Last year, there was little doubt Ohio State belonged in the BCS title game - even after the Buckeyes were stunningly routed by Florida, the team whose selection was hotly debated leading up to the contest.
Ohio State is back in the championship game this season, and the Buckeyes hardly care that some feel they're only making the repeat trip due to luck.
Hungry to avenge last season's lopsided loss, No. 1 Ohio State (11-1) takes on second-ranked LSU (11-2) on Jan. 7 at the Louisiana Superdome, a championship matchup fitting in a season of stunning upsets and the lack of a clearly dominant team.
Top-ranked and undefeated heading into last season's BCS championship game at Glendale, Ariz., the Buckeyes were content to stay out of the fray as fans and media argued over the selection of the Gators to oppose Ohio State. Many observers felt Michigan, which suffered its only loss to the Buckeyes in its season finale at Columbus, deserved the spot, and Florida coach Urban Meyer's bold campaigning for his team only increased the rancor of the Gators' detractors.
Once the game was played, however, Ohio State found itself squarely in the spotlight, and not for positive reasons. The hungrier Gators used overwhelming speed to pound Ohio State 41-14, more than justifying their presence in the game.
A year later, Ohio State hopes it's learned from the experience. Perhaps the most important lesson the Buckeyes hope to take away will be how to better manage another long layoff between games.
Because the Big Ten doesn't play a conference championship game, Ohio State had 51 days between its win over Michigan and the matchup with Florida. The Gators, meanwhile, were off for 36 days after defeating Arkansas in the SEC championship game.
"Last year we did get complacent," said Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis, one of the leaders of an Ohio State defense that easily topped the nation with 10.7 points allowed per game. "We felt we were invincible. We have a lot of guys on this team that know what it takes to get it done.
"We're not looking at last year at all. It's over with. This is a great opportunity for us."
Unlike last season, however, coach Jim Tressel's team is likely to spend some of that extended downtime - Ohio State again gets 51 days between its 14-3 win over Michigan in its season finale and this game - answering some questions about whether the Buckeyes truly earned the trip to New Orleans, or if they were just fortunate.
The Buckeyes' hopes of making that trip seemed to disappear Nov. 10, when they were stunned 28-21 at home by Illinois. While Ohio State rebounded to beat the Wolverines at Ann Arbor the next week, it was ranked fifth in the next BCS standings, leaving the Buckeyes with seemingly no chance of making the title game.
In a college football season of upsets, however, the lack of a conference title game benefited the Buckeyes this time. Ohio State sat back and watched as the schools ahead of it - LSU, Kansas, West Virginia and Missouri - each suffered another loss.
The Buckeyes saw their return to the championship game secured on the final weekend, when No. 1 Missouri fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game and second-ranked West Virginia suffered a shocking home loss to a Pittsburgh team that finished 5-7.
When the final BCS standings came out, the Buckeyes sat at No. 1, having climbed from the third spot past Missouri and West Virginia. Perhaps because it was overwhelmed by Florida last year, Ohio State seemed immediately aware of how it would be viewed during the extended layoff.
"We understand that people are going to question (us) about last year and people are going to remember that," Laurinaitis said. "People are really going to question how legit we are as a team going into this game. That's something that's just a real issue, a real fact. We can't change that. We just have to prepare the best that we can and go down there and play the best we can."
While Ohio State's selection invited some scrutiny, LSU's appearance has also been debated. The Tigers made an even longer climb up the BCS ladder, rising from seventh to second in the final standings. Voters rewarded the Tigers for their rough SEC schedule and winning their conference, along with the fact that both of LSU's losses came in triple overtime.
However, in returning to the title game for the first time since the 2004 Sugar Bowl - which they won 21-14 over Oklahoma - the Tigers will become the first team with two losses to play in the BCS championship game.
"It is something a lot of guys never thought we would have the opportunity to have after we lost to Arkansas (50-48 on Nov. 23), but the guys just kept on fighting and controlled the things they could control and now we are going on to play in the championship," LSU safety Craig Steltz said.
Many observers didn't understand why LSU should be able to do that, as it won out over several teams including Oklahoma, USC and Georgia for the spot.
"The brass ring was there for a lot of different teams to grab it," SEC commissioner and BCS coordinator Mike Slive said. "Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't, and when they didn't it allowed two teams that were seen as two of the better teams in the country early in the year to find their way back."
Sound reasoning or not, fans are left with what should be a compelling matchup. While Ohio State was known last season for offensive stars such as Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and running back Antonio Pittman, the team's formidable defense is the biggest reason why the Buckeyes are back in the title game this season.
Ohio State allowed only 222.5 yards per contest and limited seven teams to single digits in points and 11 to two touchdowns or less. Laurinaitis led the unit with five sacks, two interceptions and 103 tackles, cornerback Malcolm Jenkins had a team-best three INTs and tackle Vernon Gholston had 13 sacks.
That defense should be tested by a high-powered LSU offense that averaged 38.7 points - 12th-most in the nation. The Tigers topped the 40-point mark seven times in 2007 and defeated six ranked teams.
LSU employs a two-quarterback system of Matt Flynn, who threw for 2,233 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and Ryan Perrilloux, who had 694 yards passing, eight TDs and two INTs. Those players combined to rush for 410 yards, bolstering a ground game led by 1,017-yard rusher Jacob Hester, Keiland Williams (458 yards), Trindon Holliday (351) and Charles Scott (318).
Brandon LaFell (641 yards), Demetrius Byrd (593) and Early Doucet (474) headline a deep receiving corps.
LSU should also benefit from being able to focus solely on this game - something it may not have been able to claim until last week, when coach Les Miles signed a contract extension through 2012 to end speculation that he would leave to take over at Michigan.
"I can promise you we're at the task at hand," he said.
Part of that task will involve stopping a sometimes-overlooked Ohio State offense that averaged 32.0 points. The Buckeyes are led by steady quarterback Todd Boeckman, who completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,171 yards, 23 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Chris Wells powered the ground game with 1,463 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Brian Robiskie paced Ohio State with 885 receiving yards and 10 TDs.
The Buckeyes will certainly spend some of their time off searching for a way to handle LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who beat out Laurinaitis to win the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, awarded to the nation's top defensive player.
Dorsey had six sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for a loss despite being hampered by a sore knee late in the season, and he leads a unit that gave up 19.6 points per game - 20th in the nation.
Ohio State seeks its fifth national championship and first since knocking off Miami in double overtime in the 2003 Orange Bowl. LSU, which shared the national title with consensus No. 1 USC in 2003, seeks its third championship.
The Buckeyes and Tigers have met twice, not since 1987, with Ohio State holding a 1-0-1 edge.
by: Staff Writers - Email Us
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