Ohio State football faces challenges

What will the Big Ten do for an encore?

CHICAGO -- When the Big Ten staged its annual kickoff festivities in Chicago last summer, its football coaches faced some pointed questions about whether the conference ever would win a Bowl Championship Series title. Four BCS games had been played, and the mighty Big Ten had failed to make an appearance.

One local sports reporter, who shall remain nameless, wrote a story asking if the league ever would play for a BCS title, let alone win one. The article was headlined "The Big When."

"When" turned out to be Jan. 3, 2003. The Ohio State Buckeyes upset top-ranked Miami in a two-overtime Fiesta Bowl thriller that will go down as one of the great games in major-college football history. And now the Pac-10 is unquestionably the best (and only) BCS conference that hasn't won a title.

Ohio State's triumph has given Big Ten fans the ultimate answer for anyone knocking the conference. But at the same time it has raised new questions as the league's coaches and players descend this week on the Hyatt Regency, bringing football weather with them for its 2003 kickoff meetings.


What will the Big Ten do for an encore? And can Ohio State become the first school to repeat as national champion since Nebraska in 1995?

With every starter returning on offense and most on defense, the Buckeyes appear loaded as they prepare to open their title defense against Washington on Aug. 30 in Ohio Stadium.

But at the moment Ohio State faces more pressing concerns than the Huskies, whose head coach answers to the initials "TBA." In a July 13 story in the New York Times, an unidentified teaching assistant went public with charges of academic fraud within the Ohio State program. The story alleged star tailback Maurice Clarett was allowed

to take an oral final exam, which he passed, after he walked out on a midterm and did not show up for the final given to the rest of an introductory African-American and African studies class.

The professor who passed Clarett said several football players told her tutors had written papers for them, although she had no proof.

The story created a firestorm in Columbus. The university has formed a panel to investigate any academic fraud allegations and to determine whether athletes receive preferential treatment in classes.

Of course, the Ohio State football team's 36 percent graduation rate over a recent four-year period would lead one to believe the Buckeyes aren't receiving nearly enough help with their classwork.

It took Ohio State only six months to go from the Fiesta Bowl to the fish bowl. As one player put it last week, no one would have bothered to ask about academics if the Buckeyes had gone to the Citrus Bowl, say.


While that may or may not be the case, there's no doubt the Buckeyes will find the limelight a bit warm here this week. But they aren't the only team facing questions as the 2003 Big Ten season looms.

Is Michigan still eligible for the Rose Bowl? It's a fair question. The Wolverines have celebrated the New Year in Pasadena only once in the last 10 years, and they haven't played in the Rose Bowl in five years, their longest drought since the early 1960s. With three Citrus Bowl trips in the last five years, Michigan loyalists are getting tired of Orlando. Maybe "M" really stands for "Mickey Mouse."

Put it this way: Michigan hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since the last century.

Is Indiana bowl-bound this year? Unlike the Wolverines, the Hoosiers would love to go to the Citrus Bowl. Or any bowl. The Hoosiers' nine-season postseason drought is the longest in the league.

Will Minnesota finally make their move? After a stunning win over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl last year, the Gophers are optimistic they can play in a more significant bowl this season.

Who is going to direct Michigan State's jazzed-up offense? New head coach John L. Smith, an acclaimed offensive mastermind, needs to find a trigger man. Officialdy, suspended three-year starter Jeff Smoker is listed as second-string. But Smith seems optimistic that the skilled veteran will be able to return from drug rehabilitation.

Andrew Bagnato is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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