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May 30, 2011

Dienhart: What's next for Ohio State?

With the Jim Tressel era officially over, Ohio State enters a period of uncertainty.

There are two huge questions.

How will Tressel's resignation affect the 2011 Buckeyes, who will be going for a record seventh consecutive Big Ten title?

Who will be Ohio State's next coach?

The school has announced that co-defensive coordinator/linebacker coach Luke Fickell will serve as interim coach in 2011. Fickell, a Columbus native, is considered a rising coaching star, a former Buckeyes nose tackle (1993-96) who is popular with the players. But he's only 37 and never has been a head coach. Is Fickell ready for this full-time gig? And can Ohio State afford to turn over the program full time to such an inexperienced coach?

That's unlikely.

The only way Fickell has a shot at retaining the job would be to pull a Steve Fisher and lead the Buckeyes to the national title.

Even before Tressel's resignation, Ohio State had some questions. The biggest issue: The Buckeyes must play the first five games of the season without five key players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey and offensive tackle Mike Adams. There's also a meeting with the NCAA infractions committee Aug. 12.

Still, Ohio State remains one of the most talented teams in the nation, and many felt the Buckeyes would be able to navigate through those first five games -- against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado and Michigan State -- and win the Leaders Division in the revamped Big Ten. Now that Tressel is gone for good, how will the Buckeyes' psyche be impacted this fall?

Ohio State could be galvanized by all of this controversy, with the players rallying around Fickell and the rest of the assistants, but Tressel's departure and the coaching speculation that surely will swirl all season could end up being a distracting and divisive force. If that happens, Wisconsin and Penn State will be the beneficiaries in the Leaders Division and Nebraska becomes the favorite to win the Big Ten in its debut season.

The name most likely to surface as a potential coaching candidate is Urban Meyer, a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, and a Cincinnati alum who is a former Buckeyes assistant under Earle Bruce. It's well-known that when Meyer was coach at Utah, he had an out in his contract to allow him to leave for three jobs: Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame.

Even more vital is that Meyer's resume screams success and would energize and excite the rabid Ohio State fan base. Meyer was 104-23 overall in 10 seasons at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. He won two national titles at Florida and also took the Gators to one other BCS bowl; in addition, he guided Utah to a BCS appearance.

Meyer, 46, experienced health issues at Florida in 2009 and '10, and he resigned after last season. Meyer is serving as an ESPN analyst this season, but given his age, he's still in his coaching prime. Will one season away from the sideline be enough for him to get his health under control?

Other names are sure to crop up, as well.

Oklahoma's Bob Stoops is a native of Youngstown, Ohio, and after 12 seasons in Norman, perhaps Stoops feels he is ready for a fresh challenge. In addition, Stoops -- an Iowa grad -- would be leaving the unstable Big 12 for one of the nation's premier conferences. Stoops has made four trips to the BCS title game and won one national title (2000). His OU teams also have won seven Big 12 championships and own a 129-31 record. If Stoops, who is 50, ever is going to leave Oklahoma, this seemingly would be the job.

Nebraska's Bo Pelini is a former Ohio State safety (1987-90) and, like Stoops, is a Youngstown native who embodies the hard-edge traits that would be embraced by Buckeye Nation. But unlike Stoops, Pelini's resume is a work-in-progress. He has been a head coach for just three seasons, going 30-12 with three Big 12 North titles. Pelini, 43, has the Huskers' program on the upswing as Nebraska enters a new era of Big Ten football. Would he want to leave with bigger things seemingly around the corner?

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio was Tressel's defensive coordinator from 2001-03 and helped the Buckeyes win the 2002 national title. Dantonio has rebuilt Michigan State into a tough program en route to going 33-19 in four seasons. Another Ohio native (Zanesville), Dantonio also served as a graduate assistant at Ohio State from 1983-84. But he's 55 and had a heart attack last September. He's also 0-4 in bowl games at Michigan State.

Mississippi State's Dan Mullen has become one of the nation's hottest commodities in just two seasons in Starkville, going 14-11 at a notoriously difficult place to win. Last season was impressive, as Mullen and the Bulldogs capped a 9-4 season with a thumping of Michigan in the Gator Bowl. Mullen is an offensive whiz who is a former Meyer assistant at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. Mullen, 39, has a low ceiling at Mississippi State, which competes with LSU, Alabama and Auburn in the SEC West. At Ohio State, the possibilities and rewards are much greater.

Boise State's Chris Petersen has rejected myriad overtures in recent seasons to remain with the Broncos. But no school the likes of Ohio State has courted Petersen, 46. He loves the Boise community and what it has meant to his family. But Petersen may be ready to coach a traditional power, and there are no limits on what you can do at Ohio State. You can't say that about Boise.

Other potential candidates include Missouri's Gary Pinkel, TCU's Gary Patterson and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, a former Buckeyes assistant.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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