Can Urban Meyer indeed pull a rabbit out of the OSU hat in his first season with the Buckeyes? The rabbit’s not the same ol’ hare, and the hat’s a little dusty. And by the way, suddenly they’re wearing a brand new hat at the school ‘Up North’.
Politics, it’s long been said, makes strange bedfellows.
Not as strange, it appears, as journalism.
With Ohio State’s annual Scarlet and Gray game approaching on Saturday, tens of thousands of Buckeye faithful who will cram into Ohio Stadium for that somnambulant spectacle will undoubtedly be emboldened by the current issue of Sports Illustrated and its kissy-face tribute to new OSU coach Urban Meyer.
This is, of course, the same Sports Illustrated whose subscriber base took a precipitous plunge throughout the Buckeye State when a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer dared smudge the shine on Jim Tressel’s halo.
That SI expose last May soon ushered Tressel out the door and sent the Buckeyes spiraling toward a 6-7 finish that wrapped up with a Gator Bowl loss to Meyer’s former squad at Florida.
It’s been all sunshine and balloons for the Football Buckeyes since then, starting with Meyer’s hiring, his flipping of recruits from rival schools at a rate a fry cook would envy and now the impending unveiling of his first set of charges plotting the pillaging of the Big Ten.
Oh, sure, there’s the nagging reality that OSU can’t parlay its inevitable success in Meyer’s first season into any sort of bowl bid. But not even that lingering NCAA sanction from the Tressel cesspool can suppress the swoon factor over all things Urban.
As SI notes, the bloated Buckeyes of last year have since lost a collective 457 pounds of blubber and added 500 pounds of combined muscle to the roster. Jenny Craig, it appears, has nothing on Meyer’s regally-titled Assistant Athletic Director for Football Sports Performance (translation: strength coach) Mickey Marotti, who’s pulling down $380,000 annually for plying his expertise on the finer points of the squat-thrust.
So, expect a leaner, meaner and hopefully cleaner (when it comes to tattoos and black-market memorabilia sales) version of the Buckeyes this fall.
Meyer’s biggest challenge will be killing the tsunami of optimism that rides shotgun with his rock-star status. The man is named after a former pope and has the aura among OSU faithful of the Messiah. It therefore follows that they expect him to author a resurrection of the six straight Big Ten titles and 9-1 mastery of arch-rival Michigan that Cheaty McSweatervest manufactured until his house of cards came tumbling down.
But for all his considerable magic winning two national titles at Florida and compiling an unbeaten season at Utah, Meyer hasn’t yet shown the ability to conjure capable skill players out of thin air. While quarterback Braxton Miller showed flashes of promise last year, he nevertheless directed the nation’s 115th-ranked passing offense and will be exposed to greater physical risk running a no-huddle, zone-read attack.
Miller can’t look to even one returning receiver who had as many as 15 catches a year ago, and the backfield isn’t overpopulated with candidates to supply the first 1,000-yard rusher of Meyer’s entire head coaching career.
It is a disservice to demand he therefore make all of the residual weaknesses that led to OSU’s sub-.500 finish in 2011 immediately disappear. More talent must be attracted, and Meyer’s system given time to soak in, before any OSU loyalist can realistically expect a return to what Tressel conditioned them to believe was their annual birthright.
He claimed his lone national title 10 years ago in an era when there was no Big Ten championship game to win and – as is coming soon – no national semi-final standing in the way of a trip to the BCS title game.
Little Jimmy’s legend also grew amid an era when Michigan transitioned from a tired Lloyd Carr to an inept Rich Rodriguez.
Now, the Wolverines appear energized under Brady Hoke, coming off their own BCS bowl triumph a year ago. Hoke has a senior quarterback in Denard Robinson that Miller appears a year or two away from matching in dual-threat brilliance.
Hoke has also parlayed his smashing debut season into 17 commitments from highly-rated recruits, seven of which play their high school football in Ohio.
Meyer, conversely, has just 10 commitments, only half of which come from within the borders he is supposed to rule.
Hoke’s commitments include a pair from the top two linebackers in Ohio, including Michael McCray of Trotwood Madison, whose father played for OSU in 1987 when Meyer was a graduate assistant.
Clearly, Hoke views Meyer’s arrival in Columbus as a call to arms, not a temptation to surrender.
But then, maybe Brady hasn’t pulled his Sports Illustrated out of the mailbox just yet.
Bruce Hooley is a former sports editor of the Troy Daily News. He hosts The Hooligans on ESPN 850 WKNR in Cleveland. Follow Bruce on Twitter @bhoolz or email hoolz@ESPNCleveland.com