If there’s one thing Ohio State football has learned in the last few years, it’s this — don’t lose late.
Late last fall, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, a record crowd showed up to watch the Buckeyes surrender a fourth quarter touchdown lead and lose by a field goal to Michigan State. The loss effectively switched their seats with the Spartans, who would later go on to win the conference title and compete in the Playoff.
The team’s fourth-ranked finish can hardly be considered a failure, but for fans who’ve witnessed just four losses in as many seasons, the Fiesta Bowl rout of Notre Dame was a lukewarm consolation.
And so, as it goes around these parts, the countdown to the next season began almost before the last one ended. Even one popular fan site (BuckeyePlanet.com) has a ticker on its front page logging the time remaining until November 19 when OSU makes its final road trip of the season to East Lansing: Payback @ Michigan State.
Once fall camp begins, so too does the beating of the drum. It will only get louder. The clock, inevitably, will hit zero.
Six returning starters. That’s the lowest number in all of college football. Ordinarily, this would cause a panic. Instead, people are focusing on the leveling force of each unit’s leader, quarterback J.T. Barrett and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan. This confidence led to a preseason rank of five.
Some people have balked at the lofty rating given the mass exeunt of talent, even the undrafted of which are tearing up NFL training camps. The glass-half-full contingent points to the quality of the recruiting, and the experience of the coaching staff. Other folks might be more concerned with the four prime time night games already on the schedule as of this writing, the majority of which are on the road. Funny things happen at night.
I won’t take up space here with a history lesson, but if no one is worried about traveling to Wisconsin and Penn State back-to-back and playing under their lights, what about the number three ranked Oklahoma Sooners? That game will be like heads-up at the World Series of Poker with both players effectively all in. Everything to gain and everything to lose.
Still, with all this early drama, there are two games that matter most of all—Michigan State, and Michigan State’s little brother. The final games of the regular season. They both must be wins, because there is just one Goal with a team like this, and we all know what it is:
Zero Losses, zero excuses, and another National Championship.
— WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL —
After offensive coordinator Tom Herman left to take the reins at Houston, there was a sense of listlessness on offense. At no point was it more apparent than in the aforementioned loss to MSU. Even star tailback Ezekiel Elliott couldn’t hold back comment after that game, lobbing what most felt were legitimate criticisms at those calling the plays. Too predictable. Too vanilla.
In fairness to Ed Warinner and Tim Beck, Herman didn’t set the world on fire until his third year on the job. So, perhaps, with a clearer picture at quarterback and a year under their belts, there will be a corner turned.
At quarterback is the inimitable J.T. Barrett (16). Every report indicates that he has a firm hold of the locker room and is the unquestioned leader of the team. And rightly so—even sharing time with Cardale Jones a year ago, Barrett (if healthy) is in position to obliterate the school’s all-time passing touchdown mark and will likely finish the season third, or even second, in all-time yardage. His plus arm strength and mobility combine with a well-above-average football IQ to make him a uniquely dangerous offensive threat. While not as electric a runner as Braxton Miller, he is a more complete passer. His presence gives the Buckeyes a chance to win every game they play.
The loss of running backs like Elliott never goes unnoticed. Furthermore, there just aren’t very many like him period. The Buckeyes lost senior Bri’onte Dunn to disciplinary reasons, leaving the stable looking a little green. Nonetheless, redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber (25) has received plenty of praise throughout spring and fall camps. Weber is a compact, physical runner who has the quickness to avoid contact but doesn’t shy away from it either. He will certainly share carries with Barrett and H-backs Curtis Samuel (4) and Dontre Wilson (2), but the only evidence fans need of Weber’s ability is Meyer’s endorsement. And he’s got it.
The list of potential receivers is lengthy. In order of likely involvement, we have Noah Brown (80), Corey Smith (5), Parris Campbell (21), true freshman Austin Mack (11), and K.J. Hill (14). There are more names, but trying to forecast such a crowded position before the completion of fall camp is moot. There are plenty of weapons on the outside, and Marcus Baugh (85) will step up at tight end.
As always, offensive line play is crucial. They’ll be anchored by two major talents: center Pat Elflein (65) and guard Billy Price (54). The two upperclassmen were both All-Conference a year ago, and the former is returning to a position of preference. Beyond that, Jamarco Jones (74) will post up at left tackle while sophomore Isaiah Prince (59) and true freshman Michael Jordan (73) look like the early favorites to round things out at right tackle and left guard respectively.
On special teams, punter Cameron Johnston (95) and placekicker Sean Nuernberger (96) both reprise their roles.
— WHEN THEY HAVE THE BALL —
A third of the nation’s top fifteen defenses from 2015 were Big Ten teams (Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Penn State), and another four (Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Illinois) were in the top 30. Say what you want about the state of the conference on offense—it’s still an impressive stat.
Ohio State loses just as much on this side of the line of scrimmage as the other. And just like the other, what returns is so exciting to people that expectations are as high as ever. One aspect of the game that could change is turnovers. Why? Well, with a younger defense with less film on it, opposing teams are likelier to take chances. The Big Ten, buttoned down as it is, doesn’t have a lot of teams committing or creating, just a ton of turnovers (Michigan State and Iowa the exceptions to the latter—no other Big Ten team finished in the top 40).
So will opposing offenses open things up, hoping to hit the home run against the Joey Bosa/Darron Lee/Eli Apple-less Buckeyes? Here’s a bunch of guys that hope so:
Up front, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington were key, but they still only accounted for nine of the team’s 38 sacks and 23 of 83 TFLs overall. Not that they weren’t tremendous, but they were being game-planned for. Replacing them will be some combination of defensive ends Sam Hubbard (6) and Tyquan Lewis (59) and a rotation of Tracy Sprinkle (93), Michael Hill (77), Dre’Mont Jones (86), Jalyn Holmes (11), and true freshman Nick Bosa (97). The prevailing opinion of Hubbard and Lewis (the team’s top two sack producers from 2015, actually) is high enough to expect little to no fall off from a unit that performed admirably all year long.
Junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan (5) is on everyone’s watch list. He returns as the team’s leading tackler and has ideal measurables for his position. Were it not for Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, he’d likely be the odds-on favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in a conference packed with top-flight cornerbacks. He’ll be flanked by two fellow juniors, Chris Worley (35) and Dante Booker (33). Though Booker has received plenty of praise, it’s Worley who steps into the SAMspot to fill Darron Lee’s sizeable shoes.•
The strong side, in OSU’s 4-3 scheme, is where a lot of the blitzes will originate, so he’ll be expected to have an impact from the jump.
Which only leaves the secondary. Of all the various positional units, this is the one with the greatest question marks. Junior cornerback Gareon Conley (8) seems to be a sure thing at one corner spot, and sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) has a distinct edge on a spot of his own. Beyond that, this is the hottest battle of fall camp (again, at the time of this writing). A cadre of sophomores (Denzel Ward (12), Marshon Lattimore (2), and Cam Burrows (16)) are all in the mix for starting spots, and junior Damon Webb (7) joins them.
Pass defense was a sore spot two seasons ago. Last year, it was improved, if still looking up at the likes of Michigan and Wisconsin. Whether by scheme, talent, or both, the 2016 product will need to hold its own to allow the considerable talent up front the opportunity to do its job.
— THE FINAL WORD —
In the end, the team’s preseason ranking is just that—a preseason ranking. It means practically nothing. If the Buckeyes beat the Sooners in week three, they should be 5-0 heading into a tough road stint against Wisconsin and Penn State. They will likely be favored in those games whether they beat Oklahoma or not, and barring a breakdown versus Northwestern, Nebraska, or Maryland (unlikely), it really does come down to the final two weeks of the season: at Michigan State and at home versus Michigan.
If the offensive line truly clicks, the offense should be looser and more dangerous than a year ago, even without Elliott. Only consistent backfield disruptions can stop that.
The same is true on defense with the secondary. If it’s anything less than a true weakness, the front seven should be able to hold opponents to under 17 points a game again without too much difficulty.
Predictions are unnecessary, but the smart money bets against a 15-0 record. But doesn’t it always?
Story by V.R. Bryant, Originally in 1870 Magazine
Photos by David Heasley