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July 24, 2008

Tressel still answering title game questions

MORE BIG TEN MEDIA DAYS: Paterno giving no hints | Day One photo gallery

CHICAGO Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was all business Thursday as he approached the podium at the Big Ten Kickoff event.

Then again, when isn't Tressel all business?

Terrelle Pryor chose Ohio State over Michigan and Penn State.

The arrival of Terrelle Pryor the nation's No. 1 recruit has added more juice to Ohio State's hopes of playing in a third consecutive BCS title game.

It was hailed by many as a coup when Ohio State won Pryor's signature over the likes of Michigan and Penn State. Why not? Pryor was the top-rated recruit in the nation, hailed by many as the greatest talent from the prep ranks since Vince Young signed with Texas in 2002.

"August 4th, he gets to start practicing," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said. "He's going to be incorporated into our offense that day. He's got a lot of things that he's got to build as a foundation the communication system, the way that we do things but he's the kind of guy that as I've gotten to know him more and more, knowing exactly what's going on is very important to him. He loves to train. He loves to compete."

Todd Boeckman is the starter, but expect Pryor to be on the field every game, being used in a similar fashion as Tim Tebow (10-15 snaps a game) was at Florida as a freshman in 2006. What makes landing Pryor even sweeter for Ohio State is that the Buckeyes beat out Michigan for his services.

"I don't talk about players who aren't with Michigan," is all Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez would say about Pryor on Thursday.

There's no doubt Rodriguez needed Pryor, who in all likelihood would have won the starting job in Ann Arbor. Instead, Pryor landed in Columbus as yet another weapon in what already is a veteran group full of talent.

Here's a quick look at the freshman stats of the top quarterback recruits since 2002.
2002 - Vince Young, Texas
Redshirted as a freshman. Completed 84 of 143 passes for 1,155 yards with seven TDs and six interceptions, and ran 135 times for 998 yards and 11 TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2003.
2003 - Kyle Wright, Miami
Redshirted as a freshman. Completed five of nine passes for 30 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2004.
2004 - Rhett Bomar, Oklahoma
Redshirted as a freshman. Completed 167 of 308 passes for 2,018 yards with 10 TDs and 10 interceptions as a redshirt freshman in 2005.
2005 - Mark Sanchez, USC
Redshirted as a freshman. Completed three of seven passes for 63 yards with no TDs and one interception as a redshirt freshman in 2006.
2006 - Matthew Stafford, Georgia
Completed 135 of 256 passes for 1,749 yards with seven TDs and 13 interceptions.
2007 - Jimmy Clausen, Notre Dame
Completed 138 of 245 passes for 1,254 yards with seven TDs and six interceptions.
Tressel's voice always is a sleep-inducing measured monotone, never rising or falling. He handles these events with a politician's aplomb, never uttering a rock-the-boat phrase that could get him in a tight spot. He is Mr. Sweater Vest, remember, your neighbor down the street who borrows the hedge clippers.

But Tressel did seem agitated a bit, at least at persistent questions about the strength and general manhood of the Big Ten in the wake of Ohio State's foibles in the past two BCS title games. You remember those games, Brutus the shellacking by Florida after the 2006 season and the subsequent beatdown by LSU last season.

All of a sudden, Ohio State is getting less credit for getting to the past two BCS title games and more grief for its colossal collapses. It's almost as if the world has forgotten that Tressel led Ohio State to a national title in 2002.

In short, Ohio State has become college football's version of the Buffalo Bills, who advanced to four Super Bowls in a row from 1990-93 and lost them all. And with those crushing Ohio State losses the past two seasons, the Big Ten's reputation has suffered.

The Big Ten is overrated.

The Big Ten lacks athletic players.

The Big Ten stinks.

"Well, I know from our standpoint where it comes from is we played the national championship the last two years and haven't been successful, so is that fair?" Tressel said. "I think that's fair fair that we haven't been successful. Should that paint a picture of our whole conference? I don't think so."

Don't look now, but Ohio State could be back in the big game this season because this may be Tressel's best team yet in Columbus.

It's true. He welcomes back 20 starters, led by a defense that should be among the best in the nation. The kingpin is linebacker James Laurinaitis, perhaps the best defensive player in the country.

There's no doubt Ohio State is the class of the Big Ten. In a media poll, Ohio State was picked to win the conference. It wasn't a shock. The Buckeyes have won the league title outright each of the past two seasons, the first time that has happened since Michigan in 1991-92. This fall, Ohio State is aiming to become the first team to ever win three outright Big Ten crowns in a row. As it stands, the Buckeyes already have won three league titles in a row but they shared the 2005 crown with Penn State.

"(The preseason poll) hasn't been very accurate in the past, which is a little frightening," said Tressel, who is one of three coaches (Oklahoma's Bob Stoops and Florida State's Bobby Bowden are the others) who have been to the BCS title game three times. "But, you know, it's really kind of irrelevant because there is Penn State, there is Michigan, there is Michigan State, there is Purdue, there is Minnesota and on and on and on, and you have to line up."

Tressel is being kind and politically correct, of course. While he was at it, he also should have mentioned Eastern Nowhere State and Whogivesacrap Tech.

The bottom line is this: Ohio State is far and away the premier program in the Big Ten. And the Buckeyes are carrying the conference's tattered banner again even though not everyone thinks the conference is down.

"The Big Ten Conference is very healthy," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "It's very competitive and a lot has been placed on the one game. It's unfortunate. Let the critics say what they may. But let's stay focused on our conference and continue to compete."

Alas, the only way the Big Ten can expunge its image as an overrated conference is by winning the national title. And that puts the onus on the Buckeyes. The first test comes Sept. 13, when Ohio State plays at USC.

Count former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, a former Heisman winner at USC, among those who can't wait. He is an example of the detest some have for Ohio State, bashing the Buckeyes in a recent radio interview with Los Angeles station KLAC.

"I don't watch what I say," Palmer said. "I cannot stand the Buckeyes and having to live in Ohio it drives me completely nuts. . I just can't wait for this game to get here so they can come out to the Coliseum and experience L.A. and get an old-fashioned Pac-10 butt-whipping."

Tressel has caught wind of Palmer's feelings.

"It just tells you one thing: He's proud of the place he played and he lives with us in Ohio and I'm sure he gets to hear a lot about the Buckeyes," Tressel said. "You know what Woody (Hayes) used to always say: 'Whether they're talking good or talking bad, keep them talking.' "

And there's no team that elicits more polarizing talk than Ohio State.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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