Preseason countdown: No. 11 OSU

BY foxsports • July 27, 2012

Ohio State is in the business of competing for the national title.

Big Ten titles are nice, and winning the Leaders Division is a must. But at THE Ohio State University football program, you don’t go get a coaching legend like Urban Meyer to merely be in the running for big things. It’s this simple for the Buckeyes: win the national championship, or the season is a complete and utter failure.

Next year.

After all the media scrutiny, after the skeletons came out of the closet, and after the firing of another legendary coach in Jim Tressel — historical numbers will treat him kindly — everything went about as perfectly for Ohio State as any die-hard fan could’ve dared to dream possible.

There was no real talk of any death penalty, and the program somehow avoided getting the coma penalty that USC is just awakening from. Considering what seemed possible 12 months ago, missing out on a bowl game and not playing for the Big Ten title this year really isn’t any big deal considering the team likely wasn't going to play for the national championship this year. And again, at Ohio State it’s all about being in the mix for the whole ball of wax.

Even last season's 6-7 record couldn’t have been more perfect. Had Luke Fickell taken the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title, or just gone 9-4 after all the turmoil, would he have been pushed aside for Meyer? Maybe, but it would’ve been tougher to justify considering all Fickell had to deal with. Instead, the team wasn’t all that bad; the true freshman superstar quarterback got a year under his belt; and in what was going to be a rebuilding year even under the best of circumstances, the program got a coaching upgrade.

Meyer was going to need a little time to get everything in place anyway, and now he has the extra bunker-down, us-against-the-world mentality that he thrives on.

The talent from some great recruiting classes is just starting to mature and should be ready to peak in 2013, and because Meyer is the head coach, more top-shelf stars are on the way thanks to his ultra-aggressive recruiting style that just upped the ante in the Big Ten.

But for now, the program is in a holding pattern and can’t do anything more than be 2011 USC. It can set the tone for next year in what amounts to one giant preseason, and while that might stink for the seniors and any potential NFL early entries, this is a young enough team that the payoff could be tremendous.

And then there’s Meyer, whose reputation wasn’t exactly tarnished during the post-Tebow era at Florida, but it wasn’t a smooth exit. The messy way that things ended in Gainesville will be quickly forgotten if he does what he’s supposed to do and wins national titles — plural — and makes Ohio State into Ohio State again.

Game on, college football.

What to watch for on offense: The maturation of QB Braxton Miller. Getting more out of a looks-like-Tarzan-plays-like-Jane receiving corps would be nice, and finding more rushing options with top tailback Jordan Hall hurting is a must. But the only thing that matters in this redshirt year for the program is how Miller looks and plays in the Meyer spread attack. Meyer gushed at times this offseason about how sharp Miller is, and the passing game improved enough to look solid at the spring game, but his running skills will be what makes the offense shine. He gets a year to get the timing and the decision-making down.

What to watch for on defense: Consistency. The belief is that with experience comes consistency and with consistency comes production. At least that’s the hope for a D that gets nine starters back from a not-that-bad 2011 group. The linebacking corps was mediocre, the secondary gave up too many completions, and the line didn’t get into the backfield enough, but outside of getting steamrolled in the loss to Nebraska, the defense held up relatively well in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Now the Buckeyes should take things to a whole other level with nine starters returning and a ton of depth to use in a rotation. The secondary is loaded with good backups who can step in when needed, and Meyer went heavy on excellent recruits for the defensive line with a year to get their feet wet.

The team will be far better if: The offense doesn’t turn the ball over. There was a slim margin for error for the 2011 Buckeyes, with a few special teams slips proving costly and with turnovers turning into a big deal. The offense didn’t throw too much and gave up only five picks, but four of them came in losses, with the lone win coming against Indiana. OSU went 5-0 when it didn’t give up a pick before losing to Purdue, Penn State and Florida without giving up an interception, but the offense lost two fumbles against both the Nittany Lions and the Gators. There weren’t any turnovers against the Boilermakers, but there was a blocked extra point leading to the overtime loss.

The schedule: The Meyer era really starts in 2013 when the team can play for the Big Ten title and more, but this year needs to set the tone and it starts with the league’s toughest interdivision schedule going to Michigan State and getting Nebraska and Michigan. The Leaders slate isn’t a positive, either, with trips to both Penn State and Wisconsin, but at least there’s a week off to prepare for the date in Camp Randall. The non-conference slate isn’t taxing outside of a good test against Cal, but UCF will be more than just a speed bump. Getting UAB at the end of September is a nice tune-up before going to Michigan State and kicking off the Big Ten season. Outside of the dates with the Leaders, the Buckeyes don’t have it too bad considering Nebraska and Michigan have to come to Columbus, Penn State might be a shadow of its former self, and Michigan State and Indiana are the only road games before the end of October.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Braxton Miller. A star in the making as a true freshmen last season, Miller was thrown into the fire early on and showed poise and skills beyond his years. While he wasn’t allowed to throw too much, Miller did a nice job of being careful with the ball, throwing a mere five picks while completing 54 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns. More than anything else, he was great at making things happen on the move, leading the team on the ground with 715 yards and seven touchdowns, showing off great breakaways speed and phenomenal quickness. He’s the franchise for the next three seasons, and he should turn into a special player as he gets more familiar with the new attack.

Best defensive player: Junior DT Johnathan Hankins. End John Simon is the heart-and-soul leader up front with the fire and passion that makes new coaching staffs gush, and he should be the team’s leading pass rusher and tone-setter. Hankins is better. Great defenses start with elite rocks on the inside, and OSU has a future NFL starter in the 6-foot-4, 317-pound junior with excellent athleticism and shocking quickness, who made 67 tackles with three sacks and 11 tackles for loss last year. While he’s a solid interior pass rusher, he’s at his best when he has to hold up against the run.

Key to a successful season: Junior RB Carlos Hyde. Miller will lead the team in rushing and he should be the team’s most dangerous all-around playmaker, but he’s not Tim Tebow when it comes to powering the ball and being physical; it won’t be a plus if he leads the team in attempts again. The problem is that the team’s best running back prospect, Jordan Hall, will be out for a while with an injured foot, meaning the 6-foot, 235-pound Hyde has to become a bit of a workhorse to take the pressure off. He needs to do the heavy lifting to help keep Miller fresh.

The season will be a success if: Ohio State wins 10 games. It might be too much to ask for a Leaders title with a trip to Wisconsin and with interdivisional games against Nebraska and Michigan and at Michigan State. However, it shouldn’t take too much tweaking to be in for a big year. With the exception of the loss to Miami, all the defeats last season easily could’ve have gone the other way, with six losses by a touchdown or less. Meyer and a more experienced team should account for wins in a few of those — there’s no way this year’s team loses the Purdue and Penn State games that last year’s team dropped — and there’s no reason to shoot for anything less than 10 wins. On talent, no one in the conference is better.

Key game: Nov. 24 vs. Michigan. The Wisconsin game has become far more important when it comes to winning the division and, down the road, the Big Ten, but the game is on for the new era of Urban Meyer vs. Brady Hoke. Ohio State might have ramped things up a bit by getting Meyer and with the revamped recruiting effort, but Michigan has taken a bigger leap forward under Hoke and might end up needing this game to advance to the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes gave the Wolverines all they could handle last season in an entertaining 40-34 loss, but this year the classic rivalry is the equivalent of a bowl game. For all of Tressel’s flaws, he dominated Michigan, and the last thing the Meyer era needs at the end of its first season is a loss to the Buckeyes' biggest rival.

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