CHICAGO - Ohio State coach Jim Tressel addressed the national media here yesterday, wearing his familiar gray suit, and the familiar scarlet-colored necktie.
And Tressel found himself sitting in a very familiar position and facing a lot of familiar questions.
As the coaches and top players from the Big Ten Conference gathered at a downtown hotel for their annual preseason meetings, Tressel and his Buckeyes were chosen by the media as the favorites to win the Big Ten Conference - for what would be a fourth straight championship.
So as he prepares for his eighth season directing the program at Ohio State, Tressel was quizzed about the pressure of being at the top, the stress of dealing with continual sky-high expectations, and the difficulty of being the team everyone wants to beat.
"At Ohio State, with our history and our tradition, we've been living with the great expectations for a long time," Tressel said. "Amongst the Ohio State faithful, we're expected to win the conference every year. Our guys know that, and everyone who comes to Ohio State should know that."
Wisconsin was picked second, with Illinois named third in the poll of the media covering the Big Ten. The conference only releases the top three teams in its poll.
"I think we're very capable of being a good football team," Tressel said, "but there are a lot of very good teams in the Big Ten Conference. I think the Big Ten in 2008 is going to be stronger than it was in 2007 or 2006, based on the number of returning players.
Tressel has a boatload of those returning players - 40 players on the roster who are in either their fourth or fifth year in the program, with 20 starters coming back. Two of those returning starters gave the Buckeyes a clean sweep of the Big Ten's pre-season individual honors.
Ohio State senior linebacker James Laurinaitis was named the Big Ten's preseason defensive player of the year for the second straight time, while junior tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells was chosen as the preseason offensive player of the year.
Wells rushed for 1,605 yards and 15 touchdowns last season and was named All-Big Ten first team. He carried the ball 39 times for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns in Ohio State's season-ending win over Michigan.
Laurinaitis was a consensus All-American in 2007, won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker, and was the Big Ten defensive player of the year. He led the Buckeyes with 121 tackles last season and added two interceptions and five sacks.
Laurinaitis is the second Ohio State linebacker in the past five years to get back-to-back honors as the Big Ten's preseason player of the year on defense. A.J. Hawk did it in 2004 and 2005. Laurinaitis said his predecessors, like Hawk, and the huge collection of their awards that are on display at the Ohio State football facility, help him keep it in perspective.
"It's really an honor, and I think something like that is in a lot of ways due to the great players I have around me and the great tradition at Ohio State," Laurinaitis said. "All you have to do is walk down the halls of the Woody Hayes Center to be humbled."
Tressel said the Buckeyes, who went 11-2 last year and 7-1 in the Big Ten, know the polls and honors have little value if they are not able to put together another championship season.
"What I think doesn't matter, and what you think doesn't matter - it's the games that matter," Tressel said.
He also pointed out that the Big Ten's preseason favorites have not always fared as well as expected.
"It hasn't been very accurate in the past," Tressel said. "It is really kind of irrelevant. The preseason polls have not always been accurate, and that might be a good motivation for us."
Last year the media picked Michigan to win the league, with Wisconsin second and the Buckeyes third. Ohio State won the Big Ten title, with the Wolverines sharing second place with Illinois, and Wisconsin finishing fourth.
In 2006, Ohio State won the league as predicted and Michigan shared second, where it was picked, but Iowa, No. 3 in the preseason poll, finished tied for eighth at 2-6.
In 2005, Michigan was picked to win the Big Ten, but finished tied for third. Ohio State and Penn State shared the championship that year, despite the fact the Buckeyes were picked second and Penn State was not in the top three in the preseason poll.
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