In Ernest Hemingway's classic The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he notes an oddity--the carcass of a leopard near the top of a snow-covered mountain. The author adds "No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude." The Ohio State Buckeyes sort of know the feeling. Their own carcass has been found close to the summit of college football the past two years. Although here the analogy ends. For Jim Tressel's program knows precisely what it is seeking, and that is to finally reach the summit in 2008.
Ohio State has the talent to get to the national championship game for the third straight year, and this time to win it. They return 20 starters from last year's squad. The most prominent of them is junior running back Chris Wells, who will figure heavily in the Heisman race and opens the year as the favorite for Big Ten MVP. Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch notes that Wells is just one of an entire stable of talented Buckeye backs. They will all run behind a typically powerful line. Four starters return, and three of them--Alex Boone, Jim Cordle and Steve Rehring are going to be playing on Sundays this year or next.
Todd Boeckman is back at quarterback, although if he doesn't play well at the season's first big test in Southern Cal, it will be interesting to see if there is any movement for touted freshman signal-caller Terrelle Pryor to get action. There are already rumors that Pryor may be deployed the way TIm Tebow was at Florida prior to assuming the starting role--a situational quarterback used to provide a change of pace. Whomever is taking snaps has two steady and experienced, if unspectacular, receivers in Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.
Defensively, the Bucks are similarly strong, although not quite as senor-laden. The defensive line will provide solid play, although pass-rushing powerhouse Vernon Ghoulston is going to be missed, now that he's with the Jets. Linebacking is the strength of the unit, and it's keyed by team captain and reigning Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis. The secondary is going to be uncrackable with four starters back, and its lynchpin is All-American cornerback Malcolm Jenkins.
Tressel has a couple gimme games against state schools to get his team into shape for its trip to USC on September 13. The real question may be whether voters will forgive a loss in this game if it comes time to vote a one-loss team into the title game again. Normally there would be no question they would, and I would unhesitatingly tab the Buckeyes for the national championship game. But given the unfair tag put on this program after the last two years, I suspect that this is the one game OSU can't lose. They may be able to survive a slip-up in the Big Ten as long as they show they can win against a big-time national team.
The Bucks are clearly the best team in the conference and the schedule in-conference works out pretty well for them. They do have a tough road game against Wisconsin on October 4 and two weeks later at Michigan State could be a trap game if they were to be upended in an unlikely spot. But Michigan and Penn State come to Columbus.
Overall, it's impossible for this team not to at least stumble its way to 10 wins, and they probably get 11. But given the unfair tag put on them by the national media, I think that brings them up a little short of a national title game.