It should be easy to scratch Ohio State from this season's list
of national championship contenders solely on the grounds that
eight Buckeyes starters of a year ago were drafted by the NFL.
Among the stars that departed from Columbus were: linebacker
Andy Katzenmoyer, Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Antoine
Winfield, wideouts David Boston and Dee Miller, who combined for
2,217 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, and quarterback Joe
Germaine, who threw for 3,108 yards. Given such colossal losses,
one could look at last year's team, the most talent-laden in
coach John Cooper's 11-year tenure, and conclude that Ohio State
blew its chance at a title. But before you strike the Buckeyes
too quickly, remember what happened in 1996.
That year Ohio State overcame the losses of Heisman Trophy
winner Eddie George, Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver Terry
Glenn and quarterback Bobby Hoying to go 11-1, beat Arizona
State in the Rose Bowl and come within a loss to Michigan of
winning the national title. The Buckeyes think they are up to
the challenge again.
"I hope people overlook us, because if they do we'll surprise a
lot of them," says senior tailback Michael Wiley. "Sure we lost
some great players from last year's team, but everyone in our
program is replaceable. We lost Shawn Springs [in 1997] and
Antoine Winfield came in and won the Thorpe. We lost Eddie George
and Pepe Pearson stepped up. When Pepe left, it was my turn.
There is never any panic around here. Every year we lose great
players; this year it so happens we have to replace a few more.
We have so many potential stars who are just waiting for their
While it's true that Ohio State has not been short on talent in
recent years, the Buckeyes are still searching for their first
national championship since 1968. Last season they were the
top-ranked team in the country for 10 weeks and defeated
Michigan for just the second time in their last 11 tries. Two
weeks before that victory, however, at home against Michigan
State, they squandered a 15-point lead and suffered a 28-24 loss
that cost them a shot at the title. They finished second in the
nation for the second time in three years.
Nearly every day during workouts this summer, junior linebacker
Na'il Diggs thought about how close Ohio State had come to
winning the title and how he and his teammates had felt after
the loss to the Spartans. "We were on top of the world and took
Michigan State like just another team," he said. "I'll never
forget how awful it felt to lose. After being Number 1 for so
long and falling the way we did, everybody is hungry to get back
to the top. Last year the only place we could go was down. This
year we're going to have to fight to get to Number 1."
To make a strong run at this season's title, Ohio State must
find a quarterback. Steve Bellisari, last year's special teams
co-player of the year, heads into summer camp with a small edge
over fellow sophomore Austin Moherman, who is not as athletic
but throws a better ball. Cooper says he doesn't want to
alternate quarterbacks, as he did with Germaine and Stanley
Jackson in 1996 and '97, but both will probably see action in
the first couple of games. Whoever ends up behind center will
have the luxury of a veteran offensive line and a pair of deep
threats. Receivers Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo could be as
dangerous a duo as Boston and Miller. There's also the option of
giving the ball to Wiley, a crafty runner with breakaway speed
who ran for 1,147 yards last season--averaging 6.3 yards per
carry--to become Ohio State's fifth 1,000-yard rusher in six
"Right now my biggest concern is making sure we're not
one-dimensional," says Cooper. "I know we can run the ball, but
we must find a passing attack. Otherwise we'll be running uphill."
On the other side of the ball, seven starters are back from a
unit that ranked second in the nation in total defense in '98.
The front is intact, as is half of a secondary that produced 17
interceptions. Though Katzenmoyer left early and was drafted
with the 28th pick by the New England Patriots, the Buckeyes
have another stud in Diggs, who was All-Big Ten last season. The
6'4", 230-pound linebacker was second on the team with 74
tackles, six of them sacks. He had one interception, forced one
fumble and returned another fumble for a touchdown. "As far as
I'm concerned, nothing has changed around here," says Diggs. "We
expect to dominate every game, no matter who we put on the field."
As it did in 1996, Ohio State opens in the Kickoff Classic, this
time against Miami. The Buckeyes also face UCLA and Wisconsin in
the first half of the season and have road games at Penn State,
Michigan State and Michigan. Given that schedule, Cooper isn't
predicting a national title, but he isn't ruling one out either.
"Last year's team was the best team I've ever been a part of,"
he says, "but to win a national championship, a lot of things
have to happen. You have to get some breaks, dodge some bullets
and have everything fall into place. Look at what Tennessee did
Ohio State in this season's national championship game? It could
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Ride 'em, Buckeye Diggs proved that he has a nose for the ball by making 74 tackles and six sacks last season.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER High-stepping Leading the ground attack will be breakaway threat Wiley, who rushed for 1,147 yards as a junior.
1998 record: 10-1 (7-1, tied for 1st in Big Ten)
Final ranking: No. 2 AP, No. 2 coaches' poll
1998 Averages Scoring Rushing Passing Total
Yards Yards Yards
OFFENSE 36.9 198.6 304.9 503.5
DEFENSE 11.8 67.4 190.4 257.7
Coach: John Cooper
12th year at Ohio St. (97-33-4); Career Division I-A rec.:
WR Reggie Germany[*] Jr. Four TDs as a reserve
LT Tyson Walter Jr. Sat out spring game with bad back
LG Mike Gurr[*] Jr. Replaces NFL draftee Rob Murphy
C Kurt Murphy Sr. Led team with 284 minutes on field
RG Ben Gilbert Sr. Buckeyes' lineman of the year
RT Henry Fleming[*] Jr. Has battled chronic ankle injury
TE Steve Wisniewski[*]Sr. Related to baseball's Kiki Cuyler
WR Ken-Yon Rambo[*] Jr. Star kick returner gets to start
QB Steve Bellisari[*] So. Southpaw completed 3 of 5 passes
RB Michael Wiley Sr. 6.3 rushing avg. for 1,147 yards
FB Matt Keller Sr. Career: 521 rushing yds., 52 catches
K Dan Stultz Jr. Made 28 of 50 FGs first two years
LE Brent Johnson Jr. Led Buckeyes with seven sacks
LT Ryan Pickett So. Started 8 games as true freshman
RT Joe Brown Jr. Played with steel plate in thumb
RE Rodney Bailey Jr. Ten tackles for loss and five sacks
OLB Na'il Diggs Jr. Second on team in tackles with 74
MLB Chris Kirk[*] Sr. May platoon with soph. Jason Ott
OLB Courtland Bullard[*]So. Got medical redshirt for bad groin
CB Ahmed Plummer Sr. Four interceptions led the team
SS Percy King Sr. Has blocked 3 kicks in his career
FS Gary Berry[*] Sr. 11 solo tackles in Sugar Bowl
CB Nate Clements[*] So. Making transition from nickelback
P B.J. Sander[*] Fr. Made Ohio H.S. record 60-yd. FG
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1998 season.
Schedule strength: 22nd of 114
Aug. 29 vs. Miami
In 1995, George began his successful Heisman Trophy campaign in
the Buckeyes' Kickoff Classic victory over Boston College. Wiley
could do the same here.
Nov. 20 at Michigan
Last year Ohio State beat the Wolverines for the second time in
11 tries. We sense a new trend.
The Bottom Line
If Bellisari or Moherman develops a hot hand at quarterback, the
Buckeyes could become this season's Tennessee.