Through two seasons in Columbus Urban Meyer is a ridiculous 24-2, and those 24 wins came in a row, the longest win streak in Ohio State history. A trip to the national championship game and the chance to redeem the failures of 2006 and 2007 was within their grasp. Then it all fell apart as the Buckeye defense collapsed in the Big 10 championship game. The scoreline said that Michigan State was 10 points better than Ohio State, but watching it live it felt like much more than that. It felt like the Spartans were in control from the offing racing out to a 17 point lead. A lead that seemed unassailable given the quality of the MSU defense. Then OSU ripped off 24 straight points to take brief control of the game in the third quarter. MSU answered with 17 points of their own to claim the conference crown and a trip to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1987.
Ohio State was relegated to the Orange Bowl, where more or less, the same script played out. Clemson jumped out to an early lead, OSU stormed back with an offense that looked invincible. But an inability to get late stops on defense combined with uncharacteristic turnovers doomed them in the end. Meyer's Buckeye's will enter this season with a losing streak, some familiar faces, and a whole lot of question marks.
The majority of those are on the defensive side of the ball where there are questions at every level of the defense. Their defensive line is going to be one of the more fascinating groups to watch in the country. Because they have so many guys who look like they are world devouring terrors. Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Steve Miller, Chris Carter and on and on. Individually they all have spectacular stats. Spence, Bosa and Bennett all had double digit TFL's and 7+ sacks. But as a collective they were less than the sum of their parts, the advanced analytics in particular were unkind to this group. The picture painted from last years numbers is that of a high risk, high reward group, one that made a lot of spectacular plays that impact drives. But, when failing to make those spectacular days they couldn't make the routine ones. The growth for that group has to come in being more consistent down to down, even against the pass. For a group that produced 42 sacks there wasn't a ton of consistent pressure, just 24 hurries on the year*, a full quarter of them coming from departed linebacker Ryan Shazier.
*To put that into perspective the Bearcats defense which produced a good but not great 35 sacks, had 41 hurries.
The linebackers are the real reason why that defensive line has to get better. The linebacker play, and the lack of quality in that position last year was a problem.* Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry came to Columbus with a ton of stars next to their name and have largely failed to live up to the lofty expectations that come with them. Las year they replicated less than 75 percent of Shazier's tackle production, and under a quarter of his TFL's. There will be more plays available to be made with Shazier gone, but is anyone really sure that Grant, Perry and a linebacker to be named later (maybe Cameron Wilson or Trey Johnson) will be able to fill that void? This is Ohio State, so there is a always a bevy of newly arrived talent to pick up the mantle, particularly at linebacker. Reakwon McMillan, Donte Booker and Kyle Berger were all consensus top 10 players at their position group and will be good. They will probably play early and often, but what is the level of growing pains the Buckeyes are willing to sustain to blood the young guys early in return for solid play later in the season? It's a good question without an obvious answer.
*Outside of Shazier who was pretty much unassailable apart from getting trucked by Sammy Watkins that one time
The general theme of "These guys will be very good and consistent one day, but when? "carries over to the secondary as well. Doran Grant will be back to man one of the corner spots after a very good Junior season, but everyone else is turning over. There is talent, but its young talent with all those inherent inconsistencies. Von Bell played a bit as a freshman and looked like a freshman outside of his spectacular interception of Tajh Boyd, Armani Reeves was pretty consistent as a third corner. But much like the linebackers there is a massive void that has to be filled with Bradley Roby departing. There is no obvious successor but plenty of young and talented guys who could in a perfect world fill that void. But what if the world is not perfect?
When it comes to the OSU offense there are less questions. Braxton Miller is back for his final season as Meyer's muse. He remains one of the most unique athletes in the country. He is essentially a fully formed Big 10 running back who also happens to be a gifted passer placed in an offense that is designed to put both qualities on full display at all times. Arrayed about him will be a deep group of skill position players. Yes they are losing Carlos Hyde at running back, but Warren Ball, Rod Smith, and Ezekiel Elliot is a running back group that would many running back coaches would kill for. Yes Corey Brown is gone, but Braxton's longtime muse Devin Smith is back. As is Tight End Jeff Heuerman along with a frankly comical array of four star red shirt and true freshman receivers. Oh, and Dontrae Wilson is the best fit for the Percy position Urban Meyer has had since Percy himself.
The only question for Ohio State's offense is the offensive line. Four of last years starters are gone including All American left tackle Jack Mewhort. Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall are out the door with him. In total the Buckeye's offensive line returns 16 starts, 14 of those belong to last years right tackle (this years left tackle) Taylor Decker. There are plenty of experienced veterans who have been in the program and know the expectations like Pat Elflein and Antonio Underwood, and there are (as always) plenty of uber talented youngsters who might not exactly be ready at the moment, but who have bright futures. The dilemma is whether or not to go young in hopes for better returns next year, or to stay with a the veterans who are known quantities whose ceilings might not be as high? More than likely OSU will turn to some of the older guys to start, and a select few of the younger ones to accelerate their development to contribute as reserves and spot starters this year. Ed Warriner is a very good offensive line coach, and he will have them playing at a high level when it matters in November and December. But they probably won't start out that way.
Ohio State is far and away the best team the Bearcats will face this season, that much is beyond dispute, but expecting them to take another step forward as most pundits are doing is a bit rich. Given the attrition along the offensive line, at linebacker and defensive back its hard to see where the improvement is coming from. The defensive line is monstrous and will probably control the run game, but that's not their issue. The issue is that they can't really defend the pass which is, and always will be their bugaboo if Kerry Coombs is coaching the cornerbacks. They ranked 112th in passing yards allowed, 84th in passing efficiency allowed and 57th in yards per attempt allowed, and that was with Bradley Roby. Now they are turning the reins over to Doran Grant and a whole slew of young guys who will probably be pretty good in 2015, less so in 2014.
The real concern has to be with the offensive line. Taylor Decker is a really, really good and they have options for the other spots, but there isn't a ton of experience or continuity, much less than last year's group had. Offensive line continuity really matters, and it's not something that just happens. It is built over time and with repetitions and games. Like the defense the offensive line will be very good in November and great in 2015, but it will be a work in progress in September.
That's the most important point about the Buckeye's this year, you want to get them early because if you get them late they will have more or less figured it out and will be ready roll.