COLUMBUS, Ohio - ''Expectations High for OSU.'' That's the headline you read in this space a year ago.
By the time Ohio State accepted a Sugar Bowl bid, however, things were quickly beginning to unravel for Jim Tressel and one of America's most prestigious collegiate programs.
As the fallout continues to transgress, what originally was expected to be another national championship-caliber campaign in 2011 took on considerably darker overtones.
Almost unbelievably, gone is Tressel, who by all accounts, seemed destined for a historic, legendary career with the Scarlet & Gray. In 10 seasons as Buckeyes head coach, Tressel had produced three BCS title-game qualifiers with a 2002 championship season to his credit.
Tressel's 2010 club sustained only a regular-season loss at Wisconsin on an otherwise flawless ledger that culminated with January's 31-26 triumph against Arkansas at New Orleans.
Perhaps, the die had already been cast, although quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a number of high-profile teammates were permitted to participate in the Sugar Bowl despite potentially damaging allegations which had previously surfaced.
As the dire scenario played out, OSU's dramatic victory against the Razorbacks became the Buckeye Nation's last hurrah - as it turns out - until further notice.
Mercifully, Pryor opted out of the program. What conceivably could have been a Heisman-achieving, title-contending senior season, instead threatens to have many OSU supporters forever accusing Pryor of felony sabotage.
Tressel's self-admitted knowledge and failure to act on violations directly led to his alarming departure and ensuing placement of Luke Fickell as 'interim' head coach.
For his part, the Columbus native and ex-Buckeye star appears unfazed by developments and eager to return the program to prominence.
''I don't think we've talked once about where anybody picks us (in the polls),'' Fickell said following a recent practice. ''Either nationally or in our own conference. For me, it's all about what we can control.''
OSU had captured or shared Big Ten titles in six consecutive years before the school's self-imposed penalties included wiping 2010's campaign off the chart.
In addition to replacing seven defensive starters and four on offense, leading rusher Dan Herron and top receiver DeVier Posey are sitting out five games along with linemen Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas.
It appears evident, the overwhelming adversity can serve as incentive for returning veterans and a collection of new recruits.
There's no clear-cut choice as Pryor's replacement with as many as four QB candidates involved in fierce competition.
''I think it's completely wide open,'' Fickell said. ''We're going to have the opportunity to make sure everyone knows what's expected of them. Then, it's a matter of making evaluations on a daily basis.''
Fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman has obviously been around the block, though still remains generally untested under fire.
A career backup, Bauserman (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) may be considered a frontrunner based on experience alone. In 13 games last season, the Strasburg, Va., native was 16 of 22 for 174 yards and two TDs.
Considered far more mobile than Bauserman is 6-2, 195-pound junior Kenny Guiton, a dual-threat athlete who could win the starting nod, though the Houston, Texas, native is basically devoid of meaningful stats.
Projected to succeed Pryor following the 2011 campaign, highly regarded recruit Braxton Miller finds himself making a legitimate bid to run the show much sooner than expected.
Miller, a 6-3, 210-pound product of Wayne High in the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights, led his team to Ohio's Division-I state title game last December.
Add redshirt freshman Taylor Graham's name to the mix. Son of former Buckeye QB Kent Graham (1990-91), young Taylor (6-4, 230) is being given every chance to take charge of the offense.
Herron's absence, while noteworthy, seems far from crippling considering the Buckeyes tradition for recruiting a talented stable of runners.
Four candidates are worthy replacements, starting with sophomore Jaamal Berry (5-10, 200). The Miami, Fla., native flashed signs of brilliance last fall, breaking off a 67-yard TD run against Eastern Michigan en route to a 267-yard campaign.
Jordan Hall (5-9, 190) made his mark on special teams last year, netting 28 yards per kick return, including a 85-yard return for a touchdown against Michigan. With limited carries (37-169), the western Pennsylvania native was expected to play an increased role this season.
Sophomore Carlos Hyde (6-0, 238) and redshirt freshman Rod Smith (6-3, 230) are also making plays for backfield consideration.
At fullback, 6-0, 252-pound Zach Boren returns for a third successive season. The Pickerington native had 10 receptions last season. Junior Adam Homan (6-2, 248) is a more than capable backup.
The Buckeyes' run game will be counted on heavily for early production until Posey's return in Game 6. The 6-2, 210-pound Cincinnati LaSalle product, with long-range designs of playing Sundays, has 1,793 career receiving yards, including 16 TDs.
Posey's five-game suspension coupled with Dane Sanzenbacher's graduation, leaves OSU significantly lacking experience in the receiving department.
Sophomore Corey (Philly) Brown, one of two by the same name on OSU's roster, will be asked to step up and use his athletic, 5-11, 182-pound frame to make an impact.
Sophomores Chris Fields (6-0, 188) from Painesville, Ohio, and James Louis (5-10, 180) are contending as well as 6-5, 228-pound redshirt frosh Ty Williams, a Cleveland native.
Among wideout recruits is 6-1, 190-pound flanker Evan Spencer, son of St. Clairsville native and former Buckeyes running back great and current Chicago Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer. The young recruit starred in the prep ranks at Chicago's suburban Vernon Hills High.
The Buckeyes figure to be solid on the offensive front bolstered by the return of 6-5, 305-pound center Michael Brewster, an Outland Trophy candidate. The Orlando. Fla., native has 36 career starts and preseason All-America recognition. Brewster's NFL future appears a foregone conclusion.
Ditto the above regarding 6-7, 300-pound right tackle J.B. Shugarts, a transplanted Texan and three-year starter. Shugarts father, Bret, is a former Pittsburgh Steeler.
Expected to operate at left guard is 6-6, 303-pound sophomore Jack Mewhort, a Toledo St. John's product. Sophomore Andrew Norwell (6-5, 302) is vying at right guard along with 6-5, 305-pound classmate Marcus Hall. Another sophomore, 6-2, 310-pound Corey Linsley is another front line prospect.
It's not out of the question that 6-5, 245-pound junior tight end Jake Stoneburner will become more involved in the offense this fall. The Dublin Coffman High star is being pushed by towering Reid Fragel (6-8, 280) who caught a 2-point conversion at Wisconsin.
OSU's kicking game returns 6-1, 212-pound sophomore Drew Basil who handled kickoffs last season. The Chillicothe native is expected to be the Buckeyes' full-time placekicker as well this season.
''It's going to be interesting watching our offense come together ... especially early on,'' Fickell said. ''We'll have a few untested players (out there) but they're eager to prove their worth.''
In addition to Miller and Spencer, OSU's offensive recruiting list includes 6-5, 320-pound tackle Tommy Brown (Akron Firestone), 6-6, 350-pound tackle Chris Carter (Cleveland Kennedy), 6-5, 240-pound tight end Jeff Heuerman (Naples, Fla.), 6-6, 235-pound tight end Nick Vannett (Westerville Central), 6-3, 190-pound wideout Devin Smith (Massillon Washington), and 6-3, 305-pound guard Antonio Underwood (Shaker Heights).
Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock must replace seven starters, part of a group that ranked second in the nation in total defense during the regular season. The class of 2011 included defensive end Cameron Heyward, a Steelers first-round selection, along with tackle Dexter Larimore. Also departed are linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan in addition to secondary mainstays Chimdi Chekwa, Jermale Hines and Devon Torrence.
OSU's quartet of returning starters includes dandy defensive end Nathan Williams. The 6-3, 260-pound senior was recently named to the Ted Hendricks Award preseason watch list.
Williams, a Miami Trace product, has exceptional pass-rush ability. In 2010, he recorded 46 tackles, including 10 for negative yardage. His production included a key interception against Miami, and a nine-tackle performance against Illinois.
Also on the line, John Simon (6-2, 270) looks for a breakout season. The Youngstown Cardinal Mooney product earned a starting berth a year ago and is considered an All-Big Ten contender.
At least five players are battling for important line minutes, including frontrunning Johnathan Hankins, a hard-to-miss 6-3, 335-pound native of Dearborn Heights, Mich.
Hankins saw spot duty as a true freshman, learning under the auspices of Heyward while compiling 16 tackles.
Competition comes from the likes of redshirt junior Garrett Goebel (6-3, 290), redshirt sophomore Adam Bellamy (6-4, 302), redshirt frosh Darryl Baldwin (6-4, 290) and redshirt freshman J. T. Moore (6-1, 252).
Senior Andrew Sweat will be the Buckeyes' most experienced linebacker with Rolle and Homan departed. Sweat, who played his prep football at nearby Trinity High in Washington, Pa., has 54 career tackles and considerable playing time with the special teams unit.
Heacock and company are counting on 6-3, 242-pound junior redshirt Etienne Sabino to step in and take charge at middle linebacker. He will be challenged by 6-2, 240-pound junior letterman Storm Klein, the former Licking Valley all-stater.
Klein played as a backup to Rolle last fall and used the offseason to bulk up in the weight room. Among a group of freshman candidates looking to impact are 6-3, 225 Curtis Grant, 6-0, 230 Chad Hagan, and 6-2, 210 Ryan Shazier.
OSU's depth chart in the secondary starts with returning vet Orhian Johnson at strong safety. The St. Petersburg, Fla., native should enhance last season's numbers which included 50 tackles.
Well-schooled but oft-injured Tyler Moeller was granted a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA from which Heacock hopes to benefit. The 6-0, 210-pound Moeller has worked at both safety and linebacker and possesses above-average speed. A healthy Moeller likely solves a few potential problems for OSU's braintrust.
The same holds true for redshirt sophomore C.J. Barnett, whose early impact last season was cut short by injury. The 6-0, 190-pound Dayton native should roam at free safety.
Also in the mix at safety are seniors Nate Oliver (6-0, 215) and Donnie Evege (5-11, 180), in addition to sophomores Christian Bryant (5-9, 190) and Jamie Wood (6-1, 200).
Junior Travis Howard (6-1, 190) likely holds the trump card at one corner post. The Miami, Fla., native worked behind Chekwa a season ago and recorded a big-time pick-6 in the Penn State victory.
A three-way battle exists for the other starting job at corner. Vying are redshirt sophomores Corey Brown (6-0, 189) and Dominic Clarke (5-10, 191) as well as Florida State transfer Dionte Allen, a 5-11, 185-pound senior out of Detroit.
The Buckeyes punting game is a definitive strength with the return of junior Ben Buchanan who averaged 41.0 yards per kick a season ago.
Fickell and Heacock praised OSU's recruiting class of defensive personnel which features seven linemen in 6-3, 280-pound Michael Bennett (Centerville), 6-6, 265-pound Chase Farris (Elyria), 6-4, 310-pound Joel Hale (Greenwood, Ind.), 6-4, 185-pound Bryce Haynes (Cumming, Ga.), 6-2, 280-pound Brian Bobek (Inverness, Ill.), 6-5, 240-pound Kenny Hayes (Toledo Whitmer), and 6-4, 245-pound Steve Miller (Canton McKinley).
Secondary hopefuls include: 6-2, 180-pound DerJuan Gambrell (Toledo Rogers), 6-1, 190-pound Ron Tanner (Columbus Eastmoor), 6-2, 190-pound Jeremy Cash (Plantation, Fla.) and 5-11, 180-pound Doran Grant (Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary).
An incoming linebacker of note is 6-1, 220-pound Conner Crowell (Waldorf, Md.).
The 2011 schedule features seven games in Ohio Stadium, including the first two encounters vs. Mid-American Conference foes Akron and Toledo.
OSU's initial road test figures to be just that with a Week 2 matchup against Maimi's Hurricanes in prime time. The Buckeyes are back home where Colorado invades in Week 4.
Fickell and his staff, at some point, will learn the program's fate and whether additional sanctions may be imposed by the NCAA from its investigations.
Sept. 3: AkronNoon
Sept. 10: ToledoNoon
Sept. 17: at Miami, Fla.8 p.m.
Sept. 24: ColoradoTBA
Oct. 1: Michigan StateTBA
Oct. 8: at Nebraska8 p.m.
Oct. 15: at IllinoisTBA
Oct. 29: Wisconsin8 p.m.
Nov. 5: IndianaTBA
Nov. 12: at PurdueTBA
Nov. 19: Penn STateTBA
Nov. 26: at MichiganTBA
Win 9, Lose 3