Top 50 Countdown: No. 10 Ohio State

Coach: Jim Tressel | Staff
In 2006: 12-1, 8-0; Lost to Florida 41-14 in BCS national championship game.
Returning starters: Offense: 5. Defense: 6.
Key losses: QB Troy Smith, RB Antonio Pittman, WR Ted Ginn Jr., WR Anthony Gonzalez; DT Quinn Pitcock
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Even though two-time 1,000-yard rusher Antonio Pittman is gone, the Buckeyes may actually have an upgrade with former five-star RB Chris Wells taking over. They will need him to be as good as advertised with a new QB taking over for departed Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and game-breaking receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez gone to the NFL. On the good side, the offensive line has an impressive pair of bookends at T and again projects to be among the Big Ten's best.

OHIO STATE TOP 10
James Laurinaitis exploded onto the scene in his first year as a starter, leading the Buckeyes in tackles and interceptions.

1.LB James Laurinaitis
2.DB Vernon Gholston
3.CB Malcolm Jenkins
4.RB Chris Wells
5.T Kirk Barton
6.LB Marcus Freeman
7.DE Lawrence Wilson
8.WR Brian Robiskie
9.T Alex Boone
10.LB Larry Grant
Best player: RB Chris Wells had a solid freshman year with almost 600 rushing yards as Antonio Pittman's backup. Now in the starting lineup, expect his rushing total to at least double.

Most overrated: A former five-star prospect, OT Alex Boone has been solid, but unspectacular and has struggled at times. He has had off-field issues, too.

Most underrated: WR Brian Hartline was easily overlooked last season as teammates Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie demanded so much attention. Hartline ranked just fourth on the team with 17 receptions, but his 15.1-yard average per catch was better than any of the others.

Must step up: Wells has to be as good as expected. The running game must carry the load until the rebuilt offense clicks if it does.

Impact newcomer: Four-star running back prospect Brandon Saine won't take Wells' job, but may be able to get some significant carries as Wells' backup.

Shoes to fill: All QB Todd Boeckman has to do is replace the Heisman Trophy winner. No pressure there.

Battle to watch: Although junior Boeckman is listed as the Buckeyes' No. 1 QB, sophomore Rob Schoenhoft isn't far behind. Neither has much playing experience, though Boeckman has had three years in the system. Schoenhoft has a little stronger arm, but needs to develop more touch on his passes.

New in 2007: What isn't new? The Buckeyes lost their leading rusher, their leading passer and their top two receivers. Look for a more of a possession-type offense with longer drives and fewer big plays. At least, that figures to be the case early.

Grade the units:
QB: Incomplete. Boeckman and Schoenhoft have played so little at the collegiate level that neither warrants a grade.
RB: B-plus. Chris Wells has All-American potential and backup Maurice Wells has excellent speed. Saine could also be a factor.
WR/TE: B-minus. Although losing three receivers, the Buckeyes still have great potential there. Robiskie and Hartline must prove they can get open against the opponents' best defenders. Ray Small has to emerge as a productive deep threat.
OL: B. Boone and Kirk Barton are an excellent set of Ts and Steve Rehring is a returning starter at G. The line will have two new starters, but junior G Ben Person is experienced in the program.

Breaking down the defense

Overview:

Best player: MLB James Laurinaitis established himself in a big way. In his first season as a starter he earned All-American acclaim while leading the Buckeyes in tackles and interceptions. He was the Nagurski Award recipient and a finalist for the Butkus and Bednarik awards.

Ohio State Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 8 Akron
Sept. 15 at Washington
Sept. 22 Northwestern
Sept. 29 at Minnesota
Oct. 6 at Purdue
Oct. 13 Kent State
Oct. 20 Michigan State
Oct. 27 at Penn State
Nov. 3 Wisconsin
Nov. 10 Illinois
Nov. 17 at Michigan
Most overrated: Once a four-star recruit, S Jamario O'Neal moved into the starting lineup halfway through last season and was serviceable as a starting safety. He had 30 tackles and one interception.

Most underrated: The Buckeyes' next standout DE, Vernon Gholston, doesn't often get mentioned among the nation's best at his position and was only a second team All-Big Ten selection a year ago even though he has All-American potential. Last season he had 15 tackles for losses and 8 1/2 sacks.

Shoes to fill: Big Doug Worthington moved from DE to DT for depth purposes a year ago. Now, he'll move into the starting lineup to replace departed All-American Quinn Pitcock.

Who must perform: Sophomore CB Donald Washington will see his role increase from nickelback to starting corner. With All-Big Ten CB Malcolm Jenkins on the other side, every opponent will test Washington.

Impact newcomer: Four-star CB prospect Gene Clifford has excellent size and speed. He figures to get a shot to play right away as a backup and in nickel packages.

Position battle: Larry Grant came on strong in the spring at strongside LB, but he must beat out Curtis Terry, who made three starts last season.

New in 2007: The defensive line will have three new starters, and their performance will either enhance or compromise Laurinaitis' effectiveness.

Grade the units:
DL: A-minus: Although Gholston is the only returning starter he is a pass-rushing fiend. Also, look for Lawrence Wilson to emerge as another effective pass rusher. The potential at DT is there, too.
LB: A: The Buckeyes' starters will be among the best in the nation, and there is good depth.
DB: B-minus: Jenkins is a premier CB, but the Buckeyes need more consistent play from the safeties.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: The kicking game will be one of the Buckeyes' primary assets. K Aaron Pettrey has range beyond 50 yards and P A.J. Trapasso boots them high and far. Ohio State usually has an explosive return game. Will Ray Small continue that trend?

Season outlook with bowl forecast
The schedule is perfect for a rebuilding offense. The Buckeyes open with Division I-AA Youngstown State, and only one (Purdue) of their next seven opponents is coming off a winning season. By the time they play at Penn State on Oct. 27, Boeckman or Schoenhoft should have settled in at QB and the Buckeyes will be primed for a difficult final month. Count on the Buckeyes to again contend for the Big Ten championship, but they'll likely finish in the Citrus or Outback bowl.
Best player: Trapasso had a solid 41-yard average last season, but even more impressive only 15 of his 49 punts were returned for a mere 2.1-yard average.

Grade the units:
K: B-plus: Pettrey converted twice from beyond 50 yards. However, one of his three misses in 11 attempts was inside 30 yards. Still, he had a very good freshman season and figures to get better.
P: A-minus: Trapasso has twice finished sixth in overall punting and third in net punting in the Big Ten rankings. He has had 36 of his career 92 punts (40 percent) killed inside the 20-yard line.
KR: B: The Buckeyes' return teams are frequently strong. Of course, they often have a dangerous return man. Give a nod for history and the potential of sophomore Ray Small or incoming four-star RB prospects Brandon Saine and Daniel Herron as effective return men.
PR: B: See above.

Breaking down the coaching

Overview: Ohio State hasn't often been among the nation's offensive leaders and at times has slipped in the national defensive rankings, but in six seasons under coach Jim Tressel the Buckeyes have posted double-digit victory totals four times. Perhaps more telling, under Tressel and his staff the Buckeyes are 19-9 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Subtract his first season in Columbus and that figures improves to 17-5 (77 percent).

Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A: Tressel is 62-14 in six seasons in Columbus which includes a national championship and a loss in the national championship game. Also, he's 5-1 against Michigan.
Offense: B: Last season Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who also serves as the line coach, supervised a unit that averaged 34.6 points and 384.5 yards per game. They're not always that productive, though. In 2002 they averaged only 364.5 yards per game. Of course, they won the national championship that year, too.
Defense: A-minus: A longtime defensive line coach, Jim Heacock was named defensive coordinator in 2005 and the Buckeyes allowed fewer than 282 yards in both seasons. Yeah, they've had great talent, but someone has to steer those horses.
Special teams: B-plus: The staff shares special-teams responsibilities, and the punting, kicking and return teams are usually an area of strength.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 9.

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