leading rusher Dan Herron, playmaking WR DeVier Posey, and All-Big Ten OT Mike Adams will hamper the Buckeyes' ability to run their offense the way they would like.
With Posey out of action for the forseeable future, and the departure of former standout Dane Sanzenbacher, the receiving corps is in shambles at the moment. Keep an eye on sophomore Corey Brown, who showed flashes in limited action last year.
The running game also takes a hit with the absence of Adams and fellow all- conference pick Herron, who rushed 1,155 yards and 16 TDs last season. However, four-year starter Mike Brewster is one of the top centers in all of college football and will anchor the line for the time being. Junior Jordan Hall is expected to hold down the fort until Herron returns.
The Buckeyes ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (262.2 ypg) and fifth in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) in 2010, and four starters are back in the fold. Fickell previously served as the team's assistant coach, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach over the last decade, so the same scheme will be in place.
It all starts up front with senior DE Nathan Williams, who has logged 20.5 TFL in his career. Junior DT John Simon is another player to watch as he has 55 career tackles (12.0 TFL). The linebacking corps must replace two starters, with senior Andrew Sweat the lone returnee to that group.
In the secondary, safeties Orhian Johnson and C.J. Barnett have big-time playmaking abilities, as does senior Tyler Moeller, a former starter who returns after suffering a season-ending injury last year.
Ohio State, while on the ropes earlier in the off-season, appears to be set for the open of what it hopes will be a memorable campaign -- for all the "right" reasons.
"The last few months have been nonetheless a whirlwind, exciting, crazy, emotional, but yet very productive as well," coach Fickell said. "I think from day one, the biggest thing that I've tried to do is focus on our leadership as well as trying to pound home the culture that we believe is important in moving our program forward."