COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -It was an especially long, cold winter for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
A relatively stress-free season for the Buckeyes, top-ranked since August, came down to a stunning, humiliating conclusion on Jan. 8 against Florida in the BCS national championship game.
It became an enduring black eye: Florida 41, Ohio State 14.
Now, while looking ahead to 2007, the Buckeyes still must shake the flashbacks from that final game.
``I don't think that there's any question in the back of everybody's mind - I mean, how does it not?'' defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said when asked whether the Florida game affects this year's squad. ``You'd be crazy to think that it doesn't. I don't know that there's many days that something doesn't come up that you think about it.''
The loss of so many well-known standouts from last year's team - Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Troy Smith, receivers Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn Jr., tailback Antonio Pittman, three defensive linemen, two starters in the secondary - may actually make it easier for the Buckeyes to purge those dreadful memories. At least that's the hope.
``I think they've probably been beat up enough. We're ready to move on,'' Heacock said of the returning players.
A year ago, the Buckeyes returned only two starters on defense but there were enough spare parts and budding stars around to come up with a stellar unit. This year the replacements are needed on the other side of the ball.
``Considering that everyone thinks we are about to be the worst team in the Big Ten on offense, it seems, we'll be all right,'' offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. ``I never get too high or too low about things. You know, 'We'll have to win every game 6-0 and kick two field goals and hopefully our defense throws a shutout.' I let things play out.''
The defense features All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, who had 115 tackles to win the Nagurski Award. Marcus Freeman is also back at linebacker, along with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and free safety Anderson Russell, who missed the second half of last year with a knee injury. Vernon Gholston is a force on the line.
``We wanted to shut out every team we played last year,'' Laurinaitis said. ``We didn't go into the games saying, 'Hey, we can relax a little bit because our offense is going to score 40-some points.'''
On the other side of the ball, the line appears to be a strength, where Barton, fellow tackle Alex Boone, guard Steve Rehring and tight end Rory Nichol are back. But there are question marks everywhere else.
Most notably at quarterback, where Todd Boeckman, Robbie Schoenhoft and Antonio Henton are vying for the job. Boeckman was No. 2 last year and has a slight edge, but don't be surprised if all three get to prove themselves against the Buckeyes' soft non-conference schedule (Youngstown State, Akron, Washington and Kent State).
``We have guys that you really haven't heard about who are waiting in the wings who are just as talented,'' Boeckman said. ``We recruit guys who are the best players in the country. They're just going to wait for their chance and hopefully they'll do a lot of great things for us this year.''
Chris ``Beanie'' Wells steps in for Pittman at tailback. He was one of the most acclaimed high school players in the country, then backed it up by rushing for 576 yards and seven TDs as a freshman.
Coach Jim Tressel seemed immune to criticism while rolling to a 62-13 record with a national championship in his six seasons leading up to the BCS final against Florida. But in the days immediately after, he was ripped by fans and talking heads for not having his team ready to play the Gators and not adjusting to what Florida was doing.
``I would think all of our people who came up short in a big opportunity will use that often,'' he said. ``It's a great reminder when you don't do as well as you can.''

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