This was literally (and yes I do know what that word means and it’s still true) my first thought when I found out that Urban Meyer was trademarking Ohio State’s season as “The Grind”. What? My best estimate as to what he means is that since they are the defending champion, they will have a target on their back, and therefore every game will be tough. If so, it’s a good point and motivational tool, and on the off-chance (read: 96.4% chance) that it means something completely different, then at least it’s provocative.
The obvious place to start with this is the most compelling quarterback competition in college football history. Most of the speculation heading into the offseason, especially after Cardale Jones announced that he would not enter the NFL draft, was if and when Braxton Miller and/or J.T. Barrett would transfer. Neither of them did. Then, the question became: who wins the job? Most seemed to think it would come down to Barrett or Jones, and they were right considering that Braxton Miller has moved to H-back/wide receiver in the offseason.
Now, it’s a two-horse race, and unless you are going to be in training camp there is absolutely no way to know who ends up taking the snaps in week one. My hunch is that Cardale Jones ends up getting the starting nod unless he gets significantly outperformed in training camp. There are plenty of perfectly reasonable and valid arguments for why Barrett should or will start. At the end of the day, I think given what Jones did when given the opportunity and the fact that he is a year older, even if no more experienced, and a year closer to using up his eligibility makes it his job to lose.
The running back position is significantly less complicated heading into the season. Losing Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson for the opener hurts in the run, pass, and return game. I think, however, that as long as the Buckeyes have Ezekiel Elliott their running game ought to be in good hands. Elliott eviscerated three pretty good defenses to end 2014, and will surely look to continue that torrid pace heading into this season. In all, Elliott rushed for over 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. His primary backup will be Curtis Samuel who had 383 rushing yards and six touchdowns on only 58 carries last season.
As I’ve already mentioned, Marshall and Wilson are going to miss the opener because of a suspension. Both of those guys are all-purpose players working as a receiver or a back depending on the formation and situation. Another suspended player is Corey Smith, who is a true wide receiver. With those three out, Michael Thomas should be in line to receive plenty of targets on Labor Day against the Hokies. Thomas should be up for it, too. He snagged 54 pass for 799 yards last season. The biggest question mark for this receiving corps will be who replaces Devin Smith as the team’s primary deep threat at receiver. One of the three suspended guys could end up picking up that slack, or a young guy like Noah Brown or Parris Campbell could emerge as the primary “take the top off the defense” receiver.
Oh, and if you thought Ohio State’s experience or talent advantage heading into 2015 was already unfair, it looks even more unfair when considering they also return four starters on the offensive line, two of whom earned all-conference honors last season. First team All-Big10 right guard Pat Elflein and second team All-Big10 left tackle Taylor Decker should lead one of the more formidable line units in the country. Billy Price returns at left guard, where he started every game last season as a freshman, and the only new starter, RT Chase Farris, is a senior, although he has no career starts.
Joey Bosa is the only member of the defense to be suspended for the season opener, but he is easily the biggest loss. Bosa’s 21 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles were all team highs last year, and will be missed against Virginia Tech. Fortunately, Bosa returns after the opener. Adolphus Washington will have to pick up the slack up front. Washington was a force on the interior of the line last season with 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 of which were sacks. Washington and Bosa will be joined up front by two new starters: DT Tommy Schutt and DE Tyquan Lewis.
Both outside linebackers Joshua Perry and Darron Lee return to start for the Buckeyes. Perry and Lee were a productive duo last year combining for 25 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and three interceptions. Raekwon McMillan will be the “new” guy at middle linebacker. McMillan is only new in the sense that this will be his first year as the starter. He still had 42.5 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception as a backup last season, so he isn’t exactly “raw”.
On the back end of the defense, Ohio State returns both safeties. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell proved to be a very adept pair of coverage safeties last season combining for 10 interceptions and 10 pass break-ups. Eli Apple also returns at corner after picking off three passes and breaking up ten more as a starter last season. Gareon Conley is the only new starter in the defensive backfield replacing the departed Doran Grant. Conley broke up two passes as a freshman last season.
Prediction: 13-0 Big 10 Champion and Playoff Team
I know I’m not exactly stepping out on a limb with this prediction, but it’s hard to objectively look at this team and not see a playoff team. Urban Meyer is a phenomenal recruiter and coach, and this team returns 14 starters from last year’s national championship team. That being said, it wouldn’t be completely surprising for them to drop a game in the regular season, or the Big 10 championship game maybe, however if I were putting money down on it I’d have them running the table at least until the playoff. Beyond that, it’s difficult to forecast without really knowing who they will be lining up against. The most likely source of a regular season loss would likely be the opener against Virginia Tech, or one of the two final games of the season against Michigan State and Michigan.