Last December, Ohio State's football program began unraveling when "Tattoo-Gate" was first revealed. Four starters including quarterback Terrelle Pryor were suspended for the first five games of 2011. Husker fans immediately checked their schedules, and sure enough, realized that all would become eligible to play starting when the Buckeyes travel to Lincoln. Since then, things went from bad to worse for Buckeye fans. Evidence began to emerge that coach Jim Tressel knew about the tattoo situation back in the spring and ignored the situation. Car deals involving Pryor and other Buckeye players added to the perception of a program openly flaunting NCAA rules.
Over the last few months, Tressel was first suspended for two games, then five games, then resigned, then retired. Pryor declared for the NFL's supplemental draft to avoid further NCAA penalty. The Buckeyes have since self-imposed a two year probation and vacated their wins from 2010. Will that penalty be upheld by the NCAA? That remains to be seen. Frankly, everything with respect to Ohio State needs to be viewed with an asterisk, as everything is still subject to revision by the NCAA as things continue to unfold.
All this has overshadowed the Buckeye football program and things on the field. Interim head coach Luke Fickell has to rally the remaining players and play the season. Depending on what the NCAA finally decides to do with the Buckeyes, Fickell could be in a position to be named the permanent head coach, if the Buckeyes have a solid season despite the distractions. Of course, if the NCAA lets the Buckeyes off the hook, coaches such as Urban Meyer might be interested in the job. So the soap opera is likely to last all season long.26 year old senior Joe Bauserman will likely start the season for the Buckeyes at quarterback. Bauserman hasn't seen much game action behind Pryor, completing 25 of 41 passes the last two seasons for 298 yards. But I look for true freshman Braxton Miller to get some playing time, and frankly, I expect him to be the starter by the time the Buckeyes arrive in Lincoln. Miller is a 6'2" dual threat quarterback that might run the ball better than Pryor. Miller arrived in Columbus in January, and was the best passer of the bunch, completing 7 of 12 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown.
Senior running back Dan Herron is one of the "Tattoo Five", and should be eligible to play against the Huskers. He's the Buckeyes leading returning rusher after a 1,155 yard, 16 touchdown season in 2010. Redshirt freshman Rod Smith will probably take a lot of carries during Herron's absence. He's a powerful runner at 6'3" and 220 pounds. Sophomore Jaamal Berry is a small back who rushed for 266 yards last season as a backup.
Senior receiver DeVier Posey is another one of the "Tattoo Five", meaning that the Buckeyes will be really thin at receiver at the start of the season. Junior running back Jordan Hall might see some time here due to the lack of depth. But Posey should be back for the Nebraska game, and he'll clearly be the primary target when the Buckeyes have to pass. He was the leading receiver in 2009, and dipped slightly in 2010 with "only" 53 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns. With a five game suspension, his 2011 numbers will drop even further. That won't matter against the Huskers. Tight end Jake Stoneburner will probably be asked to take up much of the slack, especially early in the season. Look for him to have big numbers early in 2011.
Up front, the Buckeyes need to replace two starters including first team all-Big Ten guard Justin Boren. A third member of last year's offensive line, first team all-Big Ten left tackle Mike Adams is also a member of the "Tattoo Five". His return in Lincoln should be most welcomed by the Buckeye offense. But most importantly, all-American center Mike Brewster passed up the NFL and returned for his senior season. He was a Rimington Award finalist last season, and probably will be a favorite to win it this season.
On defense, the Buckeyes only return four starters including both defensive ends. Senior Nathan Williams had 4.5 sacks and 46 tackles last season, while junior John Simon was the surprise of last season with 41 tackles and three sacks. The Buckeyes will need to find someone to replace first round draft choice Cameron Hayward.
At linebacker, senior will linebacker Andrew Sweat will have to shoulder much of the load after a 41 tackle season in 2010. Junior Etienne Sabino redshirted last season and is expected to start. He had 12 tackles in 2009. Junior Storm Klein is the other expected starter; he has 28 career tackles. Lots of holes to fill here, though it should be noted that Wisconsin only rushed for 184 yards on 43 carries against the Buckeyes last season.
The leading returning tackler for the Buckeyes is junior free safety Orhian Johnson with 50 last season. He's the only returning starter in the secondary; they'll need to replace first team all-American Chimdi Chekwa along with two others. But in the secondary, the Buckeyes seem to reload as they lose stars. Junior Travis Howard is likely to replace Chekwa at cornerback; he had two interceptions (including a key pick-six late against Penn State) last season.
Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of Ohio State at this point. With three key offensive starters suspended until the Nebraska game, there's no way to gauge the Buckeye offense until they take the field in Lincoln...unless they put up big numbers during those games. In which case, look out. On paper, the Buckeyes look like they could take a step back this season, unless they enter this season with a chip on their shoulder and a plan to take out their frustration on their opponents.
It'll also be curious to see how the team responds to the return of the suspended players. Will that fire up the team to have them back on the field? Or will they resent what those players did to put the team in the crosshairs of the NCAA? Chemistry will be the key to the Buckeyes season.