In the wake of an NCAA investigation that prompted the resignation of coach Jim Tressel and the departure of starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes have their work cut out for them.

In the wake of an NCAA investigation that prompted the resignation of coach Jim Tressel and the departure of starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeyes have their work cut out for them. As a result of the investigation, four seniors - three returning starters on offense and a projected starter on defense - will not take the field for the first five games, and the program is on probation. The challenges are great, yet so are the expectations. Here are key issues for the season:

Key offensive player

May: The quarterback(s). Fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller will share time at the beginning, but will it stay that way throughout the season? Maybe, but that won't necessarily be a bad thing.

Rabinowitz: It's tempting to say the quarterback, but we're not sure who that's going to be. So I'll go with center Mike Brewster. The offensive line absolutely must provide a foundation for the inexperienced skill players, and Brewster is the leader of the line and one of the best centers in the country.

Key defensive player

Rabinowitz: Johnathan Hankins. A rare combination of girth and quickness, Hankins has the best chance to emerge as the newest star on the defensive line.

May: Safety C.J. Barnett. If he picks up where he left off - before being helped off the field with a season-ending knee injury against Miami last year - the secondary will have a dynamic presence in its midst.

Key early game

May: Toledo, Sept. 10. Sandwiched between the opener and OSU's first regular-season trip to Miami, an upset possibilty lurks. The Rockets - with 19 starters back and coached by former OSU assistant Tim Beckman - are favored to win the Mid-American Conference West Division.

Rabinowitz: Miami, Sept. 17. The off-the-field drama involving the teams will dominate the story line, but this is the stiffest test of the nonconference slate. Win this, and a 5-0 start is likely.

New to view

Rabinowitz: Have to go with Braxton Miller. It will be interesting to see how much he plays early and how comfortable he looks. He's the long-term answer. Is he the short-term solution, too?

May: With the obvious answer already taken, let's go a little deeper: cornerback Bradley Roby. He combines good size and great speed with intelligence. Plus, he likes to hit people.

Best offseason move

May: Anticipating my new partner going with the elevation of Luke Fickell, I will go with Miller enrolling in January to get a head start on college. It looks like it's going to pay off, both for him and the team.

Rabinowitz: Picking Fickell as Jim Tressel's replacement. Given the time crunch, OSU didn't have the luxury of hiring from outside. Fickell doesn't seem overwhelmed by the job and has a good blend of passion and selflessness.

The pressure is on ...

Rabinowitz: Bauserman. It looks like he'll get the first crack at the quarterback job, but a couple of mistakes could consign him to (Todd) Boeckman-ville.

May: Fickell. In naming him simply as the interim head coach on May 30, the administration in essence said, "We're behind you all the way … until December." We'll see if that stance changes by midseason.

Stat that must change

May: The Buckeyes were 46th in the nation in sacks allowed last year, and they were that high only because the strong and elusive Pryor was one of the tougher sack targets in the country.

Rabinowitz: OSU finished 94th out of 120 major-college teams in net punting with a 34.3 average. For a program that prides itself on special teams, especially punting, that must improve.

Buckeyes go to a BCS game if …

Rabinowitz: All the cards fall their way. Because of Miami's recent troubles, that game looks a lot more winnable. But Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn State will be tough games, and Michigan won't be a pushover anymore. The rapid development of the quarterback is crucial. So is a BCS game possible? Yes. Likely? No.

May: They win the Big Ten, because then they're in for sure. Despite all of the doom and gloom in the offseason, that's still very possible. Of course, if the NCAA rules later in the season that OSU must serve a postseason ban (that doesn't seem likely), this entry is moot. If not, a 10-win season that includes a trip to the league title game still might net a BCS bid, because the OSU rebound will be one of the big stories of the season.

Bottom line

May: It has been impressive to watch this team persevere. It also has been interesting to see how some experts have forgotten that, despite the muck, this is still a very talented group under the guidance of a young, focused and aggressive new coach, and both are itching to prove a point. In other words, look out Akron.

Rabinowitz: If Tressel and Pryor remained, this would be a team that had a chance to compete for the national title. Without them, and the suspensions of four other key players, that seems unrealistic. The defense should be its typical swarming self. But breaking in so many new players on offense, including a quarterback, means growing pains are inevitable. Look for a January bowl, but probably not a BCS game.

tmay@dispatch.com

brabinowitz@dispatch.com