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Terrelle Pryor key to Ohio State title hunt

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Terrelle Pryor is not the most talked-about quarterback in college football. He's not even the most talked-about quarterback in the Big Ten Conference, not after Michigan's Denard Robinson went Vince Young Plus Tax on Notre Dame Saturday.

But Pryor reigns as the most argued-about quarterback in America. That much is inarguable.

Reasonable people can completely disagree about the Ohio State quarterback's performance and his fit in Jim Tressel's offense -- from year to year, from week to week, even from play to play.

Take Saturday, when Pryor and the No. 2 Buckeyes won an entertainingly weird game over No. 12 Miami, 36-24. And take a side.

Impressed by Pryor's 233 passing yards, including the gorgeous 62-yard bomb to DeVier Posey? Dazzled by Pryor's 113 rushing yards, including several demoralizing scrambles through a gritty-but-gassed Miami defense? Swayed by the zero turnovers he had on a day when Hurricanes counterpart Jacory Harris was saddled with four interceptions?

Or are you unimpressed by his 44 percent passing accuracy, including several poorly thrown short balls? Skeptical about a guy who flirted with at least a couple of interceptions and had several stalled drives in the red zone? Unsure whether the nation's No. 1 QB recruit in 2008 will ever live up to the massive hype that accompanied him here from Jeannette, Pa.?

Here's my take on Terrelle: He was plenty good enough Saturday. And in the course of 25 career starts, he's gotten better. Significantly better.

Steady progress defies the sweeping judgments we tend to want to make after every game, or sometimes after every throw. Steady progress is kind of boring. But steady progress is working for Pryor and his team.

"He's made great steps every year," said Buckeyes receiver Dane Sanzenbacher. "Freshman year, he was thrown into the spotlight and handled it well. Sophomore year, he was more comfortable and did even more. Through two games this year, he's gotten better. It's been step after step."

Problem is, a lot of people expected quantum leaps.

Seduced by his lavish physical gifts, most of us wanted to rush the kid into superstardom from the start. He wasn't ready for that. After his brilliant performance against Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl, some of us wanted to elevate him to Heisman Trophy favorite. Doesn't look like he's ready for that yet, either.

But even the Pryor bashers should find these facts difficult to argue:

• He's 21-4 as a starter, including eight victories in a row. Half of those eight have come against ranked opponents.

• He's thrown 52 passes this season without an interception and run it 28 times without a fumble. And if you know his coach, you know how vital 80 unblemished plays are.

"Going into the game I was thinking, 'no turnovers,'" Pryor said, a mindset that should earn him a bushel of Buckeye helmet stickers from Tressel.

He's become a more sophisticated reader of defenses and has a better grasp of the offense. He's not just an athlete playing quarterback.

"The kid is taking his time a lot more," Posey said. "He's going through his reads. I feel like he over-prepares. When he over-prepares, he can relax at game time."

He was relaxed enough to pronounce himself "the most calm I ever was" before a game. And he was confident enough in the game to suggest several times what play he wanted to run, as opposed to having everything dictated to him by the coaches.

"It took me three years to get to that point," he said with a smile.

He's playing more physical football. Pryor's speed has always been impressive for a guy his size, but he was something of a dainty runner in years past. At 6-foot-6 and 233 pounds, the sight of Pryor running out of bounds instead of taking on defensive backs was confounding. He didn't do that Saturday, repeatedly hammering into the Hurricanes for extra yardage and keeping the clock moving.

"He's a big boy," Sanzenbacher said. "You probably won't see him run out of bounds too many times."

He's not just a big boy. He's becoming a big man. A grownup.

Pryor said he's trying to live by Drew Brees' mantra of improving one percent every day. If he continues doing that throughout this season, he will end up in the Heisman discussion based on merit, not just hype.

And Ohio State will remain in the national championship discussion.

True to Tressel form, the Buckeyes have played eight quarters in 2010 without a turnover and are a plus-seven in turnover margin. That remains the most important stat in the game. Their defense has been characteristically opportunistic and the offense has been free from major error.

The concerns at this point are twofold: special teams and finishing drives.

Completely untrue to Tressel form, Ohio State has been awful in special teams lately. The Buckeyes gave up a kickoff return touchdown in the Big Ten showdown with Iowa last year, were torched in that area by Oregon in the Rose Bowl and then surrendered two kick returns for TDs Saturday. That was a first in school history.

"Gonna put that in my memoirs," Tressel deadpanned.

And the Buckeyes must get into the end zone when presented with short fields by the defense. After interceptions, Ohio State started drives at the Miami 25, 19, 27 and 15. Only one of those possessions ended in a touchdown.

That meant a lot of work for kicker Devin Barclay, who attempted six field goals and made a school-record-tying five. And that prompted Tressel to say, "This was the first time I've ever been in a game where the kicker cramped up."

So there is work to be done for the scarlet and gray. But they have a month of dress-rehearsal games between now and a trip to Wisconsin Oct. 16, and then a rigorous closing stretch of Penn State, at Iowa and Michigan.

If Terrelle Pryor continues his steady progress from now until then, don't be surprised to see Ohio State playing in Glendale Jan. 10. Then we can argue whether he's national championship good.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.