Where does Ohio State go from here? The Buckeyes get better, for one – and not just better but much better, making night-and-day strides from last season, growing as an offense, gaining more familiarity with the new staff and accumulating more and more talent as it separates itself from the rest of the Big Ten pack.
Yes, OSU went 12-0 last season. Yet the only place to go is up, since any day without some degree of improvement is a lost day to Urban Meyer and his staff, who have successfully altered the Buckeyes’ one-year lull and placed this program on a collision course with Alabama, the SEC and any FBS program with the wherewithal to make a run at perfection.
Okay, one more question: What did you expect? OSU didn’t hire Meyer to make friends, nor to run neck-and-neck with Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and the rest; OSU hired Meyer to rip opponents to shreds. OSU hired Meyer, gave him the keys, asked him to get angry, and he’s complied. So far, so good. And you haven’t seen anything yet.
NO. 125 TO NO. 1: College football countdown
LAST YEAR’S PREDICTION
But in all, I see a younger team that will need time to acclimate itself not only to Meyer’s system but to the new standards set in place by this staff. What’s a successful season, all things considered? The Buckeyes should take eight wins and be happy. But the potential is there for much more – Meyer is the new captain, after all, and you’d almost expect nothing less than excellence right from the start.
— In a nutshell: We should have expected nothing less. Meyer led Ohio State to an undefeated season, the lone FBS member to do so, before being prevented from an onward march by NCAA sanctions. Only a postseason ban could slow down the Buckeyes’ stride – because this team played its best football down the stretch after a rocky ride through much of September and October. Not that there was perfection, in a sense; OSU still needed overtime to beat Purdue and Wisconsin, struggled with Indiana, was bogged down by Michigan State and seemed sluggish in a non-conference win against UCF. Yet perfection is perfection, even with an asterisk; you couldn’t ask for much more than 12-0. How OSU got there motivates Meyer, as he’ll find motivation where others find satisfaction.
— High point: A 26-21 win against Michigan to cap the regular season. This was OSU’s postseason, in essence. How big was the victory for Meyer? The look on his face said it all.
— Low point: Not applicable.
— Tidbit: You can pencil Ohio State in for a win against Buffalo. And San Diego State. And Florida A&M. The Buckeyes haven’t lost a home non-conference game against an unranked team during the regular season since Oct. 2, 1982, when they dropped a 34-17 decision to Florida State – a span of 30 years and 62 games.
— Tidbit (Meyer edition): Another good sign for non-conference play: Meyer is 42-4 overall in August and September. The losses: Marshall in 2001 (at Bowling Green), Texas A&M in 2003 (Utah), Auburn in 2007 and Mississippi in 2008 (Florida).
FORMER PLAYERS IN THE NFL
— 40: OT Mike Adams (Pittsburgh), S Will Allen (Dallas), TE Jake Ballard (New England), G Alex Boone (San Francisco), G Justin Boren (Denver), OL Mike Brewster (Jacksonville), G Bryant Browning (New York Giants), CB Chimdi Chekwa (Oakland), S Kurt Coleman (Philadelphia), C Jim Cordle (New York Giants), DB Nate Ebner (New England), OT Reid Fragel (Cincinnati), DE Thaddeus Gibson (Dallas), WR Ted Ginn Jr. (Carolina), DT Garrett Goebel (St. Louis), DT Johnathan Hankins (New York Giants), LB A.J. Hawk (Green Bay), RB Dan Herron (Cincinnati), WR Brian Hartline (Miami), TE Ben Hartsock (Carolina), DE Cameron Heyward (Pittsburgh), WR Santonio Holmes (New York Jets), S Malcolm Jenkins (New Orleans), S Orhian Johnson (Houston), LB James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), C Nick Mangold (New York Jets), LS Jake McQuaide (St. Louis), K Mike Nugent (Cincinnati), DT Ryan Pickett (Green Bay), WR DeVier Posey (Houston), QB Terrelle Pryor (Oakland), DE Jay Richardson (New Orleans), LB Brian Rolle (Pittsburgh), WR Dane Sanzenbacher (Cincinnati), OT J.B. Shugarts (New York Jets), LB John Simon (Baltimore), G Rob Sims (Detroit), DE Will Smith (New Orleans), LB Austin Spitler (Miami), S Donte Whitner (San Francisco).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST
— Fortune 500 companies in Columbus, Ohio
2. Big Lots
3. Limited Brands
4. American Electric Power
5. Momentive Specialty Chemicals
— Urban Meyer (Cincinnati ’86), 12-0 after first season with Ohio State. Not a bad start, right? In notching an undefeated season – one stopped in its tracks by NCAA penalties – Meyer set a shot across the bow of the rest of the Big Ten, the SEC and the entire FBS, rapidly moving OSU out of a short lull and back into the national championship conversation. Here’s something to remember: Meyer is 34-4 during his second seasons at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, reaching the Fiesta Bowl with the Utes and winning the first of two titles with the Gators. Expectations are high, as they should be.
Meyer spent 2011 out of coaching, working as an analyst for ESPN, after posting a 65-15 mark during six seasons at Florida. It was nearly five years for Meyer, who momentarily stepped down from the position following Florida’s loss in the SEC title game in 2009, citing health issues and a desire to spend more time with his family. His sabbatical lasted only a few days, though Meyer did not lead the Gators onto the field in their Sugar Bowl win over Cincinnati. This period was confusing, raising a few doubts over Meyer’s ability to continue serving as a long-term answer as the face of the program. Looking back on his 2010 season, you can easily make the case that Meyer should have stuck with his initial decision – that last team was his worst with the Gators, an eight-win squad that took a significant step back on offense and lacked the same fire, anger and determination of his vintage teams with the program. Overall, however, all Meyer achieved over his five seasons with the Gators – all, with tongue in cheek – was win a pair of national championships, each with a different starting quarterback, and raise Florida squarely into the nation’s elite after a brief period of mediocrity.
Although it is his work with the Gators that has earned him his national stature, Meyer was a highly successful coach at two non-automatically qualifying stops prior to arriving in Gainesville. His first stop was at Bowling Green, from 2001-2, where Meyer and the Falcons went 17-6 overall and 11-5 in MAC play. From 2003-4, Meyer led Utah to a 22-2 record, including a perfect 12-0 season in 2004 that culminated in a BCS bowl win over Pittsburgh. There are a handful of coaches from this generation who will be remembered for decades to come: Meyer is one. With a recharged battery and newfound dedication, look for Meyer to lead OSU to annual championship contention for the duration of his stay with the Buckeyes.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
— Offense: Let’s just start with the question, since we’re running out of time before Saturday: Can Braxton Miller win the Heisman? Will Miller win the Heisman? Yes. Maybe. Of course Miller could win the Heisman, seeing that he’s already played at a Heisman-caliber level – and did so almost solely on athleticism, often seeming confused in Meyer’s system, though never tentative. That he played so wonderfully as a sophomore has painted Miller, already superb, as one FBS quarterback set to take a significant step forward in 2013; this is a scary thought for the Big Ten, which already had its hands full with the gifted dual-threat star. I love Miller, like everyone; I love him almost as much as Meyer loves ’em, though it was obvious from the start – remember Meyer’s quotes last spring? – that OSU’s staff thinks the world of Miller and his game-changing fit for this system. So, to get back to the original: Miller can win the Heisman, and will win the Heisman if OSU runs the table. He holds the world in the palm of his hand. Miller broke the slow-motion-play button on my remote control. (This happened.)
The offensive line is in a good place. Again, and not to keep hammering this home: Ohio State went 12-0 last season, yes, and it was pretty clear that Meyer was not satisfied by the play up front. Is he satisfied today? No, but he’s never happy. Meyer is happier about the overall depth, however, especially in second-tier reserves like Pat Elflein, Jacoby Boren and Darryl Baldwin. This younger contributors alter the overall outlook up front – because I don’t get the impression OSU has a cross-your-fingers feel with this front, hoping and praying for a full and healthy season from the starting five. Speaking of the starting five: Jack Mewhort at left tackle, Andrew Norwell at left guard, Corey Linsley at center, Marcus Hall at right guard and Taylor Decker at right tackle – the first four are seniors, the latter a sophomore. Decker fared well enough in fall camp to go from a question mark to, well, a slightly smaller question mark. I think he’ll do fine.
More explosiveness is needed at receiver. More is coming, largely due to Miller’s increased comfort level in the passing game – but also due to the added experience gained by this year’s returning contributors. The leaders are against senior Corey Brown (60 receptions for 669 yards) and junior Devin Smith (30 for 618), who are terrific, followed by junior Evan Spencer (12 for 136), sophomore Michael Thomas, senior Chris Fields and true freshman James Clark. Is Clark going to play? Oh, OSU is going to play a ton of extremely talented true freshman, as many as a dozen of ’em, and they’ll give this entire offense a major boost. (More on one freshman in particular below.) JUCO transfer Corey Smith isn’t on the early two-deep, but Meyer didn’t recruit a JUCO to ride the pine; he’ll factor into the mix by October. I’m very interested in seeing how OSU uses its tight ends, since for all the bluster, the Buckeyes really didn’t utilize Jake Stoneburner effectively a year ago. There are more talented options in the fold: Jake Heuerman is going to start, but sophomore Nick Vannett should play extensively.
— Defense: At its most basic definition, OSU’s defense is a 4-2-5 – four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. This is the typical formation, at least, and it’s made possible by a number of factors: Ohio State’s speed in the secondary, desire to put this speed on the field, willingness to move outside the box to combat speed with speed, hefty linemen up front and athleticism on the second level. No one member of this defense is more important – or more underrated – than linebacker Ryan Shazier (115 tackles, 5.0 sacks), a should-have-been all-everything defender in 2012 who will get his due recognition in 2013. Shazier does it all, ranging from sideline to sideline, disrupting in the backfield and sticking on the field in nearly all of OSU’s packages, and is easily the most irreplaceable defender on any national championship contender. If he’s not an All-American in 2013 – if he’s healthy, of course – I’d consider it a major surprise, and I’d ask for a recount.
But he can’t continue to go it alone on the second level. Last year’s linebacker corps was solidified somewhat by Zack Boren, a converted fullback, though it’s obvious that OSU can get more from the middle. Has the light turned on for junior Curtis Grant? Pardon me if I enter wait-and-see mode on Grant, who has every physical ability to excel yet has continued to miss the mark when given the opportunity. Perhaps it’s now, as a junior, that Grant’s mental games catches up with his physical gifts. If not, OSU could turn to one of two current reserves, Mike Mitchell or Joe Burgess, with Mitchell a wonderfully gifted true freshman with the frame and aggressiveness to play major snaps as a rookie. In a perfect world, however, Grant plays well enough to make Mitchell a forgotten man. His time is coming.
The interior of OSU’s defensive line is an issue: Tommy Schutt is out until at least midseason, if not a touch longer, so the Buckeyes will need Chris Carter, Joey Bosa, Michael Hill and Chase Farris to pick up the slack – with Bosa and Hill true freshmen and Farris a late switch from the offensive line. The starters, juniors Joel Hale and Michael Bennett, look like disruptors, particularly Bennett; they’re smaller, however, as is the entire interior, so OSU will need to button up to slow down more physical, inside-the-box running games. The ends are going to explode: Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are set for great things, likely as soon as 2013, with Spence sitting as the Buckeyes’ speed end – codename: Viper – and Washington an anchor on the strong side. Expectations are huge; I think they’ll deliver.
The secondary’s greatest asset lies in the Buckeyes’ accumulation of prime-time talent; this is always a good thing. But what makes the secondary difficult to handle is its ability to flex between multiple coverage sets, often confusing teams by moving from zone to man-to-man during the course of a single series – though the defense does have certain schemes for certain offenses. The gem is Bradley Roby (63 tackles, 2 interceptions), the next in Ohio State’s long line of field-swallowing All-American cornerbacks. He’s just one third of a potentially memorable defensive backfield, should the younger pieces live up to billing: C.J. Barnett (51 tackles) and Christian Bryant (71 tackles) will shine in the shadows along the back end, behind Roby, but both are clearly All-American contenders in their own right. In the meantime, while Roby sits for a spell, OSU will lean on Doran Grant, Eli Apple, Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell to hold down the fort on the outside and at nickel back. This experience, even against Buffalo and the like, will pay dividends in November and December – and January.
— Special teams: I still think senior Drew Basil is an option on punts, though freshman Cameron Johnston has the job heading into Buffalo – so Basil will handle kicking and kickoffs, as in 2012. The return game is headlined by a few running backs, a group we’ll discuss below, while OSU’s coverage teams will improve as the Buckeyes add more and more talent to an already talented roster. The Buckeyes’ coverage teams are on thin ice; I look for this group to rebound, or face the consequences.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH
— Running back: So Carlos Hyde (970 yards, 16 touchdowns) will miss some time, as you may have heard, but he’ll regain his spot in this running game for Florida A&M and the entirety of Big Ten play. In the meantime, OSU does need a more consistent performance from senior Jordan Hall (218 yards), who will occupy the starting job while Hyde and Rod Smith (one game) serve their respective suspensions. When Smith does return, it’ll be interesting to see how OSU divvies up touches between three backs: Hall, Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball and jaw-dropping freshman Dontre Wilson. At some point, Wilson is going to make a play that justifies the hype – he has to, doesn’t he? The nice fact, in many respects, is that OSU has enough depth in the backfield to slowly work Wilson into the system, perhaps giving him significant touches in September before Hyde returns; in October, Wilson will probably need to justify a continued role by giving this offense a big-play boost in a secondary role. Obviously, excitement surrounding the rookie is at a fever pitch. The bad news: Hyde won’t crack the 1,000-yard mark. That’s a shame. The good news: This running game should gain about 3,250 yards from the scrimmage and 40 touchdowns, give or take. That might be a low guess.
GAME(S) TO WATCH
— Michigan: Yeah, Michigan. What? This one comes on the road; the Buckeyes haven’t forgotten about their last trip to Ann Arbor. In terms of divisional play, OSU should have the Leaders sewn up by the end of October, after taking care of business against Wisconsin and Penn State – though taking the Leaders is just the first step for this team, of course. I’m very, very intrigued by a potential date with Nebraska for the Big Ten title; this intrigue is doubled should the Cornhuskers’ young defense grow by November.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION
— In a nutshell: Here come the Buckeyes. I see Ohio State as one of two teams that shouldn’t lose a game during the regular season – the other being Alabama, of course. That’s high praise: There are 125 FBS teams, a thousand or so games, a dozen or so title contenders, and only the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide should not lose on the road to Pasadena. Meyer has successfully – and quickly – altered OSU’s national standing, rapidly moving the Buckeyes back from a brief sleep into the elite upper slice of college football. This team has everything you’d want from a title contender: OSU has jaw-dropping coach, wonderful motivation, beautiful talent, wonderful leadership, elite talent and – last but not least – the sort of schedule needed for 13-0. There’s no reason to think OSU won’t match the expectations.
Miller is the leading Heisman Trophy contender, per my meaningless vote. If not light years ahead of last season, the offensive line is clearly improved along the starting five and in reserve – especially in reserve. The receiver corps will showcase more explosiveness thanks to the increased familiarity with the system. The backfield is loaded for bear. Shazier is one of the top defenders in college football. The secondary exhausts superlatives. The sophomore end pairing is dangerous. The interior is an issue, yes, but it’ll be fine by the heart of Big Ten play. Special teams will be improved. Only two or three – and maybe four – teams in the FBS can match what OSU brings to the table. Believe me: None of them reside in the Big Ten.
That I have Stanford and Alabama ahead of Ohio State is not a reflection on the Buckeyes, in short. I think the world of what this team has achieved and what it’s due to achieve come Saturday; OSU will roll from the start, facing little noticeable challenge in non-conference play before turning its gaze to the Big Ten, where Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan seen the only teams on the slate capable of knocking the Buckeyes down a peg. Do I think the Buckeyes go undefeated? They should. I reserve the right to list Ohio State right next to Alabama and Stanford in my own flawed and arbitrary preseason primers – but at No. 3 overall, because someone has to be third.
— Dream season: OSU goes 13-0, beating Nebraska in early December, and knocks off Alabama in Los Angeles to net the national championship.
— Nightmare season: The Buckeyes drop two games during the regular season and a third against the Cornhuskers to lose a spot in the Rose Bowl. Disastrous.
— Who is No. 2? This team held 12 opponents to less than 25 points in 2012.
2013 TEAM OVERVIEW
— Conference: Big Ten, Leaders
— Location: Columbus, Ohio
— Nickname: Buckeyes
— Returning starters: 13 (8 offense, 5 defense)
— Last year’s ranking: No. 21
— 2012 record: 12-0 (8-0)
— Last year’s re-ranking: No. 2
— 2013 schedule:
Aug. 21 Buffalo
Sept. 7 San Diego State
Sept. 14 at California
Sept. 21 Florida A&M
Sept. 28 Wisconsin
Oct. 5 at Northwestern
Oct. 19 Iowa
Oct. 26 Penn State
Nov. 2 at Purdue
Nov. 16 at Illinois
Nov. 23 Indiana
Nov. 30 at Michigan
Paul Myerberg, a national college football writer for USA TODAY Sports, is on Twitter @PaulMyerberg.
PHOTOS: COUNTING DOWN TO NO. 1