The Buckeyes are the least experienced team in the nation, but that doesn’t mean they lack talent … The 2015 squad actually underachieved despite a 12-1 record … Many are predicting a Big Ten title for Ohio State despite the losses to the NFL.
COLUMBUS — The Ohio State Buckeyes have been getting a lot of love from preseason prognosticators. They’re fifth in the Associated Press poll and sixth in the coaches Top 25, and ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit has even pegged them to make the College Football Playoff.
The former OSU quarterback isn’t known for being a homer, so that should generate ample smiles among fans. But it you want a projection that’s free from any hint of bias, I offer you the predictions of four staff writers at the Detroit Free Press. Asked to pick the winner of the Big Ten, and all four chose the Buckeyes.
A playoff berth, a top-six rating or even a conference crown all strike me as a bit lofty for what they have coming back. But I’ll say this for sure: They’re going to be more fun to watch.
Has there ever been a more joyless 12-1 season than what the Buckeyes cobbled together in 2015? They never really found their mojo on offense. The quarterbacks regressed with the departure of their position coach, Tom Herman. And many of the veterans gave off an air that they were done with college and were pining for the NFL.
As harsh as it sounds, they under-achieved when they failed to win the Big Ten with all that talent — 10 picks in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, are kidding me? — and they were humbled at home by a Michigan State squad that had only two or three players who could have started for the Buckeyes.
But you get the sense this season that the culture around the program will be vastly improved. The Buckeyes are the least experienced team among 128 at the FBS level with just six returning starters, but give me a hungry and talented squad that’s a bit raw and likely to make mistakes over that entitled bunch that never seemed to have much interest in trying to repeat as national champions.
At his kickoff luncheon Monday, coach Urban Meyer was almost giddy as he talked about the current Buckeyes going into the opener with Bowling Green at noon Saturday.
“I’m real excited about them,” he said. “I’m trying to hold down the excitement because I really am. I can’t wait to watch them to play.
“I made a comment that a young team that’s not very talented is (in trouble). But this is a talented team and good guys. This has been a good camp. Good people to work with.”
The reason the Buckeyes may not have a noticeable drop off is that they’ve been killing it on the recruiting trail. In the 247Sports composite ratings (that is, the average of all reputable recruiting sites), Ohio State had the fourth-best class in 2016 and was seventh, third and second before that.
Only Alabama has done better.
That means there’s some serious talent coming through the ranks. And the murmurings from preseason practice are that the Buckeyes will have burners throughout their defense and playmakers galore on offense.
If I have one reservation, though, it’s that latter component.
The Buckeyes were 100th nationally in passing offense last year, which is hard to fathom. And the scary thing is that the same coaching staff is back.
Tim Beck, the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, seemed overwhelmed after replacing Herman last year. I never was wowed by that hire. He’s proven to be an excellent recruiter (can any team match what the Buckeyes are doing in stacking up one blue-chip QB prospect after another?), but he was job-hunting when Bo Pelini and his staff were dismissed at Nebraska. The Buckeyes should always be able attract someone who still has a plum job, like running backs coach Tony Alford, who came from Notre Dame.
Not only did the Buckeyes suffer in the passing game, but they also never figured out how to maximize Braxton Miller’s skills. Maybe he was still learning how to be a receiver, but he probably could have hauled in a few swing passes and turned them into positive yardage.
And another glaring failure was allowing hybrid back Curtis Samuel (who averaged an astonishing 16 rushing yards per carry in high school) to become a forgotten man.
Granted, the Buckeyes did finally figure something out when they gave co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who had primary play-calling duties, a full-field view from the coach’s box for the final two games against Michigan and Notre Dame.
The offense started humming, gashing UM for 472 yards (369 running and 113 passing) and ND for 496 (285 on the ground, 211 through the air).
Every good team wants to be potent in both phases, and when asked if he thought the Buckeyes were capable of that, Meyer said:
“I do. We’ll know more, obviously, Saturday. But we have depth at receiver. We have a returning quarterback that understands what we’re trying to do. And at the end of the day, 250-250 is the perfect (mix).
“We’ve had some teams close to that, but last year it was imbalanced and we have to be very balanced.”
One of the reasons I think the Buckeyes will have a perpetual advantage over Michigan in the Meyer-Jim Harbaugh era is that they utilize dual-threat quarterbacks while the Wolverines have a pro-style attack where the only QB runs are scrambles.
Defenses abhor having to account for a runner at that position. And the Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett is a master at the zone-read.
Meyer said the Buckeyes want to limit Barrett to 10-12 carries per game, hoping not to expose him to excessive hits, but that probably isn’t realistic in the heat of battle.
He had 19 rushes for 139 yards against the Wolverines last year and 23 for 96 yards against the Irish.
That seems about right.
If Meyer has a concern as we get close to lift-off this season it’s the potential for stage fright with so many new starters.
“How are they going to react in the environment of 110,000 or 108,000? It will be a loud crowd, and I’m sure it’s going to be hot — how will they react?” he said. “Not (preseason All-American center) Pat Elflein and J.T., but the Austin Macks of the world and Malik Hooker. (But) they’ve done really well the last few weeks.”
Let’s not go overboard yet. Inexperience is a genuine concern. But there’s no substitute for talent. And if look good to Meyer now, it’s a safe bet they’ll do really well on Saturday and beyond.