NEW ORLEANS – Offensive linemen usually toil in obscurity, overshadowed by backs and receivers and virtually ignored by everyone.
Ohio State's group should be so lucky.
Instead, for much of the past year, the Buckeyes' linemen have been analyzed and scrutinized after getting victimized and demoralized in last season's 41-14 title-game loss to Florida. Gators defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey charged like ornery bulls, and Ohio State's line offered the resistance of a waving red cape.
The Buckeyes were knocked for being too slow, as if they played with weights strapped around their ankles. Critics suggested they never made adjustments and lined up square rather than at a slight angle, which might have helped tackles Kirk Barton and Alex Boone get into better position to slow down the rush off the edge.
Whether those critiques were accurate really doesn't matter. The bottom line: The Buckeyes allowed five sacks for 51 yards in losses, and that was with elusive Heisman winner Troy Smith at quarterback.
The Buckeyes have returned to the championship game with much of the same line protecting the less-nimble Todd Boeckman, and they'll be trying to hold off an LSU pass rush that has produced 32 sacks.
So does this set up another running of the bulls?
Not necessarily. The Buckeyes feel they've improved up front – they absolutely had to with Boeckman starting for the first time this season – and this is their chance to prove it once and for all.
"In every game, you feel like the most important part of the game is up front, protection-wise and run blocking," said Barton, who earned All-America acclaim this season. "But the passing game can't be efficient without good protection. It's impossible.
"It's something that we focused on this entire year because we had a new quarterback and we had to make sure he was comfortable in the pocket so he could develop."
Boeckman developed. He has passed for 2,257 yards and 24 touchdowns and stabilized an uncertain quarterback situation.
"I think Todd's progress has been great, and it's pretty much reflective of the whole offense," Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "You can always say that there are a lot of people around him, a quarterback maybe doesn't have to make a play, but sooner or later in a football game, a quarterback's got to make a play. He's got to make a great throw. He's got to make a great decision, which is the number one thing."
Of course, great throws and good decisions are easier to make when you're not under duress, and Boeckman has benefited from excellent protection. The Buckeyes have allowed just 14 sacks despite facing some of the nation's most accomplished pass rushers, including Penn State's Maurice Evans, Michigan State's Jonal Saint-Dic, Illinois' Will Davis and Michigan's Brandon Graham.
The Buckeyes allowed one or no sacks in seven of their 12 games and never gave up more than two.
Those stats and the Buckeyes' hopes for redemption would seem to indicate that Ohio State should be more competitive up front this time. LSU's defense seems to think so.
"Florida showed some things (last year) coming off the edge with the speed, but this year they really did a good job at stopping people with speed rushing and coming off the edge," said defensive end Kirston Pittman, who leads LSU with seven sacks. "They've gotten better at blocking edge guys with speed, so we've just been really paying attention to detail and working really hard on our pass-rush drills and just taking everything into account."
One thing that must be taken into account is that LSU's ends don't appear to be as fast as Florida's were last season. Much of LSU's pressure this season has come from All-America tackle Glenn Dorsey, who has six sacks. But while he has doubled his sack total from last season despite being injured, defensive end Tyson Jackson has managed only 2.5 sacks after recording 8.5 in '06.
"They're a very physical defensive line, which I like," said Boone, a 6-foot-8, 325-pound junior. "We know that we're going to have to work. We'll do whatever it takes."
That may be getting a good push in the running game to keep the Buckeyes out of obvious passing situations, which, in turn, would slow LSU's pass rush. The Buckeyes' line has proved adept at run blocking. Ohio State ranked 22nd in rushing offense with a 201.25 per game average. But LSU, 13th in the country against the run, might have the best defense the Buckeyes will have faced. The Buckeyes definitely haven't faced a defensive tackle like Dorsey.
"I know they will come out, try to dominate the line of scrimmage," Dorsey said. "It's going to be a tough task for us, but we prepare hard. We go against great guys every week in our conference. So we're going to be ready to go.
"I know they're going to bring their 'A' game. We'll bring ours."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.