Urban Meyer has been the head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes for two years, during which he's compiled a 24-2 record, had two undefeated regular seasons, not to mention two wins over Michigan. However, he has yet to win a Big Ten title, a national championship or a BCS Bowl. It is true that 2012 was limited by sanctions, including a bowl ban, but that doesn't change the facts.
Heading into year three, the Buckeyes were the favorites to win their division and the conference. Then the bottom fell out. Ohio State's quarterback, two-time Silver Football winner and a contender for the Heisman, Braxton Miller, injured his right shoulder, taking him out for the season.
Meyer, a two-time national championship-winning head coach at Florida, will have a much tougher path to a conference or a national championship than he had at the beginning of August, but with the stockpile of talent in Columbus, it isn't out of the question.
2013 scoring offense: 45.5 PPG (first in the conference), total offense: 511.9 YPG (first), rushing YPC: 6.80 (first), passing efficiency: 158.83 (first)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 3.2
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: First (2012, 2013)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Eighth (2011)
Returning starters: WRs Devin Smith, Evan Spencer; TE Jeff Heuerman; OL Taylor Decker
Open Positions: QB, RB, OL
Offensive Formation: Spread
Offensive Philosophy: Get playmakers in space
Urban Meyer runs a strictly spread offense—no under-center looks, even in goalline situations—that focuses on versatile skill position players, most especially a dual-threat quarterback. Offensively, he has taken the Big Ten by storm, finishing at the top of the conference in scoring in both 2012 and 2013, but that was with six and nine returning starters. This year, he not only has to replace almost his entire offensive line and running back, but he has to replace his now-injured all-conference quarterback. This year might be his greatest accomplishment if he can produce a crew that can score over 30 PPG.
For the past six months, you'd be hard pressed to find a publication, on-line or in print, that didn't have Braxton Miller as its first-team all-conference quarterback. Now, he's out for the year, and it looks like redshirt freshman and former Rivals 4-star recruit, J.T. Barrett, will take the snaps. He is a prototypical Meyer quarterback, though considerably smaller than Miller or former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. If Barrett doesn't pan out, sophomore Cardale Jones will have a shot. Jones played in three garbage-time situaitons last year.
With Miller out, OSU also loses the fourth of its top-four ball carriers from 2013, but it being OSU, there is plenty of talent on the roster. The probable top ball carrier is sophomore Ezekiel Elliot, who picked up 262 yards and two touchdowns last season, mostly in garbage time. He will be spelled by senior Rod Smith, junior Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Warren Ball.
As with the running backs, despite losing their top receiver, the Buckeyes are loaded. 2013 Juco-commit, Corey Smith, will start, while senior Devin Smith will be the other starter. Last year, Smith had 44 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. Senior Evan Spencer (22 receptions for 216 yards) will provide depth. The rest of the receiving corps is largely untested. Sophomore Dontre Wilson, who came to OSU as a running back, is the starting H-back after catching 22 last year. Senior Jeff Heuerman returns at tight end. In 2013, he had 26 catches for 466 and four touchdowns. With an average of 17.92 YPC, he led all Buckeyes by over two YPC in stretching the field. Junior Nick Vannett will back him up.
The offensive line is a work-in-progress and, according to Phil Steele, is the second-least experienced in the conference and third-least experienced in the country. The only returning starter is junior left tackle Taylor Decker. The good news is that there is experience, at least within the program, amongst this group. The current starting lineup lists two seniors, two juniors and one sophomore as starters. The two-deep has three seniors, four juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen. The situation would look considerably more worrisome if it was mostly underclassmen.
In seven years of coaching between Florida and Ohio State, Urban Meyer's worst offenses were his first two seasons at Florida, in which his Gators scored 28.58 PPG and 29.71 PPG, respectively. It only once (2005) didn't finish as one of the top two scoring offenses in the conference. Before Miller's injury, the offensive line was an issue, but it was hard to see this offense finish any worse than second in the conference. After the injury, one has to expect a drop off, but it also won't fall apart. Top offense? No. Top three? Maybe. Top five and at least 30 PPG? Definitely.
2013 scoring defense: 22.6 PPG (fifth in conference), total defense: 377.4 YPG (seventh), rushing YPC allowed: 3.29 (third), passing efficiency allowed: 133.99 (ninth)
Average scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: 4.0
Best scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: First (2010)
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over last five years: Sixth (2011, 2012)
Returning starters: DEs Noah Spence, Joey Bosa; DTs Adolphus Washington, Michael Bennett; LBs Joshua Perry, Curtis Grant; CB Doran Grant
Open positions: LB, CB, S
Defensive formation: 4-3 with a stand-up defensive end
Defensive philosophy: Attack
Even though Meyer is known for offense, he has fielded elite defenses. Three of his five Gators defenses were amongst the top two scoring defenses in the conference and top 10 in the country. However, his two Buckeyes defenses have been above-average at best. This led to a slight coaching shakeup in the offseason. Meyer hired a new co-defensive coordinator in Chris Ash and a new defensive line coach in former-Penn State coach Larry Johnson Sr.
Meyer's defenses are aggressive and focused on attacking, which makes them the antithesis of former OSU coach Jim Tressel's very successful, albeit conservative, defenses. Thus, perhaps the transition has played a part in the Buckeyes' lackluster performances. It hasn't been a lack of talent, as OSU has sent five defensive players into the NFL Draft in the last two years, two in the first round. That is three more than Michigan State, the conference's best defense two years running, has put into the Draft in the same time.
Whatever the issue, given the offense's woes, if Ohio State is to win the conference, the defense will have to lead the way.
Man-for-man, the Buckeyes have one of the best, if not the best defensive line in the country. It begins with junior defensive end Noah Spence and sophomore end Joey Bosa. Last year, the two combined for 15 sacks and 27.5 tackles-for-loss. Spence, however, will sit out the first two games of the season due to a currently-contested rules violation from last year. That will likely put senior Steve Miller or sophomore Tyquan Lewis as the stand-up defensive end, at least for the first couple of games. The inside is loaded with senior Michael Bennett at nose tackle, while juniors Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington share snaps at defensive tackle. Schutt was slated to start last year, but missed much of the season with an injury.
At linebacker, OSU loses Ryan Shazier—15th pick in the NFL Draft—but have a strong group of starters. Senior Curtis Grant is a former No. 1 at-any-position recruit (per Rivals) who has never lived up to his billing. He missed time last season with injuries, but will have a chance to finish his career on an up-note. Junior Joshua Perry is the most steady of the Buckeyes' linebackers; he will man the weak side. A number of players are competing for time on the strong side. The most likely candidate to win the job is sophomore Darron Lee; nevertheless, redshirt freshman Chris Worley and sophomore Trey Johnson will push him. True freshman Raekwon McMillan will also supply depth. There are questions about this unit, but there is also plenty of talent.
OSU's biggest question is its secondary, where it has to replace three starters. However, last year, despite the talent, Ohio State had problems defending the pass. Specifically, the Buckeyes let up the most passing plays of 10-yards-or-more in the conference. Senior Doran Grant will lead the way at one cornerback. He is a three-year starter who had three picks last year. Junior Armani Reeves will likely hold down the other spot. He picked up three starts last year. Sophomores Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell will take over as safeties; both played nickelback last year. The depth, though talented, is largely untested.
The talent is there, but the talent is always plentiful in Columbus.. At worst, this defense will be a top-five-in-the-conference crew, but in order for OSU to win the Big Ten, it will have to do more than that. It will have to be an elite defense, ranking amongst the top 10 in the country.
Sophomore Cameron Johnston will return as the punter. Last year, his 44 YPP led the Big Ten. The Buckeyes will have to replace kicker Drew Basil. True freshman Sean Nuernberger will win the job.
The Buckeyes top kick returner, Dontre Wilson, returns. He averaged 24.90 YPR in 2013. Wilson will have an opportunity to take over punt returns, as OSU's top return man graduated.
Meyer, a former special teams coach, places emphasis on his special teams. This group could be one of the three best in the conference if Nuernberger is dependable.
A pound sign—#—indicates must-win for Ohio State.
An exclamation point—!—indicates a probable loss.
A dollar sign—$—indicates a swing game.
08/30: Navy (in Baltimore) #
09/06: Virginia Tech $
09/13: Kent State #
09/27: Cincinnati #
10/04: at Maryland $
10/18: Rutgers #
10/25: at Penn State $
11/01: Illinois #
11/08: at Michigan State $
11/15: at Minnesota $
11/22: Indiana #
11/28: Michigan $
The defense announces itself immediately, shutting down Navy's triple option and Virginia Tech's zone read. The offense isn't what it was last year, but with a much stronger defense, it doesn't have to be.
The Buckeyes go 4-0 in the out-of-conference (OOC) and shut down their first four conference opponents. At 8-0, they head into East Lansing and win a defensive slugfest. Two more wins and Michigan heads into Columbus. Ohio State wins another defensive fight, and at 12-0, head to the Big Ten Championship game for the second year in a row.
Despite the star power, the defense can't bring it all together. The offense, while solid, is not spectacular.
OSU beats Navy, but has to leave the starters in the whole game. It loses to Virginia Tech, and then sweeps the other OOC games. Then the unthinkable happens—the Buckeyes lose to Maryland. They beat Rutgers, but turnovers cost them at Penn State. After winning the Illibuck, Michigan State's blitz heavy defense proves too much for the young quarterback. Ohio State wins two more, before dropping a heartbreaker to Michigan. OSU ends the season 8-4, but almost the entire team, including Braxton Miller, returns in 2015.
Unfortunately for Buckeyes fans, this team is made for Tresselball— potentially strong defense, close games, control the clock. But ultra-aggressive Urban Meyer doesn't play Tresselball, and the last thing any coach or program wants to do is go against its basic nature. In order to be successful, Urban Meyer needs to be Urban Meyer, and until he demonstrates otherwise, it's hard to believe the defense can do what it will have to do in order for OSU to win the division and conference.
The Buckeyes will go 3-1 in the OOC, with the inexperienced offense getting overwhelmed by Virginia Tech's secondary—possibly the best in the country this year. It will win four straight in conference, but MSU's defensive physicality will prove too much. It will go on to win the rest of its schedule, including another nailbiter against Michigan, but after year three in Columbus, Urban Meyer will still have failed to win a conference or national championship.
Final Record: 10-2 (7-1 in conference)
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