With J.T. Barrett back, Ohio State takes a back seat to no one

Big Ten Media Days is formally under way, and the theme of Day 1 really was a lot like the theme of the entire offseason in the conference: It was all about Michigan. Jim Harbaugh took the podium (in a full suit and Michigan hat, of course) and largely stole the show, discussing everything from words he may have invented to uptight white people.

No seriously, those were points of discussion.

But even after the summer of Harbaugh, and even as the Maize and Blue enters 2016 as a Vegas favorite to take home the Big Ten (and potentially national) title, what many forget is that Michigan’s biggest rival, the Ohio State University, returns plenty of talent too. They also return the single most important player in the conference.

And more than anything, that’s why you can’t overlook Ohio State entering the 2016 season: They have J.T. Barrett, and nobody else in the Big Ten does.

There is no quarterback battle this year: J.T. Barrett is ‘the guy’ in Columbus.

For college football fans outside Columbus, it’s easy to look at everything that’s happened over the last 18 months for Barrett — a broken ankle, Cardale Jones leading Ohio State to a national championship and a season-long battle between the two last year — and forget how good Barrett truly was when he was healthy and firmly entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback. Simple phrases like "Heisman candidate" and "one of the best players in college football" could’ve been accurately applied to Barrett in 2014.

Here are the facts on Barrett during his redshirt freshman year back in 2014: After beating out Jones for the starting spot, he lead the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record overall as a starter and the brink of a Big Ten East title before Cardale finished the job (he got hurt in that 12th game against Michigan). In the process Barrett also threw for 34 touchdowns and completed nearly 63 percent of his passes, numbers that were good enough to earn him First Team All-Big Ten honors. He did that in a conference that featured future NFL draft picks Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg playing the same position.  

More importantly, Barrett — like any good young quarterback should — seemed to only get better as the season wore on. Yes, he struggled in the Buckeyes’ only loss of the season to Virginia Tech early that year (with one touchdown and three interceptions), but also bounced back in a big way after that. He threw a career-high six touchdowns the following week against Kent State, and in the eight games that followed tallied two or more touchdowns seven times. Only once did he throw more than one interception.

The Michigan game is where it all went wrong for Barrett two years ago. Now it’s the Wolverines who are getting all the headlines.

Barrett also developed into something else entirely altogether: one of the best leaders in the sport. That’s something that translated into last year, even as he battled all year long for the starting quarterback spot with Jones.  

Here is how tight end Nick Vannett described Barrett after he officially won back the job last year:

From there, he continued.

Now does that sound like a guy you want to go to war with? Does that sound like someone you should be doubting entering 2016?

The answer is of course "no," and that leadership, more than anything else, is what Ohio State will need entering the season and why you can’t sleep on Barrett or the Buckeyes.

The simple truth is that while the Buckeyes lost a lot of talent on offense with guys like Vannett, Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller and Michael Thomas now in the pros, it’s not like the cupboard is bare either. Urban Meyer is a monster on the recruiting trail and has reeled in four Top 5 classes over the last four years, according to 247sports.com, including three in the Top 3.

That is by far the best mark of anyone in the Big Ten over that stretch, meaning that the talent is there in Columbus even if you might not know the names on the back of the jerseys. Mike Weber is expected to step up and play a big role at running back, with Noah Brown (who missed all of last year with injury) expected to fill the void at wide receiver, with veterans Dontre Wilson and Curtis Samuel stepping in too.

The Buckeyes will look different this year. But doubt them at your own risk.

That’s right, the talent is there for the Buckeyes to make big waves, and so too is the quarterback that everyone seems to be overlooking entering 2016. 

Forget about J.T. Barrett at your own peril.

Big Ten defenses will remember him soon enough. 

Aaron Torres covers college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or Facebook. E-mail him at ATorres00@gmail.com.