Monday December 17th, 2007

Don't start with B-Hart.

Don't come around him with your unproven, unscientific assumptions about "collective team speed."

That was among the messages sent by the Ohio State wide receiver at the team's recent pre-bowl media scrum, where it became clear that while the Buckeyes prefer their new, underdog status going into this BCS title game against LSU, they're also sick and tired of hearing they have no business playing in it.

Brian Hartline is a redshirt sophomore who questions the reasoning behind one of college football's articles of faith: that SEC teams boast superior "overall team speed" to Big Ten squads.

That widely accepted generalization is the main reason used to explain the Buckeyes' no-show against Florida in the national title game last January. But Hartline isn't buying it. The Gators didn't crush them because they had more guys with better 40 times. Recall that the Buckeyes defense didn't yield serial big plays; his teammates weren't suffering windburn as Gators blew by them.

"We gave up long drives, and our offense couldn't do a darn thing," says Hartline, who caught 46 balls passes season, his first as a starter, for 619 yards and five TDs. With the exception of five sacks -- Hartline concedes the Gators defensive ends were damn quick -- "They didn't have big plays on us, and they took advantage of their opportunities."

Hartline is better qualified than most to compare the conferences: He's been over the issue a hundred times with his younger brother, Mike, the backup quarterback at Kentucky, one of the two teams to beat LSU this season. (Yes, B-Hart will be picking the brains of Wildcats players for a little extra help).

"The biggest thing I noticed watching Kentucky and Tennessee," says Brian, is that they play a lot of man[-to-man]" -- a high-risk, high-reward philosophy more conducive to big plays. "In the Big Ten, you see a ton of zone, they'll give up the short play" -- forcing teams to sustain long drives.

In Brian's opinion, "there's no huge" speed gap between the conferences in which he and his bro compete. The SEC has more spread offenses, more teams hustling to the line, going no-huddle.

"Do I think it's a faster paced game down in the SEC? Yeah," he says. "It's just a different kind of football." That doesn't mean SEC has faster players up and down its roster.

"We're fast, they're fast," he concludes. "Clock speed has nothing to do with the outcome of the game."

The contrariness of Hartline was of a piece with a general saltiness I discerned among the Buckeyes. Think about it: they've been hearing about the Florida wipeout for 11 months. Between now and Jan. 7, they will hear ad nauseam, in detail, how they are inferior to LSU, and why they have no hope against a club from the SEC (against whose teams, it bears noting, OSU is 0 for its last eight).

Imagine how sick of the subject they'll be by kickoff in the Superdome on Jan. 7.

One of themes of the press conferences was this: Things will be different this time around. They are already different.

Last year, star players -- notably Heisman quarterback winner Troy Smith -- allegedly lost a bit of their edge on the banquet circuit.

This year, there were fewer stars to attend fewer banquets. Linebacker James Laurinaitis went to five awards presentations -- he won the Butkus -- but didn't gain a pound, he assured reporters. He started the week at 245 and ended it at 245.

Essentially admitting that his team got stale in the 51 days before the BCS title game, coach Jim Tressel has ratcheted up conditioning. Sprinkled throughout practices is a new hardship: a series of sideline-to-sideline sprints called "LSU Tiger drills." In full pads, the players are required to finish these dashes as quickly as they did in the preseason -- when they ran them in shorts. "Believe me," says 6'8", 315-pound left tackle Alex Boone, "we're moving."

Last year the Buckeyes spent 10 days in Arizona before their meltdown in prime time. It was Ohio State's third visit to the Valley of the Sun -- and its inviting nightlife -- in four years. By last winter, the Buckeyes were very familiar with preferred nightspots. Too familiar, some suspect.

This year, the phrase of choice among Buckeyes is "business trip." In keeping with the new austerity, Ohio State will cut its time at the bowl site in half, arriving in New Orleans on Jan. 2 -- five days before kickoff. Until then, the bon temps will have to rouler without them.

The layoff is still absurd: 50 days. The biggest difference is that the boys in Scarlet and Gray won't be getting smoke blown up their backsides that entire time. The Buckeyes took the field against the Gators almost believing their success to be inevitable -- an attitude bordering on entitlement. As Boone recalls, "We had Troy, we had Teddy [Ginn], we had Gonzo" -- future first-rounder Anthony Gonzalez. The feeling, he recalls: "We have all these superstars, so, we'll pass block a little bit, we'll get the ball off, we'll jog up the field" to the new spot.

This time around, the Buckeyes are hearing how unworthy they are to play for the title, "how we're gonna get killed," says Boone. "You hear that for a month, you start getting pissed off."

Welcome to Florida's world, Ohio State. On the field after that 41-14 blowout last January, I was struck by how deeply many Gators had been offended by -- and drawn motivation from --predictions of a Buckeyes romp.

Being a 'dog has its benefits.

It's to the benefit of Boone and All-America right tackle Kirk Barton that the Tigers have no pass-rushers on a par with Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss, who combined for five sacks. (As offensive coordinator and O-line coach Jim Bollman emphasized to me, not all those sacks were the fault of his tackles. Whatever. There's no getting around the fact that they both had a bad day. As, in fact, did everyone.)

Inside, however, the Tigers will have monstrous talent Glenn Dorsey, the DT whose leg ailments, including a right knee sprained by a nasty chop block against Auburn on Oct. 20 -- should be healed by game time. Dorsey's presence is of more immediate concern to Ohio State's interior line: center Jim Cordle; guards Steve Rehring and Ben Person.

"Everybody doubts us, says we don't deserve to be here," admits shutdown corner Malcolm Jenkins. "They don't give us a chance. We feel comfortable in that role."

His message to football fans unhappy to see the Buckeyes back in the title contest? "Just watch the game."

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