- The Washington Times - Monday, January 7, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State bears the bulk of tonight’s title-game pressure.

Heading into last season’s BCS Championship game, the Buckeyes’ Jim Tressel had a lock on the tag as the college game’s best big game coach. The Scarlet and Gray were on the verge of their second title in five seasons. And the Big Ten was riding high, just six weeks removed from an showdown of unbeatens between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan.

What a difference a year makes.

Florida’s 41-14 decimation of the heavily favored Buckeyes marked a sea change in perception on the college football landscape. Suddenly, Saint Sweatervest had failed in the spotlight, Ohio State’s five-year run was diminished and the Big Ten was a plodding Model T when juxtaposed with the speed of the SEC.

Tonight, all of those profiles and stereotypes will be either revised or reaffirmed when the top-ranked Buckeyes (11-1) face favored No. 2 LSU (11-2) in the Superdome. For the Tigers, tonight’s opportunity marks something of a bonus boon. Given that this is his first trip to the title game, LSU coach Les Miles is unlikely to be judged too harshly for a loss, while a victory would give the Tigers two backdoor titles in five seasons, instantly making them the program du jour.

LSU is also in the enviable position of carrying the banner of the SEC without having to bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the league’s reputation. Given that LSU is just one of a number of SEC luminaries, sharing the national spotlight with perennial powers like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn, few would paint an LSU loss as indicative of the SEC’s inferiority to the Big Ten.

The same, however, cannot be said of an Ohio State loss.

“Yeah, after what happened last year, I think this game is huge for both our program and the Big Ten,” Ohio State offensive tackle Alex Boone said. “There’s no doubt that we have something to prove — for ourselves, Ohio State and our conference.”

Tressel has shied away from addressing the redemption angle this week with the media. But the message he sent to his team couldn’t have been any clearer. He presented each of his players with a Buckeyes-bashing motivational DVD and forced them to revisit the memory of 2007’s title game each time they have punched in the code to enter the Woody Hayes Athletic Center over the last year: 4-1-1-4.

“That stings every day,” sophomore tailback Chris Wells said.

And unlike LSU, Ohio State doesn’t have a half-dozen other pillars sharing the weight of its league’s reputation.

Fellow Big Ten mega-power Michigan is a program in transition; perhaps new coach Rich Rodriguez will restore its dominance, but the lasting image of the 2007 season likely will be Appalachian State’s upset of the Wolverines. Elsewhere at the top of the league, Penn State is backsliding under aging Joe Paterno, Southern California embarrassed Illinois in the Rose Bowl and Wisconsin fell 21-17 to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.

Make no mistake, tonight’s game is crucial to the Big Ten’s prestige. Public perception resonates with the blue-chip recruits who drive the game, whether that perception is accurate or not.

“When I watch Ohio State on film, I see a very fast, very tough team,” LSU All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey said. “I don’t know what everyone is talking about because those guys can move.”

Wells concurs: “The speed myth is [nonsense]. I guarantee you nobody on their defensive line is any faster than [Ohio State defensive linemen] Lawrence Wilson or Vernon Gholston. We can’t say much because we stunk last year against Florida. But it’s a little ridiculous for people to [generalize] about entire teams and conferences based on one game.”

Ohio State can put the kibosh on all that talk if it can upset the SEC champions tonight in what promises to be a virtual LSU home game. And it would be an upset. The Tigers are deeper, more talented, more balanced, start more upperclassmen (18 to 14) and have played a tougher schedule.

And perhaps most importantly, LSU is completely healthy for the first time since their third game of the season. In the two season-opening games in which they were completely healthy, the Tigers decimated bowl-bound Mississippi State 45-0 in Starkville and demolished ACC champion Virginia Tech 48-7 in Baton Rouge.

“We haven’t all been on the field at full strength in forever,” Dorsey said. “It should be fun to see what we can accomplish with all our weapons blazing. It’s going to take an awful lot of serious to keep us away from that crystal.”

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