College Football Preview 2014-2015: 7. Ohio State Buckeyes
Coach: Urban Meyer (3rd year)
2013-2014 Record: 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten)
August 30th vs. Navy (in Baltimore)
September 6th vs. Virginia Tech
September 13th vs. Kent State
September 27th vs. Cincinnati
October 4th @ Maryland
October 18th vs. Rutgers
October 25th @ Penn State
November 1st vs. Illinois
November 8th @ Michigan State
November 15th @ Minnesota
November 22nd vs. Indiana
November 29th vs. Michigan
Talk about a hot streak. To begin his career with Ohio State, coach Urban Meyer won 24 consecutive games before a loss in last year's Big Ten Championship Game to Michigan State and a loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Senior Braxton Miller returns, giving Meyer one of the best quarterbacks in college football and the defense, which was an issue throughout 2013, is led by a superb defensive line. Meyer has rebuilt Ohio State back into a program that can win Big Ten titles and national titles every year. If the Buckeyes can get past Michigan State in early November, they have quite a shot at winning the Big Ten East.
Backfield: Miller enters his fourth season as a starter in Columbus with aspirations of winning a Heisman after his hopes were cut short due to an early-season ankle injury. He is among the nation's most exciting to watch; he is an excellent runner with a huge arm. He has really developed into a more efficient passer and has shown the ability to lead this football team. He totaled 3,162 all-purpose yards and a grand total of 36 touchdown. He still could improve his accuracy as a quarterback but his running ability makes this offense so tough to stop. The big question for Ohio State is who will replace stud Carlos Hyde at running back? Hyde, a powerful runner who graduated this off season, ran for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns, while averaging 7.3 yards per carry. The likely starter is sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, an explosive athlete. Elliott is a shifty ball carrier who can also catch passes. It will be near impossible to replace Hyde's production but Elliott could still be one of the better backs in the Big Ten with his versatility and electrifying talent. Senior Rod Smith will compete for carries as well. Smith is not anywhere near Elliott in terms of pure talent or speed but he is a hard runner who could be a nice change of pace.
Receivers: Seniors Devin Smith and Evan Spencer return at receiver, giving Miller two experienced targets who have proven they can make plays. Smith was the team's second leading receiver in 2013, only behind Corey "Philly" Brown, who is now in the NFL. Smith gained 44 catches and 660 yards along with eight touchdowns. He has fabulous hands and he finds ways to create space between him and defenders, although he isn't usually the quickest on the field. Spencer is a reliable option who will be counted on to step up this year and possibly be Ohio State's second option in the passing game. But, perhaps the most dangerous weapon in the passing game this year will be sophomore Dontre Wilson, who will line up in the slot. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman will be creative in finding ways to get Wilson the ball whether it be in screens, quick slants, opening him up deep or possibly handing him the football. Wilson recorded 22 receptions and two touchdowns last season along with 250 yards as a rusher as a true freshman. He is quick, elusive and can do many different things well, it is hard not seeing him become a real weapon this year for the Buckeyes. Four-star receiver Johnnie Dixon is the team's top incoming recruit on the offensive side. Dixon is a proven receiver with all the talent to make an impact, now and in the future. The tight end position is in great hands with the return of reliable senior Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman caught 26 passes for 466 yards and six scores a season ago and has deceptive speed and good hands. With Smith and Spencer stretching the field deep, Wilson and Heuerman are going to be major factors on short throws and intermediate throws which will obviously help Miller.
Offensive Line: This unit appears to have some real issues as Meyer and Ohio State saw four starters depart from it. Junior tackle Taylor Decker is the only returner and he will most likely be the starter on the left side. A proven linemen, Decker is a 6'7' beast of a player who will constantly prevail in between the trenches. Although the interior of the line has very little experience the talent and potential there are very impressive. Guard Pat Elflien is a pretty athletic sophomore who should be key in establishing the Buckeyes' ground attack this season. While Elflien will lock down right guard duties, junior Jacoby Boren is the presumed starter at center. Boren has gotten bigger since arriving in Columbus and looked very strong this past spring. It will be interesting to see what he looks like at fall camp. Junior Antonio Underwood could get the starting gig at left guard, forming a pretty nice combo with Decker. Underwood is another pretty good athlete for a linemen, which the Buckeyes will need in their up-tempo scheme. On the recruiting side, Meyer and staff did a great job locking up players who may not start now or contribute now, but all have bright futures. Jamarco Jones is a Chicago guy who is extremely tough and durable at tackle, while guard Demetrius Knox was a steal from down in Texas. Although they won't get much attention prospects like Kyle Trout and Marcelys Jones have the look of players who will learn the system and make an impact in the distant future for Ohio State.
Defensive Line: With the exception of the offensive skill positions, no unit is anywhere close to as talented as OSU's defensive line which returns all four starters. On the outside, junior defensive end Noah Spence has the makeup of being an absolute beast. Spence is 6'3", 250 but is very quick and will constantly be making an impact. Spence had 7.5 sacks in 2013 and has all the physical tools needed to have an even bigger season and earn All-American honors. On the other side, sophomore Joey Bosa returns after being very productive in his first season with Ohio State. Bosa is a hard-nosed fighter who is a real help in rush defense. Combined, the pair of ends notched 27.5 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. Any Big Ten offensive line that they come across is absolutely going to have their hands full with those two. But, it doesn't stop there as the Buckeyes present two beats in the interior of this unit. Senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett earned All-Big Ten honors in 2013 and should continue to be a beast. Bennett recorded 42 tackles but also showed he could also get to the quarterback, recording seven sacks. Junior Adolphus Washington joins the party as well. He may be the least accomplished of these four but he isn't any slouch; he had 36 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and two sacks a year ago. The addition of four-star defensive end Jalyn Holmes from Norfolk, Virginia and the return of junior Jamal Marcus (two sacks last year) gives the unit considerable depth and an abundance of options. Just think about, as a trio, Bosa, Bennett and Spence had 22 sacks in 2013 and that was with Bosa being just a freshman thrown into a starting role. None of these guys are huge names because they are so talented their stats and playmaking are spread out evenly, but all four could earn All-Big Ten honors.
Linebackers: Nobody can even try to deny it; linebacker Ryan Shazier was an absolute monster in an Ohio State uniform. He led Ohio State by far with 144 tackles with 23.5 of them being for a loss and also recording 7 sacks. His 101 solo tackles in 2013 were good enough for second in the nation, only behind the 105 posted by Temple's Tyler Matakevich. The good news is junior Joshua Perry has the chance to, if not completely replicate that production, certainly help. Perry was a solid contributor last season, recording 64 tackles. The outside linebacker has proven to be a very good tackler who can make pretty athletic plays. Joining Perry will be senior Curtis Grant, who will start at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes defense. Grant had 52 tackles last season and has also proven to be a great tackler. He will be a nice help in coverage for a defense that definitely needs it considering how poor the pass defense was a season ago. Those two should form a nice, veteran combination but one of them has to step up. Grant, in fact, is trying to ward off incoming Raekwon McMillan, who could very well overtake him for starting linebacker duties. McMillan is the No. 1 ranked inside linebacker in the entire nation and wows people with his hard hits and exceptional speed. The major question inside this group is at Shazier's old position, the outside linebacker spot opposite Perry. Sophomore Darron Lee is the leading candidate to take over duties at that position. A quarterback in high school, Lee has a real chance to win the job because of his amazing athleticism and quickness. Don't expect too much from him, but he could be a dangerous pass rusher off the edge for the Buckeyes.
Secondary: The real, obvious thing you could blame any struggles on last year for Ohio State was an absolutely horrendous pass defense. The Buckeyes were 110th in the nation in pass defense, allowing 268 yards per game through the air. Consider this: the Buckeyes had a worse pass defense than the Miami (Ohio) Redhawks, who went 0-12 and had the land's 103rd-ranked pass defense. Now, Meyer and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell must replace four starters from the secondary, including standout cornerback Bradley Roby and reliable safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. The pressure is on for guys like sophomores Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, who have the chance to start at the safety positions. Bell has major upside, but he only had 19 tackles in 2013 and will now be counted on to be one of this unit's most important contributors. The lone returner in the secondary is senior Doran Grant, who at the least, will be a leader. Grant is going to start at one of the corner slots and had a pretty productive season a year ago, picking off three passes. This defense will need him to continue to make big plays. Competing for the other cornerback spot is a number of players, but Armani Reeves is the top candidate. Still, redshirt freshman Eli Apple and talented Detroit prospect Damon Webb have the chance to push him for a starting role. Sophomore Cam Burrows could also compete for playing time at one of the safety positions.
Special Teams: The Buckeyes won't have to kick often with their electric, high-scoring offense, which is good, considering the youth and instability at the position. Freshman Sean Nuemberger is the expected starter but senior walk-on Kyle Clinton could definitely push him. Punter is in good hands, with sophomore Cameron Johnston returning.
The Buckeyes could really have used a playoff last year (before their loss to MSU), as nobody gave them much credit due to a relatively weak schedule. With Miller returning and an absolutely monster defensive line, Ohio State should once more be in the mix. But, once more, the porous secondary and an easy schedule could prove fatal for them. They have all the talent to be the favorites in the new Big Ten East but beyond that is anybody's guess.