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No. 1 Ohio State still plays waiting game



(August 25) COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Top-ranked Ohio State has almost everybody back and a schedule tailor-made for a title run.

Yet its national championship hopes might end in summer school.

Andy Katzenmoyer, the heart and soul of top-ranked Ohio State's defense, must pass classes in music, golf and AIDS awareness to be eligible.

Without him, the Buckeyes will be very good. With him, they have a shot at the school's first national championship since 1968.

So the first hurdle -- before traveling to 11th-ranked West Virginia on Sept. 5 and eons away from the ominous Nov. 21 dance with defending national champ Michigan -- is making the grade in summer-school classes.

Three Buckeye standouts -- Katzenmoyer, the Butkus Award-winning linebacker, All-Big Ten free safety Damon Moore and the team's best offensive lineman, Rob Murphy -- must pass muster to remain eligible.

They will find out a few days prior to the opening kickoff whether they have made the grade or likely played their final collegiate game in last year's 31-14 Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State.

If any or all of the three are ineligible, Ohio State could duplicate what happened the last time it was No.1. Back in 1980, coming off a one-point loss in the Rose Bowl that was the only blot on a perfect season and with a roster loaded with veterans, the Buckeyes lasted exactly one poll as No. 1 and ended up a disappointing 9-3.

"Whether we're the best team in the country or not, I don't know," coach John Cooper said during preseason workouts for his 11th season at Ohio State. "I like our football team. I like their attitude, their work ethic. It's an honor to be ranked No. 1, but obviously it's a lot more important to be ranked No. 1 when the season's over."

With the Big Ten now a part of the Bowl Championship Series, a perfect season and the Buckeyes would almost be assured of an opportunity to prove they are No. 1.

But already they are somewhat of an oddity, since they are believed to be the only team ever picked No. 1 to start a season while riding a two-game losing streak.

Talent abounds. Joe Germaine was third in the country in pass efficiency last year while splitting time at quarterback with Stanley Jackson. Germaine directs an offense that includes primary targets David Boston and Dee Miller, tailbacks Michael Wiley and Joe Montgomery and fullback Matt Keller, who has packed on 40 pounds since coming to Ohio State.

The major concern is an offensive line that, while experiencing growing pains last year also caused some pains for the guy it was supposedly protecting. An optimist sees the offense's 30 points and 406 yards per game in 1997; the pessimist wonders about 47 sacks.

"We'll have a more physical unit or else we'll have some new faces in it," offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs said.

Katzenmoyer is the headline performer on a defense that may be allowed to run free to create havoc -- much like the 1996 unit.

If current cornerbacks Antoine Winfield, the 1997 team MVP and leading tackler, and Ahmed Plummer can go man-to-man on opposing wide receivers, look for Ohio State to turn up the pressure on passers and force a lot more turnovers than the 46 of a year ago.

James Cotton moves in at defensive end opposite Rodney Bailey, with Clinton Wayne and Joe Brown providing pressure from the tackle spots. Katzenmoyer, Na'il Diggs and Jerry Rudzinski make up a quality linebacking corps and Gary Berry and Moore are athletic.

Even the kicking game is superlative. Punter Brent Bartholomew averaged 45.2 yards last season, the fourth best mark in school history, and placekicker Dan Stultz added a new dimension with his distance kicks.

Voters in both major polls have agreed that Ohio State is the best team in the country not just because of the personnel, but also its schedule. No. 13 Penn State, No. 23 Michigan State and swaggering Michigan -- which holds an 8-1-1 upper hand over Ohio State since Cooper came aboard -- all must come to Columbus.

The immediate concerns are classwork and the Mountaineers if the Buckeyes hope to hold that No. 1 ranking for long.

"'I'm proud. That's what you work for, to be ranked No. 1," Cooper said. Then he added the clincher: "'We have to live up to it now."