When Ohio State polished off its seventh consecutive defeat of Michigan on Nov. 27, Buckeye fans were free to look forward to two things: finding out what bowl game their team would play in and speculating about just how good 2011 might be.
Although seven starters are set to graduate from the Ohio State defense, everyone knows the Buckeyes rarely lack talented replacements on that side of the ball.
With eight starters scheduled to return on offense, Buckeye fans figured that unit would be the one to carry them to glory - if there was glory to be had - anyway.
Then came Dec. 23. That day the NCAA announced five-game suspensions for four of the returning starters.
While the school plans to appeal the suspensions of Terrelle Pryor, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Dan Herron, there seems to be little doubt they will miss some time even if the NCAA dials back the penalties.
So where will head coach Jim Tressel turn to cope?
Quarterback figures to be the most wide-open spot while Terrelle Pryor is out. Three scholarship players return - senior-to-be Joe Bauserman, sophomore Ken Guiton and redshirt freshman Taylor Graham - but there is a possibility the Buckeyes’ game one starter did not spend the 2010 season on the sidelines in scarlet and gray.
Bauserman was underwhelming in spot duty this past season, and not much has been expected of Guiton since he was a last-minute recruiting pickup in February 2009. Graham has good bloodlines - his father, Kent, was an OSU quarterback who spent several years in the NFL - but no one outside the team has seen much of him, and he was not able to practice for part of the season because of an injury.
All that uncertainty might open the door for Braxton Miller, a five-star prospect who led Huber Heights Wayne to the Ohio High School Athletics Association Division I championship game earlier this month. A 6-2, 185-pounder blessed with a powerful, accurate arm and considerable running skills, Miller plans to enroll at Ohio State in time to take part in spring practice.
A four-year starter in high school, his game more resembles Troy Smith than Pryor. While his physical gifts are immense, it remains to be seen how he will handle the rigors of college.
Regardless of which quarterback is under center when the Buckeyes open the season at home against Akron on Sept. 3, he will not have any proven receivers as long as Posey is on the sidelines.
The names reporters have heard the most from Tressel as practice field standouts are Chris Fields and T.Y. Williams. Fields is a 6-0, 185-pound sophomore-to-be who has drawn comparisons to Santonio Holmes for his burst and route-running while Williams is an intriguing if raw freshman who took a redshirt this year.
Outgoing wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell told reporters earlier this season the 6-5, 218-pound Williams could become a dominant player based on his natural ability but cautioned he had a long way to go in terms of learning the game.
With an undersized frame but outsized effort, the 5-10, 202-pound Herron turned in a surprising All-Big Ten campaign in 2009, but he might be the easiest to replace. Three young backups - Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry and Carlos Hyde - all peaked the interest of fans during cameos in games this season, and they are salivating to see what freshman Roderick Smith can do after a redshirt season.
Hall (5-9, 195) and Berry (5-10, 200) are small, shifty backs like Herron while Hyde (6-0, 238) and Smith (6-3, 220) are big, bruisers.
Smith, a four-star recruit from Indiana who arrived on campus late because of a problem with the NCAA Clearinghouse, had his teammates raving the most during bowl workouts, leading some to speculate he might have pushed his way near the top of the depth chart anyway.
Finally, there is left tackle. Adams put two disappointing years behind him to earn All-Big Ten first team honors this season after rededicating himself in the weight room last winter.
His likely replacement is Andrew Norwell. A five-star prospect like Adams, he looked solid in spot duty in place of right tackle J.B. Shugarts during his freshman season and many believe the 6-5, 308-pounder is destined for stardom. However, even if Norwell can hold down the left tackle spot, the Buckeyes would figure to be dangerously thin up front after the graduation of 2009 starting guards Justin Boren and Bryant Browning. Jack Mewhort and Marcus Hall look ticketed to replace them, so that would leave only two non-freshman scholarship players - sophomores-to-be Corey Linsley and Sam Longo - available off the bench while Adams is out.
No matter who fills the roles of the suspended players, there is no doubt the Buckeyes will be young enough to keep Tressel awake at night, but there is some intriguing talent at his disposal.