Ohio State, Texas eye pivotal battle
Like last year, the winner and loser will be goingin different directions.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- What gets college football players through the long and punishing hours of conditioning, weightlifting, practice and planning are thoughts of a perfect season and a trip to the national championship game.
Then, in one game, or even on one play, all those hopes and dreams can disappear.
"You look up at the scoreboard and you're kind of in disbelief," Ohio State tackle Kirk Barton said Tuesday. "All that promise and work has kind of faded."
Barton and the rest of the Buckeyes haven't forgotten how their high hopes disintegrated in a 25-22 loss to Texas before an Ohio Stadium record crowd of 105,565 last season.
Just two weeks into a long season, their shot at a national championship was already in deep trouble.
OSU vs. Texas
Now the same fate awaits the loser of Saturday night's return match between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Texas at Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Just a week removed from a lopsided opening win, one team will be tagged with a loss and likely will have to lower its sights.
In the last eight Bowl Championship Series title games, 11 of the 16 teams were unbeaten going into the game. Only one team since the 1998 season (LSU in 2003) won even a share of a national championship after a loss before the title game.
"You make the assumption going into the year that the teams that meet for the title are going to be undefeated," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said.
The players are well aware of the importance of staying unbeaten.
"We've GOT to win," said Ohio State center Doug Datish from Howland High.
A first for Texas
Even though Texas is dripping with tradition in its 113 years of football, it has never hosted a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game until now.
Tressel said he casts his No. 1 vote in the coaches poll for Texas, which has won its last 21 games. Longhorns coach Mack Brown said he has been voting Ohio State No. 1.
"We feel like they deserve to be the No. 1 team in the country because they finished the  season like we did but they've got more returning starters in key positions than we do," Brown said.
Really, the Buckeyes are a notch ahead of the Longhorns in the polls for only one reason. Both teams have lots of good players back, but Texas' quarterback is gone and Ohio State's is back.
Vince Young scrambled for a touchdown in the final seconds of the Longhorns' dramatic 41-38 victory over Southern California in the Rose Bowl last year, giving Texas its first national championship since 1969. Young then elected to give up his final year of eligibility. In his place, Brown selected a red-shirt freshman with the sounds-too-Texas-to-be-true name of Colt McCoy.
Led by Troy Smith
Ohio State, which has won its last eight games by an average score of 39-16, is led by a smaller version of Young, fifth-year senior Troy Smith. Just like Young, Smith isn't afraid to break containment, turn up field and turn into a running back. Just like Young, Smith has a strong arm that can deliver tight spirals to his fleet corps of receivers, led by former high school teammate Ted Ginn Jr.
Smith said he knows how big the Texas game is. Every time he walks across campus, he's reminded.
"Random chants from people," he said with a grin. "Just 'Beat Texas' all the time."
Longhorns running back Selvin Young doesn't buy the argument that it's not fair that one of the nation's top teams will have its title hopes crippled so soon. He believes the best programs test themselves against quality opponents as a way of gauging their progress.
"When boxers go out, they try to fight the best boxers there are to show themselves that they're the best," Young said. "We get opportunities like this early and it's fun."
Come late Saturday night, one team will be revising its goals and the other will be on the fast track to the title game on Jan. 8, 2007, in Glendale, Ariz.
"There'll probably be two undefeated teams at the end of the road and if you're not one of them you're probably not going to be playing for the championship," Barton said. "So you've got to treat every game like it's the Super Bowl. You only get one opportunity."
Vindicator sports editor Rob Todor will be at the big game Saturday. Check out his blog on the showdown starting today at vindy.com.
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