Please be warned. If you don't have a habit of pressing your middle and ring finger's to your thumb and thrusting your hand to the sky to yell "hook'em!," this column may not be for you. Unless, of course, "sousaphone" is a commonly used word in your vocabulary, and you have a compulsion to yell the letters "O-H!" into any scarlet and grey-clad gathering you may happen to find yourself mixed up in. In which case, if these descriptions apply to you - or if you simply love gargantuan college football matchups between historic and tradition rich programs who are known for winning - you are definitely in the right place.
As we all know, Ohio State and Texas will be strapping-it-up in Austin Saturday for the return leg of last year's epic struggle in which a Vince Young-led Texas won 25-22. Well documented are the similarities between this year's and last year's game: the visiting team comes in with a much ballyhooed offense led by an electric, and sometimes unstoppable, playmaker at quarterback to take on the home team's impenetrable, athletic, and well-schooled defense. Last year's contest proved to be the toughest offensive test for the eventual national champion Longhorns, as the Buckeyes held the Texas juggernaut to just 25 points, by far its lowest point total of the season. And this year's game promises to be as tough for the vaunted Troy Smith-led OSU attack.
After putting up 617 yards against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State's first four possessions against first game opponent Northern Illinois hinted that the explosive offense, unseen in Jim Tressel's tenure to this point, will be more the rule than the exception in '06. And the Texas defense, which held North Texas to 95 total yards and 8 yards rushing on 28 attempts, will be far and away the Buckeyes' toughest test until Michigan comes calling in November.
What has been gleaned from both programs' opening performances was that there aren't too many teams in the country who can match, defensively, the weapons and athleticism Ohio State has to offer on offense, and what Texas can throw at the opposition defensively. Both are elite recruiting and coaching entities that don't have many peers in college football, so it comes as no surprise that after losing some of the school's all-time greatest players in 2005 (A.J. Hawk and Vince Young), the two teams will enter the '06 clash ranked #1 and #2, each with a better-than-realistic shot at the national title.
Last year proved to be all the momentum Texas needed to run the table and memorably beat the once-thought unbeatable USC Tojans in the Rose Bowl. The same course could be taken by the winner in Austin on Saturday night. But before that can happen, some important questions need to be asked-of and answered by both teams and coaching staffs during the course of this monumental rematch.
So as a primer for the football feast that will have the entire football-watching public on the edge of their seat, couch, or barstool for three-plus hours, here are a couple key questions for this Saturday's rematch between Ohio State and Texas.
1.) Can Texas really overcome the loss of Vince Young and continue to win big games?
It's no secret that Vince Young may have been the most devastating offensive force college football has seen since Tommie Frazier was making opposing defenses look pointless in the mid 90's. And it's also no secret that Mack Brown had never won a championship of any kind, or many big games period, before Vince Young's arrival in Austin.
The fact is that any coach at any truly big program could have won slews of games if they had Vince Young at quarterback, and most could have won a national title. Many would argue the fact that it was during Vince's recruitment that Texas won last year's national title, and not so much what was done during the season. But that all remains to be seen. History has shown us that it was Mack Brown who had the ability to make it all work, and the result was his first-ever championship season.
So has Brown finally figured "it" out and become a big game coach, or was it all Vince Young and his amazing talent and leadership abilities that turned a perennially underachieving (if you can really call a 10-2 season "underachieving") Longhorn program into the juggernaut it is perceived to be today? Many pundits seem to think Texas will simply replace the loss of their jaw-dropping QB's play-making abilities by spreading the ball around to other playmakers more often and not miss a beat. But if I remember correctly, Texas b.v. (before Vince) has had teams with better playmaker's and equal defensive talent in recent years and failed to win anything of consequence in those seasons. And while I know Texas has attracted the coordinating talents of Greg Robinson, Gene Chizik, and Duane Akina recently, nothing has proven to me that the Longhorns a.v. (after Vince) are any different than they were b.v.
So, in this respect, it's up to Mack Brown and his fabulous coaching staff to prove to the college football world that the Texas program has truly taken that big step forward from perennial pretender to contender, and that they can, in fact, replace a once-in-a-lifetime player like Young. It's no secret that Vince made all the difference last year in Columbus, but can his influence really be replaced this year? We'll just have to wait and see.
2.) Can the Buckeye defense limit the Texas run game and force the offense to be one-dimensional?
Nine new starters, no A.J. Hawk, no Bobby Carpenter, no Donte Whitner... No chance, right? With memories of Garrett Wolfe freshly dancing in fan's nightmares, Buckeye Nation is losing its mind over the perceived poor play of its defense last Saturday. One trip to the Bucknuts.com (an Ohio State fan site) message boards will have one believing the Bucks have a USC 2005-caliber offense supported by the University of Buffalo defense.
The fact is that the defense isn't as bad as it initially seems. Over 20% of the plays Northern Illinois ran were stopped for a loss, and the majority of yards the Huskies gained were on the handful of big plays they were fortunate to spring. What worries Buckeye fans and coaches, however, is the fact that a defensive breakdown, like those that ultimately sprung Garrett Wolfem, will turn into long, soul-crushing touchdowns against a team with as much talent and speed as the Texas offense. With inexperience comes mistakes, and a mistake against Texas could prove deadly for the young Bucks.
But what is most important for the Buckeye defense on Saturday will be its ability to be stout against the run, something that couldn't always be said against NIU, and not allow Texas to keep its young quarterbacks in comfortable down-and-distance situations. As we saw on Monday during the Florida State-Miami game, young quarterbacks are far less effective when there is no running game to fall back on for safety, and the more 3rd-and-longs they face, the better chance for a critical turnover. Ohio State is known for stopping a team's running attack cold in past years. This won't happen on Saturday, but if they can limit rushing yardage to a minimum, they'll have more opportunities to put pressure on Texas' young quarterbacks and see how they handle the pressure the Buckeyes are known to put on opposing QBs. If they fail to limit the Texas run attack and the many different backs they throw at them, it could be a long night for the Buckeyes in Austin.
What will be the outcome?
I see a classic in the same mold as last year. The Texas defensive line and linebackers are as good as any in the nation, and I can't see the Buckeyes ultra-explosive offense turning the game into a high scoring contest as a consequence. But if the Buckeye offense line is as good as advertised, they may give Troy Smith enough comfortable 3rd down situations to really cause the Longhorns panic and put some points on the board. That's a big "if" however, as great college defenses are usually ahead of offenses this early in the season, and I envision a knock-down, drag-out struggle with a good number of big runs and pass plays coming from both offenses.
Where the game will hinge is each team's ability to get the job done in the red-zone. Because of the speed of both teams, long plays won't result in touchdowns, much like last year's game, and the team that makes the most of its opportunities will like where they stand once the 4th quarter comes calling. But as the game wears on, regardless of score, I think Ohio State has two things going for them that Texas doesn't: confidence in its quarterback Troy Smith, who is as clutch as they come in college football; and a bad taste in their mouth from the outcome of last year's game. Sometimes failures motivate more than successes, and I can't see Ohio State, after that devastating loss last year, accepting anything less than a victory this Saturday.