CHICAGO - It is a familiar location for his team, a familiar bull's-eye it wears, and a familiar line of questions he faced, and Ohio State coach Jim Tressel handled it all in a familiar fashion.
As his Buckeyes were named yesterday as the preseason favorite to win a fifth straight Big Ten title this season, Tressel was cautiously gracious when he spoke at the conference's annual preseason football meetings at the downtown Hyatt Regency hotel.
He accepted the distinction, cited the program's rich history, and reminded everyone that it is about 40 days until the first game is played, and about four months until the Big Ten season goes into the books.
"It's always an honor when people think highly of your program," Tressel said. "But as I've always said, championships are won or lost out on the field. These polls are fun and I know people get excited talking about college football in July, but we've got a long ways to go before we even start the season."
Tressel, whose team went 7-1 in the Big Ten last season when it tied for the title with Penn State, said he didn't feel there was any guarantee the Buckeyes would be the top choice in the poll of media members, despite their recent run of success in the Big Ten.
Penn State was picked second in the poll, while Michigan State was chosen third. As a matter of policy, the conference only releases the top three teams.
"From a team standpoint in the preseason rankings, even with 31 guys gone (the 2008 team had 28 seniors and lost three juniors to the NFL), it's a reminder of the proud history that Ohio State has and the expectations that people have," Tressel said. "It was a little bit of a surprise, but it's a neat thing."
The ninth-year Ohio State coach said that given the turnover of close to one-third of his team, the Buckeyes are working with fewer experienced players than in quite some time.
"It's probably the youngest group that I can remember that we've had," he said. "It was one of those types of spring practices where you could really notice improvement, since we were so young. We'll need to grow very quickly, and see if we can handle those bumps and ups and downs."
The Buckeyes report to training camp Aug. 9, and play their first game Sept. 5 at Ohio Stadium against Navy.
Looking around the Big Ten, Tressel said he felt that a team left out of the top three in the poll - Illinois - is loaded. The Illini finished second in 2007, then dropped into a tie for sixth last season, but have many veteran players back.
"In my opinion, they may have as much or more talent than anyone in the Big Ten," Tressel said about Illinois.
Illinois coach Ron Zook said the OSU remains the front-runner.
"Obviously, we're all chasing Ohio State right now," said Zook, who brings his team Sept. 26 to Columbus for the Big Ten opener. "You can't argue with the success that Ohio State has had. Coach Tressel and that staff have had. They've done a great job recruiting. They've got great players, also."
Michigan, a team traditionally mentioned among the elite in the Big Ten, is coming off a 3-9 season in its first year under coach Rich Rodriguez. Although his Wolverines are generally looked at as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, Rodriguez said he has seen significant progress since last season.
"I can't tell you how thrilled I am with the way things are going in our program, the way our young men are working, and the way the staff is coming together," he said. "Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, and last year - we don't want to talk about it, as bad a season as we had - but at the same time I think we've learned some things from it."
Michigan opens Sept. 5 at home against Western Michigan.
Rodriguez said he is much more comfortable with his personnel, and he has seen his team grow very close during its struggles.
"What do we have to do so we can get this program to a championship level and have the type of seasons that Michigan has been accustomed to - I think we know what we need to do," he said. "I think we're on that track. I don't want to make any predictions, and I don't think our players do either, but I do expect us to be a lot better."
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