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Monday, June 8, 2009
Penn State's star power vs. Ohio State's depth


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Penn State dominated the recent Big Ten player rankings, boasting six players in the top 30, two more than any other team in the league. The Nittany Lions had four players in the top seven and five in the top 12, while no other Big Ten team had more than one.

But when it comes to preseason predictions, Penn State gives way to another team. Ohio State has been ranked ahead of the Lions in almost every preseason poll and publication, including my latest power rankings. Colleague Mark Schlabach had Ohio State three spots ahead of Penn State in his way-too-early Top 25.

What gives? How could a team so stocked with star power not get the nod as the league's preseason favorite?

After all, Penn State and Ohio State shared the league title last year -- the Lions won the head-to-head meeting Oct. 25 in Columbus -- and both teams lost sizable senior classes that included national award winners (A.Q. Shipley, Malcolm Jenkins). The fact Penn State returns more proven stars but sits behind Ohio State in the 2009 forecast seems a bit incongruous, as many of you have pointed out.

Edwin from Dayton, Ohio, writes: I find it interesting that you have (as do most experts) Ohio State a better team and the chosen team to win whe Big Ten even with an away game at Happy Valley. But when I look at your player rankings you have 6 Penn State players you your top 30, and 4 in the top 12. This would lead me to believe that Penn State is the better team. (Although I know this is not the case) how do you justify them having the perenial players in the big ten and them not being the best? Are you just playing devils adovocate to the lion share of people that think The Ohio State is the best Big Ten team?

This points to the fundamental matchup of the 2009 Big Ten season -- Penn State's star power vs. Ohio State's depth.

Ohio State has proven throughout head coach Jim Tressel's tenure that it reloads better than any other Big Ten team. The Buckeyes have recruited better than anyone else and stockpiled talent at key positions to avoid drop-offs after major graduation losses. They can lose Chris "Beanie" Wells, James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman, Jenkins and others and have players ready to step in and contribute at those positions. History backs it up.

It's the reason why Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten this decade, and one of the reasons why the Buckeyes get the benefit of the doubt heading into 2009.

Penn State's ability to reload is not as guaranteed.

Recruiting has been a touchy subject for much of this decade, and many have questioned head coach Joe Paterno's involvement in luring top talent to State College. Without a doubt, defensive line coach Larry Johnson has been a godsend on the recruiting trail, but he can only do so much. Last year's class signaled things are definitely on the uptick, but can less-heralded classes from 2007 and 2008 step up this fall?

The 2009 Big Ten title could come down to whether Penn State reloads as well as Ohio State. Despite boasting the league's best quarterback (Daryll Clark), best running back (Evan Royster), best defensive tackle (Jared Odrick) and best linebacker tandem (Navorro Bowman and Sean Lee), Penn State has holes in the secondary, along the offensive line and possibly at wide receiver.

Have the Lions recruited well enough to replace Shipley, left tackle Gerald Cadogan and guard Rich Ohrnberger up front, as well as four starters in the secondary? We'll find out this fall.

Ohio State had only three players make my top 30 rankings -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor (No. 8), safety Kurt Coleman (No. 13) and defensive end Thad Gibson (No. 26). But the Buckeyes appear to have fewer concerns at the positions where they experienced major production losses.

Austin Spitler, Tyler Moeller and Brian Rolle look ready to step in at linebacker, while running backs Dan Herron and Brandon Saine both turned in solid springs as they attempt to replace Wells. Line play usually wins games, and Ohio State owns the Big Ten's deepest defensive line and has recruited better to the offensive line than any other position group.

The Buckeyes also will occupy more spots in the end-of-season player rankings. Arguably no Big Ten player has a higher ceiling than Pryor, and with increased opportunities for new players, stars should emerge at running back, wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback.

Make no mistake: Penn State has the stars to repeat as Big Ten champs. And if it develops talent around players like Clark, Royster and Bowman, it could shift the balance of power in the Big Ten.

Ohio State, on the other hand, must simply keep doing what it has done throughout the decade.