For several months red-blazered disciples of that megaschool on the banks of the mighty Olentangy have been addressing themselves to college football's most intriguing question: Who's No. 1? Their conclusion, though it will likely be untested until Michigan's visit on Nov. 23, is a resounding, "We are."
Ohio State will be national champion because Woody Hayes says so. "We're not shooting for anything less," he informed a congregation of Buckeyes on the first day of spring practice. "We've come close a couple of times lately but we haven't done it. This time we will."
The Big Buckeye having spoken, all the little Buckeyelets clamored in agreement. "I'm kind of dying for it," says Bruce Elia. "We ain't going to miss it this year." To which fellow Linebacker Ken Kuhn adds, "We're going to kill people while we're doing it." So sleep tight, all you Iowas and Indianas.
The prospect of a national championship has stirred even low-keyed, high-powered superback Archie Griffin. "It would be cool," says Griffin, the only sophomore in half a century to be named the Big Ten's Most Valuable Player.
Next week, when the Buckeyes open their quest against Minnesota, Griffin will most likely become Ohio State's leading career rusher and runner-up in total offense. Ninety-nine yards will accomplish both, a very makeable total since he averaged 143 a game last year and never gained fewer than 105. Griffin already holds the Big Ten single-season (1,577) and Ohio State single-game (246) rushing marks.
Archie is only one of 16 returning starters. The depth and breadth of Ohio State's talent is so great that Tackle John Hicks, the Outland and Lombardi trophies winner, and All-America Linebacker Randy Gradishar will hardly be missed. "We don't need them," says Defensive Tackle Pete Cusick.
This preponderance of talent has mellowed Hayes, the tempestuous World War II historian who chews up sideline markers and spits them out whole. "I'm getting to be a grandfather figure to these guys," Woody grumbled not long ago. "I think sometimes we get along too well, that maybe I'm too nice to them."
Although the 61-year-old Hayes can still "land on you and get outrageous," as Quarterback Cornelius Greene marvelously describes it, there does seem to be crumbling at the edges of his brick-and-mortar exterior. The signs were there even before his June heart attack. "He's not yelling at us as much," one player says, "because he doesn't have to."
The Ohio State offense looks as if it could be even better than the one that placed fourth nationally in rushing last year and fifth in scoring. The rapid development of sophomore Pete Johnson at fullback hastened Elia's return to linebacker and keeps Champ Henson frustrated as the No. 2 man. Elia scored 14 touchdowns after Henson injured his knee early last season, and Champ, who has since recovered from surgery, was the nation's leading touchdown scorer two years ago. But Johnson scored three TDs in the 42-21 Rose Bowl win over Southern California and he gained 162 yards in the spring game. "He's the strongest running and best blocking fullback I've ever had," says Hayes, who has had some beauties.
Johnson is a devastating addition to a backfield that already includes Griffin, the quicksilver Greene and versatile Wingback Brian Baschnagel. Although Hicks is gone, the blocking front remains strong with All-Big Ten Tackle Kurt Schumacher and Center Steve Myers.
The defense, fourth overall and first against scoring last year, doesn't suffer from the reacquisition of Elia and the shifting of Arnie Jones, who also returns to linebacker after an outstanding year in the front four. "Playing fullback was kind of boring," says Elia. "On defense you never know where you'll be. I decided I liked defense better last year so I kept reminding the linebacker coach not to forget me."
Elia says the newest troika of linebackers will be "more physical than last year's. We make sure we hit somebody. Gradishar liked to finesse people. I like to smash them."
Defensive Tackle Cusick is no less aggressive. "There's nothing I enjoy more than hitting a halfback," he says with an odd sort of grin, "especially when he doesn't see me coming. It feels the best when he hits the ground and you have your helmet stuck in him." All-America End Van DeCree does not avoid contact either. The defense is not all blood and guts, however. Deep Back Neal Colzie scored four touchdowns last season and led the country's punt returners with 679 yards.
Striking power like that made Ohio State the No. I team for most of 1973 as it pulverized the opposition by more than five touchdowns a game before its celebrated 10-10 tie with Michigan. Given new life by a 6-4 vote of the conference athletic directors—a vote Hayes expected to go against him—the Buckeyes trounced the Trojans in Pasadena. "My greatest victory ever," Hayes said, but the damage had already been done. Just as in 1970 when a Rose Bowl loss to Stanford spoiled another certain national championship, Ohio State had let the big one get away.
"I'm getting too old to worry about those things," Hayes says unconvincingly. "They picked a team that hadn't lost, and we had a tie. But I'll say this"—and now his voice hardens—"there wasn't anybody better than us."
Hayes feels much the same about Griffin, "the best back we've ever had," he says, laying to rest any comparison you might want to make with Jim Otis or Hopalong Cassady. "Archiewas the best in the country last year and he'll be the best this year."
With his 4.5 speed, bullish upper torso and slithery moves. Griffin might well be. His career has been every bit as sensational as the 239 yards he gained in his freshman debut suggested it would be. But because Hayes' "button shoe" offense invariably lets the fullback carry inside an opponent's 10, Griffin has scored only 12 touchdowns in his career.
Archie is not one to complain, however. Nor did he object last May when a team "draft" put him behind the second offensive line and at the mercy of the first defensive front in the spring game. It was Hayes who expressed concern. "For some kids, that would be good." Woody said. "It would teach them a few things. But not Archie. He doesn't need it."
Griffin does seem to have proper hold on himself, perhaps the result of having three brothers who played college ball before he did. He speaks winningly of his linemen, his unrewarded substitute, Woody Roach, and especially his coach. Of the Buckeye offense he says, "If it's not gonna be me, it's gonna be Cornelius. And if it's not either of us, it's gonna be the fullback."
Whoever, or whatever, the result should be overpowering. Because they have finally added an 11th regular-season game, the Buckeyes could have their winningest season ever. If they do not, Woody is likely to land on somebody and get outrageous again.