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July 27, 2009

Ohio State still the team to beat in the Big Ten

CHICAGO - Jim Tressel just shrugs. The Ohio State coach really can't provide one specific reason why the Buckeyes have dominated the Big Ten in recent years.

It's four Big Ten championships in a row for the Buckeyes, who also won the crown in 2002 en route to claiming the BCS national championship.

And the media attending the Big Ten Media Days selected Ohio State to win the 2009 conference crown. Now, the question begs: Can any school end Ohio State's run of superiority that only is trumped by USC's current skein of seven Pac-10 crowns in a row?

"Well, I think we're all competing and trying to find ways to improve our programs," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "At the end of the day, you have to go out and make it happen on the field. Unfortunately, we haven't played our best football against the Buckeyes the last couple years."

Not many schools have. Ohio State has gone an aggregate 43-8 the past four seasons. The Buckeyes' Big Ten mark is even more impressive over that span: 29-3.

But nationally, most people haven't focused on Ohio State's remarkable run in the Big Ten. Rather, many harp on the fact the Buckeyes have lost in the BCS title game twice in the past three seasons, getting whipped by Florida after the 2006 season and being clocked by LSU after the 2007 campaign. And Ohio State's 35-3 loss at USC last season further sullied the Buckeyes' image.

"Now it seems you're measured more on not necessarily what you do in your conference," said former Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo, who is now a Big Ten Network analyst. "But you moreso are measured on what you do in the title game. We can thank the BCS for that."

Ohio State's foibles in the BCS title game shouldn't undo what has been one of the most impressive runs by a school this decade - and one of the best ever in the Big Ten.

The last Big Ten school to claim at least a share of five conference crowns in a row was Michigan from 1988-92. Ohio State's current run harkens to the days of the "Big Two and Little Eight" back in the 1970s, when either Ohio State and Michigan won the Big Ten each season. It was during that decade when Ohio State set the Big Ten standard by claiming six league championships in succession from 1972-77.

Why has Ohio State been so dominant?

"I think a lot of Ohio State's success can be traced to where it's at," Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. "They are able to usually get the best players from a state that's rich in talent. And they are able to cherry pick talent from around the nation."

[Ohio State is] able to usually get the best players from a state that's rich in talent. And they are able to cherry pick talent from around the nation
- Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez
The numbers show Ohio State has been loaded with talent. The Buckeyes have produced the most NFL talent of any Big Ten team this decade. In the past four drafts alone, the Buckeyes have produced 27 NFL draft picks, including 10 first-round picks.

Conversely, fellow league heavyweights Michigan and Penn State haven't kept pace. The Wolverines have had 17 picks (two first-rounders) while Penn State has had 18 (three first-rounders).

Coaching staff stability also has been key to Tressel's run. His staff has experienced little turnover during this recent run of dominance. The only coach who hasn't been on staff for all four of the current titles is cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson, who is entering his third season in Columbus.

Otherwise, all of the on-field coaches have been at Tressel's side for his remarkable run. The key assistants have been defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, the senior staff member who enters his 14th season, running backs coach Dick Tressel (ninth season), associate director of player development Joe Daniels (ninth season), offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Bollman (ninth season) and co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Luke Fickell (eighth season).

Penn State has come close to unseating the Buckeyes, forcing Ohio State to share the league title in 2005 and 2008. And the Nittany Lions again appear to be the team most likely to end Ohio State's run. Penn State will be led by dynamic quarterback Daryll Clark and running back Evan Royster. And the defensive front seven will be among the Big Ten's best.

Iowa and Michigan State are the next best bets. Still, it's clear: The Buckeyes are the team to beat - once again.

"You can't argue with the success that Ohio State has had," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "Coach Tressel and that staff have done a great job recruiting. They've got great players also. Obviously we're all chasing Ohio State right now. I think everyone in this league wants to see Ohio State do well once again outside the conference.

"One of the things when I was growing up in the state of Ohio, it was kind of a two-team conference, and there's no question that that's changed now. I think anybody in this league can win the conference."

Perhaps, but there's a lot more to love about Ohio State. It begins with quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the preseason offensive player of the year. Pryor showed flashes of greatnesses as a true freshman last fall, when he led the Big Ten with a 151.3 efficiency rating in league games and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.

"I think he's a great player," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I'd prefer to talk about my own guys. Terrelle, we recruited him and played against him last year. He's a tremendous athlete. I think a quarterback in any system is going to be a focal point, particularly of your offense, and he's the guy that's certainly the focal point of theirs. He can beat you in a lot of different ways."

But Pryor will be working with new receivers and a still-developing line. And running back Chris "Beanie" Wells is gone, too. Led by a strong line, the defense will have to carry the load early for OSU. But even it has a question at linebacker, where James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman are gone.

"I think we have excellent leadership," Tressel said. "We're looking forward to see where they can take us."

Most likely to another Big Ten title. And, who knows, maybe more.

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

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