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CHICAGO - On the fourth day of January in 2006, two college football teams will enter the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and one will exit as the national champion.
That date is still five months away, but that stage and that game have worked their way into the thought processes of Ohio State's players.
Buckeyes seniors A.J. Hawk and Nick Mangold were part of the picture when Ohio State won the 2002 national title at the Fiesta Bowl, and both admitted yesterday at the Big Ten kickoff luncheon that they've had more than a passing thought about getting back to the championship game in their final year in Columbus.
"Sure, it runs through your head as you do winter conditioning, through spring ball, and then in the summer workouts," said Hawk, an All-American linebacker for the Buckeyes last season who is also this year's Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year.
"Most teams work better when they set goals, and I think a lot of players are that way, too. We talk about being ready for the first game and always focusing and playing them one at a time, and we obviously have to do that.
"But it's no big secret that here at Ohio State, it has always been our goal to win the Big Ten championship and then be in the picture for the national championship. You leave yourself and your team short if you don't think big, and set some really challenging goals like that."
Hawk said the overall strength of the Big Ten this season, plus the presence of Texas and conference powerhouses Iowa and Michigan on the Ohio State schedule, should give the Buckeyes the platform they need to reach the national title game, if they are successful.
Texas, Michigan and Iowa have been ranked in the top 10 in all of the major preseason polls, giving the Buckeyes a strength of schedule that should impress the Bowl Championship Series brain trust that will ultimately choose the combatants for Pasadena.
"It is really difficult to get to that point in January, where you are one of just two teams out of the whole country who get picked to play in that game," Hawk said.
"If we stay healthy and keep improving, and win the conference and we beat Texas, we should get a chance to play for the national championship. It's a long ways off and there's so many important games to play, but you can see it's a possibility."
Mangold, a senior center who is a nominee for the major national awards at his position, said the Buckeyes look at their schedule as presenting both major challenges and opportunities.
"With us playing Texas in the second week, in a national spotlight kind of game, we can get some attention early," he said. "You can only play them one at a time, and nothing matters but the next game in front of you, but there's a lot of excitement about the possibilities out there for us."
Mangold said that it has been the responsibility of the leaders on the Ohio State team to keep perspective in place while the players worked out on their own over the summer. The first practice of preseason camp is Sunday.
"There's a lot of stuff that has to happen before we can start seriously talking about national championship games and things like that," he said, "but we have talked about that, and a little bit of everything else, since last season ended.
"Naturally, that's a goal for us and for every team, and it's up to the seniors to keep the talk all in line as the season goes along. You are aware of it, and you talk about it, but you mainly concentrate on what you have to do on that particular day in order to reach those goals."
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel agreed that the strength of the conference should provide its eventual champion with a solid case to be in the Rose Bowl in early January.
"I believe the Big Ten will be tremendously strong this year," Tressel said as the conference's coaches and top players met here for the past two days in their annual preseason media confab.
"To me, that is encouraging, because if you happen to be the one that is the champion, you may have a chance to be as good a team as there is in the country. The Big Ten is going to be so strong that, if you win the conference championship, it is not unreasonable to think you should get a chance to play in the national championship game."
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