COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -This wasn't the way the season was supposed to go for Ohio State.
The offense was gutted by graduation and early defections to the NFL. The defense had a rebuilt line and new faces at half the slots in the secondary and at linebacker. The quarterback had never started a game, and neither had the tailback. The place-kicker was a seldom-used, 27-year-old walk-on from South Africa.
Yet Ohio State finds itself exactly where it was a year ago: ranked No. 1 and headed to the Bowl Championship Series title game.
What a strange, wonderful trip it's been.
``We knew we definitely could (get back),'' quarterback Todd Boeckman said. ``A lot of people were doubting us. We put that to good use. We used that as bulletin-board material. We had great leaders coming back in the seniors and some of the underclassmen, and a lot of guys stepped up and we had a great year.''
Buckeyes fans say their team filled in the holes and slowly crescendoed to a strong finish. Critics say Ohio State played cream puffs and benefited because no one else in the nation seemed able to win a meaningful game.
Either way, almost no one would have foreseen what took place.
``Nothing surprises you in football,'' coach Jim Tressel said.
There isn't much debate that the Buckeyes had talent coming back. A good place to start is a first-team All-American at linebacker, where James Laurinaitis was a cornerstone with 103 tackles. Defensive end Vernon Gholston had been hampered by injuries but dominated up front with 13 sacks.
Even though wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez left early for the NFL, ``the two Brians'' as the coaching staff calls them - Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline - stepped in and there was little or no falloff.
Tailback Antonio Pittman also gave up his senior season to move to the pros, taking with him back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Chris ``Beanie'' Wells, plagued by ``fumbleitis'' as a freshman, moved in and got stronger as the season progressed, finishing with 1,463 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Last and certainly not least, gone was Troy Smith, last year's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, who graduated and is now with the NFL's Baltimore Ravens.
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 11 in the preseason Associated Press media poll. They gradually worked their way up the rankings and moved into the top spot for the first time the same weekend they were crowned No. 1 in the initial BCS standings, on Oct. 14.
They stayed that way for four weeks before losing 28-21 to unranked Illinois at home on Nov. 10, plummeting to No. 7 in the BCS rankings.
The players were already talking about how costly the defeat was and how they hoped to salvage the season by winning their regular-season finale against rival Michigan in The Big House. But then, much as they had climbed the ladder in the AP poll, the Buckeyes were there to take advantage when the six teams in front of them - LSU, Oregon, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and West Virginia - each lost at least one more game.
``After the Illinois loss we thought our chances were pretty much down the drain,'' Boeckman said. ``It's been crazy. What'd we drop to? Seventh? Having six teams lose in front of you, that's kind of unreal the last two weeks of the season.''
Yet that's exactly what happened.
After beating Michigan 14-3, Ohio State was up to fifth in the BCS but still was a long shot to pass three teams to get into the title game. After all, how do you make up that much ground without playing a game?
A week later, the Buckeyes moved to third when LSU lost to Arkansas and Kansas fell to top-ranked Missouri.
Needing only to win to get into the BCS championship game, both Missouri (to Oklahoma) and West Virginia (to Pittsburgh) lost on Dec. 1, opening the door for Ohio State to ascend to the top spot and LSU to sneak past Missouri, West Virginia, Georgia, Kansas and Virginia Tech in the final week to grab the other berth at the Superdome.
Even the Buckeyes seem amazed to find themselves in the title game.
``The biggest thing is just how hard it is to get back there, especially after we lost to Illinois,'' offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. ``We knew we needed some help. It was painful watching those (other contenders') games because you don't control your fate anymore. That's the hardest part of football.''
Tressel was asked if he ever fathomed his team could be where it is after falling so far in the BCS.
``I didn't have time. Fathoming takes a lot of time. We were busy working,'' he said with a grin. ``As we said all along, we thought this team had talent. We didn't hide our belief in that. But we also knew we didn't have experience. You never know what's going to happen.''
Never have those last words been more true in college football.

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