Last night’s commitment of St. Clairsville, Ohio linebacker Michael Ferns continued Brady Hoke’s recruiting onslaught of the state down south. Today, we take a look at his home state team, the team we feel will be the second toughest opponent on the schedule this season, the Ohio State Buckeyes. For previous opponent previews, see UMass, Minnesota, Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, Air Force, Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Michigan State.
Despite being ineligible for post-season, Urban Meyer's squad figures to be one of the Big Ten's top teams
Despite being in a state of flux entering the 2012 season, a lot of excitement surrounds the Buckeyes. After a disappointing 6-7 record, and following the NCAA sanctions that led to Jim Tressel’s resignation, Ohio State went out and got the best coach available, Urban Meyer.
The former Ohio State assistant (he coached tight ends and receivers in 1986-’87) is best known for winning a pair of national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008 before retiring in ’09. The lure of the job in Columbus was too good to pass up and now he’s intent on guiding the Buckeyes right back to the top of the Big Ten. He’s installing an up-temp offensive style that has never been seen in Columbus and that’s where much of the excitement stems among a fan base used to the old “Tressel-ball” offense.
The good news for Meyer is that he inherits 19 returning starters, the most prominent being sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller earned the starting nod four games into his freshman year last season and seemed to improve every game. He finished the season with a 54.1 completion percentage, 1,159 yards, and 13 touchdowns, but he was asked to throw just 14 times a game. What’s encouraging was that he threw just four interceptions. But it was his leg that did the most damage as Miller rushed 159 times for 715 yards. He had three 100-yard games, including one against Michigan.
He has drawn comparisons to former Buckeye Troy Smith and if he can refine his passing, he’ll be a dangerous quarterback for years to come. Miller will benefit the most from Meyer’s offense, which thrived with Tim Tebow at the helm at Florida. It will utilize his ability to run and limit the need for a downfield passing game.
If Braxton Miller improves his accuracy, he'll be one of the conference's most dangerous QBs
While Miller was the team’s leading rusher a year ago, the leading running back, Dan Herron, is gone. However, the next two do return. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde combined for 205 rushes for 971 yards and eight touchdowns, though neither had a 100-yard game. Hall seems best suited for Meyer’s spread, which gets the ball to playmakers in space, allowing them to beat defenders one-on-one. Hyde is more of a power back, something Meyer never really had at Florida, so his role in the offense will be one to keep an eye on.
The offensive line has to replace three starters, but if there is a silver lining to the suspension of left tackle Mike Adams for several games last season, it’s that some of the backups got starting experience that will pay off this season. Moving over to left tackle will be Jack Mewhort who started at right guard last season. Reid Fragel has locked down the other tackle spot, moving over from tight end. Meyer likes the mobility that Fragel provides. On the interior, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall both return, while Corey Linsley looks to be the top contender to replace Mike Brewster at center. The concern on the line is depth, which Meyer will be looking to build throughout fall camp.
The biggest area of concern for the OSU offense is receiver. DeVier Posey is gone, though he missed most of the season last year due to suspension. Last year’s leading receiver, sophomore Devin Smith, is back, but “leading receiver” should be taken lightly in this case. He’s a burner, but caught just 14 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns. Corey Brown, Verlon Reed, and Chris Fields also return. Brown is likely to be the No. 1 wideout this fall after a standout spring. Reed had a strong freshman campaign in 2010, but missed most of last season with a torn ACL. Tight end Jake Stoneburner is a solid receiving threat who played some slot receiver throughout the spring.
On defense, Ohio State will be traditionally strong, returning nearly everybody. The star of the defense is end John Simon, an All-Big Ten first-teamer last season. Joining him on the line are tackles Jonathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Adam Bellamy. All three have starting experience and will give Ohio State one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten.
The linebackers will also be a solid group. The two outside spots are set with Etienne Sabino and Ryan Shazier. Sabino had a solid year last season with 62 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while Shazier was the surprise of the year for the Buckeyes with 57 tackles, five for loss, and three sacks as a true freshman. He brings great athleticism to the spot and will be looked upon to break out this season. The biggest position battle is middle linebacker where Storm Klein and Curtis Grant are battling it out. Klein was the starter last season but missed some time in the spring with a knee injury, opening the door for Grant to surpass him on the depth chart.
Senior John Simon is the leader of the Buckeye defense
The secondary is extremely talented, but paper thin heading into the fall, at least at the cornerback spot. Bradley Roby has locked down one corner position after a breakout redshirt freshman season. The other spot is a battle between Travis Howard and Doran Grant. Howard was last year’s starter, but a bit of a letdown. Due to the dismissal of Dominic Clark, Meyer will have to rely on youth for depth at corner behind Roby, Howard, and Grant.
The leader of the secondary is safety C.J. Barnett who led the team with 75 tackles last season. He’s one of several returning safeties with experience. Christian Bryant will likely hold down the other safety spot, while Orhian Johnson, last year’s starter, is fighting for time. Bryant was the team’s third leading tackler with 68. Corey Brown is a former five-star recruit to provide depth as well.
On special teams, both kicker Drew Basil and punter Ben Buchanan return. Basil made 16 of 19 field goal attempts last season with a long of 47, while Buchanan averaged 41.3 yards per punt, which ranked fifth in the Big Ten. In the return game, Hall was effective last season, ranking sixth in the conference in punt returns and fifth in kick returns, so he’ll surely improve on that this season.
Overall, the Buckeyes have the talent to be vastly improved. The main question is how quickly they will grasp Meyer’s new system. Last season was essentially a wash with no real offensive system, several key players missing significant time due to suspension, and an interim head coach. It’s safe to say there will be significant improvement in 2012.
If the offense can simply improve to average, it could be the difference between two or three wins. Last year’s total offense ranked 107th nationally with 318 yards per game, and scoring offense ranked 81st, averaging 24 points per game. Just improving into the top 50 in scoring offense would have given the Bucks five more points per game and could have swung a couple of losses into wins. That’s a realistic expectation, especially with what should be an improved defense.
The schedule also lends itself to an improved record with four weak out-of-conference games against Miami (Ohio), UCF, California, and UAB. The Buckeyes open the Big Ten schedule at Michigan State and also have to visit Wisconsin the week before hosting Michigan, but the other two road trips are at Indiana and Penn State, both of which should be wins.
||@ Michigan State
||@ Penn State
Given the favorable schedule, the experience returning on an already stellar defense, and the improvement of the offense in Meyer’s spread system, the Buckeyes should win eight or nine games this fall and challenge for the Big Ten Leaders Division title. Leaders Division foes should take advantage of their opportunity this season since Ohio State is ineligible to compete in the Big Ten Championship game due to sanctions, because the Bucks are a year or two away from returning to their usual perch atop conference.
What it means for Michigan
If the Buckeyes weren’t banned from the postseason, they would likely be the favorites to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship game. But with nothing to look forward to after Thanksgiving, Nov. 24 will be their bowl game. In fact, every intangible surrounding the matchup tilts to OSU’s favor. The game is in Columbus where Michigan hasn’t won since 2000, and although Michigan won last season, it means the Bucks are out for revenge. A new coach running an offensive system that will seem like crack to Buckeye fans used to watching paint dry already has expectations soaring.
Michigan may very well enter the game controlling its own destiny in the Big Ten title race, needing a win to capture the Legends Division and Ohio State will relish the opportunity to play spoiler. That’s why no conference game will be tougher for the Wolverines.